When we moved into The Best House in Melbourne a couple a years ago, I knew that our disposable income was going to be about $1.50/week. I was in the throes of getting plans through the council to develop my original property and I’d borrowed the entire amount against that house to be able to move into The Best House in Melbourne. Back in December 2015, five days before Christmas, I’d paid 750K for our new house. Settlement was at the end of March 2016. Bridging finance was 3K/month. At the time I was working 4 days a week, as I was still working my side hustle of being a Thermomix Group Leader.
The bridging finance equated to just over 70% of my takehome pay from teaching each month. I knew it was short-term pain for (hopefully) long-term gain, but in the meantime our expenses were cut to the bone. How could I still socialise without ruining the stability of our financial cashflow? Then I had a brilliant idea.
The great tradition of the School Holidays Girls’ Lunch was born.
(Apologies for the stock photo. I was going to take photos yesterday but you know what happens when the bubbly is flowing and the gossip is racing.)
Every school holidays I pick a day, a bit like a Goldilocks day. You know… not too close to the beginning of the holidays when everyone is tired; not to close to the end when everyone is racing around Getting Things Done. I pick a date that is just right!
Then I send out a group email to the women on staff. Not everyone…. we have over 150 people on staff and my house isn’t the size of a mansion. I have around 25 women on the list who all get along really comfortably with each other and so I whack the details of the date and my address and send it out. I ask if anyone can think of someone else we should invite, because we have new staff joining us all the time and I definitely don’t get around to meeting everyone new. The result is that every holiday we have a pleasant gossipy lunch without the pressure of school bells, students asking to see us during lunch and worrying about who may overhear a juicy titbit. This works really well because of a few procedures I follow and some assumptions I make.
Procedure 1: It’s a ‘Bring a Plate.’ Americans call this a “potluck”, but that always seems to me that you’re taking potluck that there’ll be anything edible! I prefer the more optimistic ‘bring a plate.’ I attach a Google doc with a column for Savoury and one for Sweet. Everyone who’s coming puts down what they want to bring.
You know how everyone has their specialities? We have eaten some amazing food at these lunches. As an added bonus, yesterday the two people who brought desserts were so pleased to be able to make them, as their families don’t eat sweets much anymore, so they were dying to break out their favourite recipes.
Procedure 2: I say that I’ll supply the champagne. I let everyone else choose the menu. I make sure to post the list a few weeks in advance, and then I don’t check it again until the day before. By then, the early starters who know EXACTLY what they want to make have made their move almost immediately after the list was emailed, while the late choosers have logged on and strategically seen where we’re running low and have selected a meal to bring. The first few times when numbers were lower, I’d see that we would probably need an extra protein dish, for example, so I’d make a lasagne, or we needed another side salad, so I’d make that. I haven’t had to do this for quite a while, as everyone now seems to naturally balance each other out. So all I have to do is make sure I have about 3 bottles of champagne. Some mineral water is also a good idea too. The Frogdancer household never runs out of wine and we always have champagne in the fridge, so this is easy.
Procedure 3: Cater for vegetarians and GF people. Even with Evan21 being a vegetarian, I’m ashamed to say that this didn’t automatically occur to me to do. However, the lovely thing about this is that it has occurred organically as the lunches have gone on. Working with each other as we do, word gets around about dietary requirements and choices. The first lunch we had, the only GF and vego/vegan options were the ones that the affected people brought for themselves, which of course meant that their lunches were pretty limited and boring compared to the rest of us. This didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of us. Now, people are actively choosing to bring items that cater to dietary requirements and they write this on the sheet. This prompts other people to think about what they’re going to bring and encourages the GF and vego people to come along because they know they’ve been warmly included. It’s a lovely development that I hadn’t foreseen.
Procedure 4: Make sure the dishwasher is empty before they arrive. I stack the dishes as we go and at the end, there’s no one feeling obligated to offer to stay and go through the drudgery of the dishes. It’s a relaxing time for everyone.
Procedure 5: Make sure there’s a plate of nibblies. There’s always one or 2 people who are running late. It’s rude to start lunch without them, but at the same time I don’t want people starting to feel a bit hangry. So if no one has nominated a dip or antipasto platter, then that’s a gap that needs to be filled. No one minds waiting a half hour for lunch if they have a glass of bubbly in one hand, a tray of nibbles nearby and fun people to catch up with.
Assumption 1: Not everyone will be able to come. People are on holidays. They have plans. They are either in Melbourne on the day or they’re not. I factor this in with the number of people on the group list and I expect that at least 50% will be otherwise committed on the day. Therefore it’s not a drama when people make their excuses. I know for a fact that once someone attends one gathering, they’ll always come to another one if they’re going to be in town. We all have a really good time and the added bonus is that there’s always a different mix of people each time.
Assumption 2: Just because people work in different departments, it doesn’t mean they won’t get along. We work in a large school of over 2,000 students, with about 7 different learning areas. Being a secondary school, we specialise in our subject areas, so there are people on staff that I’ve known for nearly 15 years but have never sat down and had a good chinwag with, because we’ve never worked together at all. We have 3 separate staff rooms where we have our desks, so people mingle there a little more, but basically a person could go years just nodding politely at certain people as they pass them in the corridors without ever knowing how much they have in common with each other.
Personally, I’ve found that having a mix of women from different faculties and staff rooms has worked brilliantly. You wouldn’t credit the fascinating conversations we’ve had with people who would normally barely cross paths at work. We’ve learned more about each other in a couple of hours than we have from years of working at the same place, and this makes going to work a more pleasant experience. It’s always more fun when you work with friends! And you know you’re onto a winner when people start asking you towards the end of term when you’re going to be sending out the email for the next lunch.
Assumption3: What’s talked about during the School Holidays Girls’ Lunch stays at the SHGL. The holidays are when you hear the juicy gossip. Not every time, but when people are feeling relaxed and they know that Big Brother isn’t watching, things get shared. It might not be personal stuff, it could be attitudes towards professional areas that are happening in the workplace, but people tend to drop the work-mask and share their real ideas and attitudes about things. It’s really interesting when it happens.
Seeing as this is Frugal Friday, it may sound as if this idea isn’t particularly ‘skinflinty’. You may be right. I could probably organise a lunch at a restaurant and my meal would cost the same as a couple of bottles of champagne. So why do I still consider it frugal?
Compare the bang for my bucks between me paying for one meal at a restaurant and me entertaining anywhere from 10 – 15 people for a meal. The atmosphere in a private home is much more relaxed than in a restaurant- people move around, they mingle, they move from the kitchen to the dining table and back again… they taste and compliment each others’ cooking and ask for recipes. Who doesn’t love to feel that they’re a great cook?!? Sharing food is a natural ice-breaker. In a restaurant, once you’re seated you’re pretty much stuck in place, so you’d better hope you’ve chosen your place well.
The lunch at home can go for as long or as short as the natural flow. There are no bored waiters hanging around, silently begging everyone to go home. Usually, these lunches go for 4 -5 hours, depending on who’s here and the conversations that happen. Some people pop in for maybe 3 hours and then leave for another engagement, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all very organic and easy. And let’s face it, once I have a glass in my hand, I like to let things just go with the flow. After all… I’m on holidays.
It also means that I give my house a good clean and I make sure that the boys clean their bathroom and toilet. Visitors are a great reason to keep things well-scrubbed!
Next holidays I’ll be overseas so I won’t be holding another gathering until winter. Still, the spreadsheet will be there, waiting to be dusted off and brought out again. It’s a very cost-effective and socially fun way to entertain and I highly recommend it.