A Meeting of the Moms: How to host playgroup without throwing a tantrum

Entertaining is a challenge, no matter what the occasion. There is always one macrobiotic vegan in the crowd and one processed-food junkie who praises you for your “interesting” spread and then asks where you keep the ketchup.

But when your guest list includes picky toddlers, toothless infants and new moms – some of whom are trying to lose the baby weight, some of whom are still eating for two because they’ve closely spaced their pregnancies – well, let’s just say that’s enough to induce a nervous breakdown in the prepared-foods section of Straub’s.

At least, that’s how I handled it when it was my turn to host playgroup for the first time.

In case you’re not in the diaper-bag set yourself, playgroup is a regular (usually weekly or twice-monthly) meeting of moms and their babies or toddlers. The women take turns playing hostess, opening up their homes to their guests and treating them to a plentiful buffet of freshly sterilized toys and a meal that is at least intended to be both kid- and mom-friendly. But in that intended lies the rub – at least, it did for me.

I’ll never forget how my then-15-month-old son sat calmly in the shopping cart, looking bemused as Mommy threw the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” I exclaimed. In the end, I overdid it, forking over more than 60 bucks for chocolate éclairs, napoleons, a fruit salad that I tried to make exotic by adding kiwi and fresh raspberries, mini pizza bagels, Terra chips, spicy and not-so-spicy hummus and ingredients for a homemade sun-dried tomato cheese tortellini salad.

And if I do say so myself, the tortellini salad was delicious. I know this because I ate every last bite of it. With no help from my friends – although they did compliment me on being so “interesting.” The plate of éclairs and napoleons actually seemed to grow larger during playgroup, as if all the dieters in the room somehow inspired my pastries to breed. The moms did eat the fruit salad, but most didn’t share it with their children for fear of berry and kiwi allergies. The $2.79 bag of Terra chips? That was my luncheon’s biggest hit.

Where did I go wrong? Never before had my eager efforts to please gone so horribly, horribly awry.

“The trick is to find things generic enough that everyone will eat them,” advised Nina Ronvall, who participates in a playgroup with her 16-month-old son, Jack. Of course, striking this balance is trickier than it sounds. And it isn’t the only criteria for a successful gathering. “You don’t want to look like you worked too hard” – ahem! – “and you don’t want it to look too easy, either,” she said.

Going by the empty serving plates (where indeed no desserts could be seen breeding), it’s safe to say that Ronvall’s last playgroup was a big hit. It featured a simple, kid-friendly pesto pasta salad with noodles that even clumsy fingers could handle with ease, chopped-up fruits that you won’t find listed on a poster in a pediatric allergist’s office and sandwich fare: some fresh bread from Companion Baking Co., sliced turkey and ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce. In the future, the Swedish-born Ronvall is going to add her homemade Swedish meatballs to the mix (see recipe).

“I assume other families are like ours and eat a lot of takeout because of their schedules. So for playgroup, I feel like it’s a nice thing to show some extra effort and offer something special,” she explained.

Mindy Goldfarb, mother to 16-month-old Olivia, agreed than it’s always nice to add something home cooked to the playgroup menu – but her biggest concern is finding items that the kids can enjoy. She complements sandwiches with a wide array of fresh vegetables, fruits and finger foods like sliced pita.

Goldfarb’s most recent playgroup also included an artichoke dip (see recipe) mild enough to serve to toddlers, low fat and low carb enough to meet the needs of the dieting mothers and savory enough that Goldfarb’s husband, popping in on his lunch break, enjoyed several servings of it.

“Most of the kids in our playgroup are eating ‘people food’ now,” Goldfarb said. “I don’t want everyone to have to go home and then have to feed their kids. I want them to be able to feed their children here, let them run around and get all tired, and then the moms can take them home and plop them right in the crib.”

One reason why Goldfarb’s playgroup went off without a hitch was that she knows the eating habits of her friends very well. (While I, apparently, must have zoned out when my own mommy friends were passing on the pasta.) “I know they tend to prefer light fare. None of them are the type to gorge themselves at lunch.”

Sheri Chorlins, who has a 10-month old daughter, Sara, uses playgroup as an opportunity to showcase favorite family recipes, like her casserole (see recipe). She sometimes will have a cuisine theme; in her last turn as hostess, she served Mexican food, including toddler-friendly tortilla rollups and a spicy bean dip that the moms were able to enjoy while chatting in Chorlins’ kitchen.

“It’s also important to serve finger food since the moms will be chasing the kids around and won’t have time to sit down with a knife and fork,” she said. “And I think it’s always good to have a bowl of animal cookies or graham crackers you can put out.”

Whatever you serve at playgroup, make sure you allow for plenty of prep time – Chorlins gives herself a week’s head start – or choose simple recipes. There is no shame in takeout from Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s, either. (That’s what I did for my second playgroup, and am proud to report a paucity of leftovers.)

Of course, while you’re at the market, don’t forget to stock up on Lysol. Ronvall quipped: “Have everything prepared in advance so that you can spend all morning cleaning the house like a maniac. Because we all know that’s what all the moms do.”