It is only from much trial and error that I share these tips with you. I have been part of two bookclubs over the past 15 years, and a wine & dinner club the past 3. I have a huge Italian family, and my husband is part of a large family as well. So I have had to entertain often. When I started, I would think of my mother who had an 8 course meal at Christmas timed to perfection, and I would think, "How does she do that?". There is only one word-practice. She makes the same dishes every Christmas so that it is just routine. She can do it with her eyes closed!
1: Never make anything you have not tried before for guests.
I break this rule all the time, I can't help it. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it is a stressful disaster. If you are familiar with the meal, you know the steps, how long things take and if things don't "look right". It just keeps things smooth and enjoyable. If you want to do something new-do a trial run first a week before. It's worth it.
2: Plan and make lots of lists
I am the queen of to-do lists. I flight out the grocery list, the prep list, the freeze list all two weeks before the event. Then the night before, I make a list of the day's events, starting from when I want to serve dinner and working backwards. If I am serving apps that need to share the oven with the mains, I have to time all that and maybe warm them 30 minutes before guests arrive. In doing this, I am also timing when to start prepping things or taking things out of the fridge. Thanksgiving dinner can't happen any other way, especially when the turkey takes all day and the whole oven.
3: Prep what you can
Evenings after bedtime are perfect for pre-chopping, measuring and wrapping in saran. Label what recipe it is for, and put back in the fridge. D-day goes a lot smoother with a lot of the prep done. Sauces, vinaigrette and marinades typically can be done beforehand and stored.
4: Pre-bake what you can, then reheat
There are lots of baked pasta dishes I can prebake a couple days before and wrap in the fridge. Then I just heat gently to warm and serve the day of. Or you can assemble the dish, then pop in the oven before serving. I have also assembled baked pastas and frozen them. Then defrosted them the day before and baked the day of. Works fabulously!
5: Preset the table, favors and/or flower arrangements the night before
I like getting this out of the way because I can make things pretty or get creative while not under a time crunch. I get a glass of wine, turn on Law & Order reruns in the other room, and get to work. If I wait until the day before, this typically gets to be the last thing to do and I am are running around throwing forks and napkins everywhere while guests arrive. It's not pretty.
6: Finally, let the superstores help you
Rich and I are super picky about what we serve. We belong to CostCo and it is worth our membership every year. Their food quality is exceptional. And they have many prepared foods that you can feel good serving your guests that can take some of the burden off of you. I just served some Italian beef in our slow cooker from their freezer section that got rave reviews at our last party. Their bakery has been making my daughter's birthday cake every year-and it is outstanding. I do hear that Sam's Club is just as good, but we only go to CostCo. Even getting apps or some sides (Parisian Salad anyone?) from there can alleviate some of the prep burden from you.