First, and foremost, let’s just get rid of any notion that your food needs to be fancy and gourmet. Back to the grass roots. The gals in my survey responded that when it comes to feeling refreshed and welcomed at someone’s home, gourmet-type food only scored a 1.7 on the hospitality scale. Having simple, tasty food and plenty of it, on the other hand, received a rating of 9.1. Many women stressed that they felt uncomfortable if they had a large family or a few hungry teenage boys and a small casserole was placed on the table to feed so many mouths. Better to err on the side of too much. You can always utilize the leftovers for a few lunches that week.

Now, as you are going along, once you find a recipe that works wonderfully, a dish that is delicious, or an appetizer that is sure to please, write it down! This may seem elementary, but I know that if I use a recipe and add a few twists – less of this, more of that, a dash of something not called for – and then don’t write down what I did, it is nearly impossible to repeat the same dish.

Once you find several main dishes, vegetables, sides, and desserts you and your kin take pleasure in, begin to group them into menu plans. Grab some large index cards or a notebook. Decide which main dish goes with what sides and what sweet fare can round out the whole menu. From there, make a list of needed ingredients and their quantities. Then when company is expected, simply choose one of your preplanned menus to serve. This is so much easier than beginning from scratch. And if the dishes are tried-and-true hits with your family, company is sure to delight in them too.

Before planning and cooking for guests, be sure to find out if there are any special needs. Does anyone have allergies or sensitivities to specific foods? Are their children overly picky eaters? While we normally do not allow our children to be picky, we do try to accommodate guests. At the very least I try to leave certain "yucky" foods – mostly onions, green peppers, and mushrooms – in larger chunks so that they can be easily picked out. I let the children (or finicky adults!) know that it is just fine with me if they do so. Or I practice what my friend and fellow author Nancy Slagle of "30 Day Gourmet" freezer cooking fame preaches. It is a little concept she calls "health by stealth" She simply cooks and purees any veggie deemed "yucky" by her kids – onions, carrots, red and green peppers, and mushrooms, to name a few. Then she adds them to her sauces. Red, orange, and green vegetables hide easily in tomato-based sauces. Mushrooms and onions slip in undetected in white and brown gravies. Ta-da! Health by stealth! When your kiddos ask, "Are there onions in this?" you can boldly retort, "Do you see any onions?"

Try to keep in mind the time of day when you plan. Will it be mid-afternoon when a light salad-based menu will work? Will it be an unusually late dinner and the brood will be rather ravenous? What about the time of year? Will it be chilly outside? Opt for a hearty and warm "comfort foods" meal. Will it be so scorching hot outside that a steamy main dish will seem inappropriate? Opt for a crisp vegetable or cool pasta-based entrée instead. Will you want to have a theme or ethnic dimension to the meal? Try out several of these dishes too until they become a regular part of your repertoire. You will gain confidence each time you meet with triumph. Remember, practice, practice, practice!

What about keeping on top of your regular planning, shopping, and cooking so that having company every so often doesn’t throw you for a loop? A few ideas have worked well for me.

First and foremost, keep a pre-printed grocery list on your refrigerator at all times. You can make one on your computer or even I your sweet little ol’ handwriting. List what items you commonly buy for your family and stock your pantry with. Then arrange them in the same order that you will find them in the grocery store, leaving some blank space at the end of each section. Most stores have similar layouts: produce is first, followed by bakery and breads, canned and boxed dry goods, frozen and refrigerated fare. Train the members of your family who are old enough to read to help you keep this list up-to-date. When they use the last squirt of mustard, they circle the word mustard on the list. Pour yourself the final bowl of cornflakes? Grab a pen and circle!