Let’s face it, one of the hardest parts of making a meal for a party or gathering is making sure that all of the menu components get done at the right time. It always seems like at least three dishes need space in the oven, and of course, none of them ever need to be set at the same temperature. That being said, there are some six tips that can help you to make this process less stressful as the host or hostess.
1. Using Multiple Appliances
The simplest way to make a gathering less stressful is to make use of the various appliances that are in the kitchen. When making a menu ahead of time think about how everything on the menu is going to be prepared. If four dishes on the list all need the oven, and they all need to cook at different times and temperatures, that is going to become a massive headache. It might not even be possible to serve all of the food at the same time if everything needs to cook in the same space.
When I make food for a gathering I like to use my grill, two slow cookers, and the oven. Sometimes I will use my stove top, but I prefer the other appliances because stove top foods always seem to leave a bigger mess that needs to be cleaned up. My slow cookers are my favorite way to cook when I am getting ready to make a large meal. A major perk of slow cooker recipes is that most of them can be prepared ahead of time and then reheated in the same vessel. This comes as a huge relief to the hostess since the food can be left unattended while other components of the meal are being worked on or while socializing with guests.
In addition to using multiple appliances, I try to make at least one of my dishes as a cold serving dish, such as a pasta salad, or ham roll ups. Dishes served cold have the same advantage as slow cooker recipes. They need to be prepped ahead of time; therefore, all of your work is already done when it gets to the day of the gathering. All that needs to be done is pulling it out of the fridge and put a serving spoon in the bowl.
2. Make a List
This next tip is one that I picked up from my husband’s grandma. Every year there are about 25-30 people that attend his grandparents’ Thanksgiving lunch. For the last nine years Cole and I have slept over at her house the night before the holiday, and in the morning we help her with the food preparations. After a couple years I noticed that she kept a list of everything that needed to be done and crossed out items as she completed them.
Now, not every gathering has 25-30 people at them, but even small gatherings of 6-8 can get overwhelming if there are a lot of different dishes to make. For this reason a list can be extremely helpful.
Technically, I make two lists before having a party, but it’s the second list that’s much more important. The first list is simply a bullet pointed piece of writing that has all the elements of the dinner that I want to make. Let’s call it a menu. After making my menu, I make a second list. This list is different. This one is a To Do List, and it’s extremely detailed. It’s this second list that I consider to be the “master list,” because not only does it say what needs to be done, but also the order and times that they should be completed.
There is a definite strategy when I make my master list. First, I pull up all of my recipes to figure out how long each dish is going to take to prepare. I also take into consideration which items should be cooked first, second and so on. There are considerations that help me to make these decisions such as which items can be prepared and then reheated, and which items need to be served fresh out of the oven or off the stove. For example, in the master list pictured, I made the pretzel rolls before the queso dip because they would retain their warmth for a longer duration of party whereas the queso would cool off quickly or need to stay on a burner to stay warm.
It isn’t essential for the master list to give a starting time for each item, but I have found this useful, especially if I am making bread for dinner. Since homemade bread requires rising time in addition to baking time, it is helpful to calculate what time to start the dough. This ensures that the bread won’t be finished too early and gives a greater probability of serving it freshly warmed out of the oven. If the bread does get done early it can always be rewarmed. However, I have found that it tastes best fresh out of the oven!
While adding start times to items on the master list isn’t required, I would say that is what moves this “to do” list beyond a normal one turning it into a “master” list instead. These times help you keep yourself on task throughout the prep work and allow the dinner to stay on time. If you tell your guests that dinner is served at 6:00 PM, you can hold yourself accountable to that time by calculating what time you should be starting each dish ahead of time and writing it down.
By making both a menu and a master list you can help yourself to stay organized when juggling multiple dishes, and you have a greater chance of your items getting done at the same time. This is especially important if you are planning for a Thanksgiving Dinner or a fancy dinner party where everyone is sitting down at the table. If you are going for the more casual buffet style it is needed less since your guests will be grazing, but the master list can still help you stay on track throughout the prepping process.
3. Bake Ahead of Time
This next tip is something my mom has always stressed with me. She always says that when you are making a large meal one of your items should be considered the “easy” item. For me, my easy item is almost always dessert because it can usually be baked ahead of time. Some desserts are best served warm or fresh out of the oven, but those are rare, and you have plenty of other desserts to choose from that can be prepared ahead of time.
One of my “go-to” desserts for large gatherings is butterscotch cookie bars. These are so easy to make up the night before, and they are not time intensive either. By making an easy dessert the night before, you are saving yourself time to host your party, and checking an item off your menu before the guests even arrive. Of course, you can prep other items the night before too, especially if you plan to cook in slow cookers, but dessert gives you the most items to choose from for bake ahead options.
4. Clean as You Cook
This next tip is one that I still struggle with sometimes. I’m a much better chef than I am a housekeeper. However, this year I have worked really hard at bettering myself and cleaning up after myself as I go. I used to spend the entire day doing a cooking spree, and suddenly I would look around the kitchen and be devastated that I couldn’t put my feet up and relax with everyone else enjoying the spoils of my hard work.
Lately, I’ve been cleaning up the counters after I finish each item on the menu. This means picking up all the cups and tablespoons, rinsing them in the sink, and putting them away in the dishwasher, then I run a soapy cloth over my counters and start fresh with my next menu item.
This tip may seem obvious to some, but for those of you that are new to cooking for a crowd it is an extremely helpful procedure. Hosting a large group of people can already be a stressful process, but keeping your kitchen clean as you work can save you time and energy when your dinner is ready to be served, or when you have more dishes to clean up after everyone is done feasting.
5. Wear an Apron
Tip number five is not a necessity, but it can certainly bring you peace of mind when cooking for company. Whether it is a fancy occasion or a casual backyard get-together, most of the time when you have company over you pick out an outfit that you feel good about yourself while wearing. You might not even realize you are doing this, but it is just basic human nature to pick out clothing that makes you feel confident and comfortable when you are going to be seeing others.
There’s a catch though, if you are the chef of the household you know you run the risk of ruining that very outfit that makes you feel good.. Now, if you are preparing food before your guests come over you can always just wait to change until you are done cooking. However, in most scenarios the chef still has work to do even after the guests arrive. So, rather than run the risk of splattering yourself with BBQ sauce or chocolate fondue, a simple fix is to make sure you own an apron. An apron doesn’t completely protect you, but it can help save you from small mishaps. An added bonus is that they make so many fun and unique aprons. Mine says “Desperate Housewife” on it, a shout out to one of my favorite TV shows.
6. Ask for Help
The last tip is probably one of the most important tips, and that’s, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Even if you are the chef of the household, if you are co-hosting with your spouse or roommates you shouldn’t worry about pulling them away from entertaining your guests for a little bit to give you a helping hand. Overall, the most helpful thing they can probably do is keep your guests entertained while you put finishing touches on the meal, but it’s very possible that they can help you with other tasks that you may need done.
Whenever we have company over, I always have Cole help me with two tasks while I am finalizing the meal. It is his job to refresh all of the guests drinks before dinner is served, and if we aren’t serving the meal as a buffet, I also have him set the table. These are small tasks, but having him do them instead of me trying to multitask is a huge help.
Now, I know what you must be thinking… What about the people that live by themselves and are hosting a party? There is a simple fix to that too. Most likely if you are inviting these guests to your home, it means you are friends and enjoy their company. While you maybe wouldn’t give you guests the same jobs I give my husband, there is still no shame in asking one of them for help. Take the guest closest to you and ask if they can stir the sauce while you get everyone drinks and set the table. If a timer is going off and you are busy doing something else, ask your friend to slip on the oven mitts and pull the rolls from the oven. Unless you are having a work function at your own home or a company dinner, there should be no shame in asking a friend who is close to you for help.
While all our gatherings are looking a little smaller this year, these tips can still come in handy when having a couple of family members over. I hope you find them helpful in the future!