Paper plates and kitchen-counter buffets have their place in the pantheon of home entertaining, but wouldn’t it be nice, every once in a while, to linger over a more special meal, cloth napkins and all? That’s the specialty of Michigander Megan Gilger. The secret, she says, is inviting a little help from your friends.

Megan Gilger's passion for gathering stems from a basic premise: You don't need a special occasion to enjoy a special meal.

It began in 2010, when the founder of design and lifestyle blog The Fresh Exchange invited a few creative pals to contribute their talents to a shared meal. Not because it was Easter or Thanksgiving or someone's birthday. Just because. One person decorated the table. Another made paella. The night was intimate, leisurely and collaborative-a small potluck with flair.

She dubbed it "A Simple Evening" and featured it on her blog. A few months later she hosted another. And another. The menus grew longer, and so did the tables. Her husband, Mike, a photographer, documented every enviable detail. Five years later, Megan realized she had blogged up a monster. "I felt a lot of pressure to make things bigger and more elaborate," she says, reflecting a sentiment familiar to anyone who has lingered too long on Pinterest. "I forgot the original vision."

So she took a break. She had a baby. She resettled in northern Michigan's Leelanau County, a place she finds inspiring for its kaleidoscopic seasonality. "Nothing is ever ultimate up here," Megan explains. "Every day the leaves change, or the water changes color. It's a beautiful, shifting world. Everything is fleeting, and it's a great reminder to appreciate every day."

The scenery reminded Megan why she first hosted her Simple Evening dinners: Amid the tidal rush of modern life, too many of us have forgotten how to slow down, lay a pretty table and savor a homemade meal with friends. So last summer she brought Simple Evenings back to the blog, with a renewed goal of giving people accessible ideas for confidently entertaining at home.

"When I hear people say, ‘I just can't do dinners like yours,' that makes me so sad," Megan says. True, she admits, you may not have access to a whitewashed barn or a chef buddy up the street. But you have a table. You have plates. You have something pretty and green unfurling in your backyard to snip for a vase. And, most important, you have friends with hands for helping. All you have to do is pick a date.


All Hands on Deck

If your guests are invested as collaborators, Megan says, they'll go all out. For this brunch, she asked her friend Sarah Peschel, co-owner of the Suttons Bay shop At Home, to lay the table. Cammie Buehler and Andy Schudlich, of Epicure Catering and Cherry Basket Farm, lent the barn and cooked. What does that mean for you? Party-plan together, assigning tasks that play to people's strengths. Or, Cammie suggests, host a more traditional meal, but when guests ask what they can bring, give small, useful ideas, like a baguette or nice chocolate bars to pass for dessert.


More words of wisdom

Not every plate or glass needs to match. If you have things that are in the same family, it gives more character to the meal. We used two shades of lavender linens. You may have four napkins in one print and four that complement it. Then, if one gets stained, it's no big deal. Sarah Peschel

Or you don't even have to buy
a linen napkin! You can go to a place like Jo-Ann's and buy fabric in a color like a cream or a chambray, and cut it into squares and wash it. You don't even have to iron it. Megan Gilger

You don't have to invite everyone you know. Even my chef friends who entertain all the time agree. Sitting around a table for a couple of hours with eight friends is more intimate than a potluck with 16 people coming and going. Cammie Buehler

Do as much as you can ahead,
 so you can enjoy your time with your guests and aren't rushing around and cutting your finger or having your sauce boil over. If you look frantic, it makes people uncomfortable. Andy Shudlich

People feel pressure about entertaining. Remember,
 the whole point is being together. Opening your home and cooking a meal-that is gift enough. Cammie Buehler


Keep it simple. These recipes feature just a few nice ingredients, plus salt, pepper, olive oil and an acid like citrus. You're not supposed to be working for people. That's what caterers like me do. You should be entertaining and enjoying each other's company. Andy Schudlich

The menu for this brunch:


(Clockwise from top left) Lemon Curd and Shortbread. Megan Gilger. Chilled Pea Soup. Andy Schudlich.