This week’s Meet a Mom interview is with Alston Calabrese and Leigh Hansen, the friends (and moms!) behind Habitual Hostess, a gorgeous Instagram and website, both filled with beautifully photographed recipes, and the stories behind them. Their content is all about making delicious food, creating memories and planning enjoyable, stress-free meals for family and friends. “We always tell our kids, life is boring, it’s your job to make it fun, and those are words we live by!” says Alston. In addition to gaining over 12,000 followers on Instagram alone in about a year, they’ve partnered with brands like J.McLaughlin, Dudley Stephens and Monogram Mary while hosting events and offering local seasonal gift boxes that have been selling out in days. Here’s more from both of these talented, stylish and busy moms:
Can you please share a little about yourselves and where you’re from?
Leigh: I am from the South! I grew up on the Gulf Coast, in Destin, Florida and went to college at the University of Alabama, where I met Alston. I moved to New York City just weeks after graduating (Alston and I were roommates in the city, too). There I met my husband and after marrying we moved out to Old Greenwich. I have three children – ages 10, 8, and 6. It is busy around here.
Alston: I am from southern Virginia, and my mother’s family is all from Alabama, so I ended up at University of Alabama and met Leigh. I moved to NYC after college and Leigh and I both met our husbands within a few months of each other. They happened to both be from Greenwich. We lived in NYC for ten years and then we were in San Francisco for a few years. We have recently landed back in Riverside [Connecticut] where my husband grew up, and have an 9 and 7-year-old.
Can you please tell us a little about what you both did professionally before having kids?
Leigh: My first job out of college was in Advertising Sales at Comedy Central in New York City—what a blast that was! I then worked at the Ad Council, a non-profit advertising agency, in marketing. After moving out to the ‘burbs, I worked briefly at Serendipity magazine before having my first child.
Alston: I worked in marketing, PR and event planning for various fashion companies for my first years in NYC, then decided to go back to grad school for teaching, and taught for a few years in the city before having kids.
How did the idea for Habitual Hostess come about?
Alston: Leigh and I first started talking about starting a cooking blog back in 2008! Leigh has always been a passionate photographer, and I have always loved throwing any and every party I could! I would host a dinner party in NYC for 10 at a table that seated 6, and I have created dinner party menus for fun all my life! We both love being social and hosting friends and family, so when we were finally in the same city again we decided to launch Habitual Hostess after several glasses of wine and lots of brainstorming. It took us a few more months to get things going but we have been having the most fun spending time together doing what we love!
Love your slogan that “Life is boring, it’s your job to make it fun!” Can you please explain?
Alston: Life is totally what you make it! A Friday night at home can mean flipping through your phone watching bad TV, or you can decide to put on some good music, make a fun cocktail, play a card game and make some fun memories. We choose fun, hence our weekly Friday Mood posts in our stories!
What do both of you do as part of Habitual Hostess?
Leigh: I’m the photographer! We both plan and cook, but Alston is definitely thinking about menus in her sleep.
What’s your favorite dinner party hack?
Leigh: Candles—and lots of them! Lighting makes all the difference in setting a special mood.
Alston: Choose a menu that can be made in advance! I have too much FOMO to be stuck in the kitchen when my friends are all socializing and having fun.
What’s the most common mistake people make when entertaining?
Leigh: Trying out a new recipe the night of the party. I’ve made this mistake…..
Alston: Taking on too much, if it’s going to stress you out. If you are newer to hosting pick one course to focus on. Outsource dessert or appetizers. And always prioritize getting yourself ready! You can put some finishing touches on things when your guests arrive but you don’t want your guests to arrive when you are still in your robe with curlers in your hair!
Do you have any pandemic era entertaining tips?
Leigh: We hosted a chili and hot toddy themed birthday party last year outside at my house in October. With heat lamps, fire pits and warming soups – we were more than comfortable with the chill and had the best time. The pandemic stretched the outdoor gatherings well into winter and I think that is a way I would think about entertaining moving forward in the Fall/Winter.
Who taught you both to entertain?
Leigh: My mother. She is known for some of her “secret” and staple party recipes. And my husband, who taught me how to set the mood and also a lot about cooking. He is also an incredible cook!
Alston: My mother! She is a fabulous cook and is always hosting parties and dinners. We have cooked together my whole life and planning meals for when we are together is still one of our favorite things to do!
We love your videos – how did you learn to do social media?
Leigh: All Alston!
Alston: I think learning new things as you get older is so important! Lots of trial and error! That is why I encourage anyone who says they don’t cook to give it a try!
What are each of your favorite, go-to cocktails?
Leigh: Margarita (fresh-squeezed, always)
Alston: My father makes the best martinis, and his special martini was the first recipe we posted on Habitual Hostess- the Dantini. It’s shockingly fabulous!
What are your favorite recipes you’ve shared so far and why do you love them?
Leigh: The pimento cheese recipes are just so easy and always a crowd-pleaser. Any of our margarita recipes! I think it’s fun to show people that you can jazz up this basic cocktail with so many different variations.
Alston: So many of our recipes are things I have been cooking for years! And each recipe brings so many memories of the dinner parties and fun I’ve had in the past while making and serving those dishes! But the Tomato Basil Tart is probably one of my all-time favorite dishes ever! It’s just that special and anyone you make it for will remember that meal!