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When it comes to entertaining, I live by my friend Marsee’s motto: presentation over preparation. You can serve even the simplest of fare to friends, but if you do so with panache, it will knock their socks off. Styling sensational food spreads is a lot easier than you think when you have:

The right food

For me, the right food for entertaining is anything I don’t have to cook. Seriously. I’m a disaster in the kitchen, and I love my friends too much to put them through my culinary mishaps. So when I have guests over, I always bring in yummy food prepared by someone else. I have my go-to local restaurants, and my local grocery store where I can grab a feast-in-a-flash: cheese, fruit and nuts.

If I didn’t give myself permission to skip the cooking and go straight to what I love to do — arrange the food in a lovely display — I probably would never entertain. It would be too stressful for me.

If cooking brings you joy, that’s fabulous. Giving guests the gift of a home-cooked meal is divine. To avoid last-minute stress, stick with recipes you feel comfortable making and that allow you to spend time with your guests, not in the kitchen.

The right tools

If you want to design a gorgeous food display in minutes, all you need are a few tools, the serving pieces that instantly lend drama to the table. Through the years, I’ve test-driven lots of different serving pieces, and I’ve settled on my go-to favorites, the pieces that always deliver.

Cloches. I’ve been in love with cloches for decades. They are magical, in my estimation, because you can cover just about anything with a cloche and it’s instantly relegated from ordinary to regal. When I entertain outside in the summer, cloches are a must-have to protect the food until we are ready to eat.

Dishes on pedestals. Whether it’s compotes or cake plates, if you affix any kind of dish to a pedestal, it skyrockets up the drama chart.

Tiered servers. You can find these classic servers in just about every style and price range. They are one of my decorating foot soldiers.

Risers. It’s key to have a variety of heights in your food display. Risers allow you to lift up select serving pieces so your spread is rich with visual interest.

Trays and boards. Right now, I’m crazy about long wooden cutting boards. Like a tray, they artfully anchor all the individual serving pieces so they feel like one unit. But unlike a tray, they give you acres of space to work with. When I serve gourmet pizza for dinner, a favorite at our house, I slide the pies right onto the cutting boards.

As you build your collection of serving pieces, get some formal pieces, like crystal and silver, and some less formal pieces, like white and cream pottery or bowls with a fun pattern. That way you have the right tools at your fingertips, whether you want to entertain formally or causally.

The right attitude

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of entertaining is to just relax and enjoy myself. If you are having fun, and people feel welcomed in your home, you can survive any culinary disaster. I know this firsthand. I’ve done everything from set dinner on fire to forgetting to even turn the oven on. When I blow it, we laugh until our sides hurt, then call for dinner to be delivered.

This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity's blog at nellhills.com.

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