Do you ever feel like you want to host big gatherings, but besides being a little intimidated, you just don’t think you have the time? Everyone is crazy busy these days. Sometimes we have to make hard choices about what will get our time and attention. There are days when I can barely get the basics done. But because hospitality is part of our family's mission, we have learned to weave it into the fabric of our daily lives.
In this post, I will share with you my strategy for preparing food for a large dinner party. By breaking down the process into four bite-sized pieces the mystery will be taken out of this daunting task, freeing you to accomplish your goals with less stress.
Take Time To Make Time
If you are going to have 30 people into your home, chances are, you know about it a few weeks in advance. An hour or two of planning on the front end could save you a lot of headache later in the process. Something I learned from my mother-in-law is that spreading party prep over a couple of weeks will take a lot of the pressure off, allowing you to enjoy your guests more. Following are the four aspects to my planning process.
1. Go Old School-For this part of preparation, I ditch the tech and go to paper. Have you heard of bullet journaling? I do my own version of that which has really simplified my life. Mine is not as aesthetic as the one on the right, but it gets the job done. I have a three-ring binder where I make schedules of everyday, keep my shopping list, coupons, menus, project ideas, etc. If you have something like this, get it out. If not, get out your calendar.
2. Make Hard Copies-Print out all of your recipes. Why? It is much easier to refer to a single sheet of paper than several books or a tech device. I put mine in plastic sleeves to protect them from inevitable kitchen splatter. Keep them in your planner or folder.
3. Schedule It-Look at your recipes and decide what can be made and frozen versus needs to be fresh. Sometimes parts of things can be made ahead then assembled closer to D-day. Look at your calendar and schedule time for cooking and shopping. In our case, it takes an entire day to smoke pork, so we always need to plan a free weekend for that. Write specifically which recipes you want to tackle in a given week. Try your best to have everything messy and time consuming finished two days before your event which will leave you margin to clean, decorate, and pick up fresh produce. Don’t have unreasonable expectations. Leave yourself extra time to get tasks done. Sometimes things come up or recipes take longer than expected. This way you won’t get frustrated and overwhelmed.
4. Protect Party Day-If you are new at this it is best not to plan to prepare anything start to finish on the day of the event. Heating up rolls and assembling salads is fine. But there will be plenty to do without starting something new. The exception is if you have a second cook manning a grill or fryer, not in the kitchen. For example, at our last big dinner for 30 people, a friend cooked the barbequed chicken on the grill. At another event we did in the summer, my son was making fried pickles in the backyard as an appetizer as guests arrived.
You can't cook without food which makes shopping a necessary evil. A list is imperative for such a crowd so use your recipes to make one. Be sure to include any disposable products you may need, as well as drinks. Take these three tips into consideration to make the best use of your time and money.
Do Your Multiplication-There is a lot of math involved in cooking. Check your recipes to see which need to be multiplied. Always err in the side of generosity.
Avoid Overbuying-Don’t buy for all your recipes at once if making them over the course of two to three weeks. I have frequently made the mistake of shopping for ingredients too far in advance then forgetting I already purchased them. This year it resulted in us being left with a ridiculous amount of excess mayonnaise, like four big jars.
Use Time Savers-I love online grocery ordering. Both Kroger and Walmart offer it and I am sure others do as well. The first charges a fee but accepts coupons. The second has no fee but does not take coupons yet. Yes, some mistakes get made. But it still beats spending two hours shopping and wrestling with unwieldy carts.
Stick to the Schedule
If you planned to make three things in one week, do it, otherwise you will fall behind, adding unnecessary stress. If you want to be ultra-organized, look at the recipes and break them down into steps. On a piece of paper, write everything that will need to be done for every recipe. Don’t forget the drinks.
For example: Macaroni and Cheese
- boil noodles
- shred cheese
- mix wet ingredients
- assemble and bake
Often you don’t need a huge block of time, just small pockets. As you have a few minutes here and there, knock out little jobs and check them off your list. Just label things you prepare and make use of Ziploc bags and disposable pans for easy cleanup on party day.
Do as much as humanly possible ahead of time. For example, if you are using Mandarin oranges, take them out of the cans and put them in one container or bag. There’s no need to deal with excessive garbage before your party. Or maybe you are going to be grilling chicken. Take it out of the packaging, trim it to the size you want then store it in Ziplocs. This way, the grill master or mistress doesn’t need to be washing extra dishes or spreading chicken juice around the kitchen.
Enjoy The Process
I have spent many hours preparing for parties alone. Not all of them have been blissful but there are ways to make the process more enjoyable.
- Binge-I discovered last year that cooking is a great way to binge watch a show you have already seen, as in all six seasons of Downton Abbey. (New shows are too distracting.) Audio books and podcasts work great too.
- Enlist help- Even if you want to do all the cooking yourself, you can still have a prep cook. I did a HUGE event a few months ago and had friends volunteer their services. I planned ahead what they would help me prepare and we had great conversations while working.
- The Right Tool for the Right Job-Food prep can be miserable if you are using dull knives, a poor vegetable peeler, and/or you lack basic small appliances. Utilizing a food processor, mixer, or blender will make quick work of certain tasks. If you don't have what you need, consider borrowing. For that HUGE event I mentioned, I borrowed two Instant Pots. It made boiling and peeling dozens of eggs fast and easy. It didn't hurt that a friend was helping that day.
- Self-Talk-I took Strength Finders a few years ago which helped me discover some things about myself. As much as I love checking items off my to-do list, I also enjoy process. But sometimes in the mundane, especially if I feel like I should or want to be doing something else, I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment. Also, that Ben Franklin knew what he was talking about when he said “haste makes waste”. All too often I have rushed through a job only to make a massive mistake, causing me to start over, wasting time and ingredients. So step back, take a deep breath, and chant those three words, “enjoy the process”, If you are like me, it will do wonders to change your attitude while helping you slow down enough to be able to focus on the task at hand which will lead to success.
Hopefully this post has helped you realize that cooking for large groups does not need to be intimidating. If you remember to take time to make time, shop smart, stick to the schedule, and enjoy the process, you may find yourself relatively relaxed by the time your party rolls around and ready to volunteer for more. The next installment will cover decorating and non-food preparation. See you then!