COOKING: Tips on entertaining a lot of people

updated 11/2/19

It is only from much trial and error that I share these tips with you. I have been part of two book clubs over the past 25 years, and a wine and dinner club the past 17. I have a huge Italian family, and my husband is part of a large family, too. So I have had to entertain often. I have had to host 23 people in my small Chicago house for Thanksgiving. I've hosted backyard birthday/end of summer parties for 50+ people. I've hosted baby showers and girls scout events, and I have done all the decorations and cooking for all of them. 

Mistakes were made. Much wine and tears were spilled. But also great memories were shared, as well as great food and celebrations. 

And that is key, my friend. At the end of the day, be present. This is about bringing people you love together around your table. Be generous. Be happy. and BE THERE. Don't plan so much that you are stressed and not enjoying the moment. This, before all else, dearest, is the thing. If you feel you can't accomplish this, while doing all the cooking, cleaning and decorating-order pizza, hire a cleaning lady and scale back your guests. No one will remember what you did or did not do. They will remember how you made them feel. So be realistic about your abilities and time limitations, so you can create a space of happiness and joy, which also includes your own.

TIP 1: Make what you know works

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!
Never make anything you have not tried before for guests.
I break this rule all the time, I can't help it. I'm a foodie and this blog always needs new content. 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.

TIP 2: Plan and make lots of lists

I am the queen of to-do lists. I plan 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 backward with a schedule. 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. A play by play schedule of food prep/serve by the 30-minute increments is taped on my fridge and that is the bible for the day.

TIP 3: Prep what you can

Evenings after the kids' bedtimes are perfect for pre-chopping, measuring and wrapping in plastic wrap. Label what recipe the ingredients are for, and put it back in the fridge. D-day goes a lot smoother with a lot of the prep done. Sauces, vinaigrettes and marinades typically can be done a few days beforehand and stored.

TIP 4: Pre-bake what you can, then reheat (or better yet, assemble and freeze)

There are a lot of 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 I've defrosted them the day before and baked the day of. This works fabulously! It's all about oven timing, so know what else you have on the menu that needs the oven and at what temperature, and plan accordingly. Gently warming a prebaked dish versus baking a frozen dish will need some timing with your oven.

TIP 5: Preset the table, favors, decorating 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.

TIP 6: 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 
at our last party some Italian beef from their freezer section that got rave reviews. 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.

TIP 7: Clean the weekend before, then have cleaning wipes on hand

Let's face it, cleaning a house while you have kids is like trying to hold the ocean waves back. SO be kind to yourself. Plan a cleaning house day the weekend before. Then the day or night before your event, run around like a tornado with wipes. Pledge has some, and Clorox and Lysol have some. Those wipes are your superpower and just run around the house wiping everything down, while decluttering while you go. Then you're done. Whatever happens within the 8-10 hours until guests arrive you just have to let go. Especially the kitchen. I give the kitchen a full cleaning the day before, so at least I know I am starting off with a clean slate. But heck, you've got cooking to do, and things are going to get nuts. So let that go. Focus on the food after you did your due diligence.


Finally, be kind to yourself. In the day of everything being "Instagrammable" and on Pinterest-we are putting far too much pressure on ourselves. Don't let social media drive your social event. Don't forget the social...the real social...piece of why you are entertaining these beautiful humans whom you love that are coming to your home. Make memories, and be present. If you did not get to finish the Martha Stewart swan-shaped napkin fold at each table setting, forget about it. Enjoy the people around your table, not the table decorations, because time is fleeting. 



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