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Most of us love to entertain friends and family in our own home. But what a hassle! Planning the menu, buying the groceries, sprucing up the house to make it look just right...

No more! Follow these practical, time-saving hints to become a master host - the easy, affordable way.

The secret to good entertaining is making your guests feel comfortable and relaxed in your home. If you can achieve this, the conversation (and laughter) will flow together with the wine. And no, you don't need a master's degree in psychology to pull it off. If you are relaxed, i.e, not running back and forth to the kitchen to check on things, your guests will be relaxed. Simple really.

So, let's start with the basics. Candles and music - the two magic ingredients that spice up any home. Place candles on the table in the lounge, on the dining room table, in the bathroom - everywhere your guests will be. Fragrant candles also work wonders to create a homely atmosphere. Don't buy expensive, crafted candles; simple candles work just as well and you won't feel sorry to burn them. In terms of music, soft sounds that can play in the background are great. No serious rock 'n roll or bar sing-a-longs!

Now that we have set the mood, let's bring on the drinks. Have a selection of basic drinks such as beer and wine on hand where you will be entertaining. Place them on a tray in the living room or on the dining room table. This ensures that you are never far away from your guests and this simple task can be blended into the evening's entertainment. Also, get your partner or a friend to help you keep an eye on drinks and to be on hand to refill glasses. Nothing kills conversation faster than an empty, hovering glass.

When it comes to food, most people make the fatal mistake of trying to provide a gourmet meal. It is impossible to host a sit-down dinner without having to fuss and keep running back to the kitchen (remember you want your guests to feel relaxed). Keep the menu simple - guests appreciate a well-prepared meal more if it is served with a smile.

The best recipes use fresh ingredients, prepared in a simple way. There are three items you can never go wrong with - soup, open sandwiches (bruschettas) and pasta. All three can be prepared in advanced and laid out on the table, ready for your guests to tuck in!

Here are quick recipes and tips for all three but feel free to add your own special touch.

Bruschettas
Take a fresh French loaf and cut it diagonally to form round slices. Fry the slices on both sides in warm butter. Make sure the butter does not go brown as this will discolour the bread and leave a nasty aftertaste. Let the bread cool down first. Using lettuce and mayonaisse or sandwich spread as a base, build open rounds with ham, chicken, cheese, etc. Let your imagination run wild - use any topping you like but remember presentation is the key here. Make about four different types of sandwiches and arrange them on a platter. Then put them on the table with side plates and let your guests enjoy! These can be prepared well in advance.

Soup
Regardless of your cooking abilities, it is extremely difficult to go wrong with soup. Although there are literally thousands of recipes out there, the basics remain the same. Start by frying some onions in the pot, then add aromatic vegetables (leeks, carrots, potatoes). Add vegetable or chicken stock and the ingredient of your choice (butternut, meat, lentils). Season the soup with salt and lashings of black pepper, then leave it be for a couple of hours. Serve it steaming hot in bowls with fresh bread rolls or even a couple of bruschettas.

Pasta
This is always a favourite and again, there are hundreds of recipes. A sure winner is spaghetti bolognaise or lasagna. Serve with fresh bread rolls and a simple, mixed salad.

One last practical tip: Don't try to clean up while your guests are still there. Simply allow the dishes and glasses to stand around. Rather enjoy the company and leave the cleaning for after everybody has left (with a smile on their faces!)