Counting Down and Wrapping Up
Congratulations! You have made your menu, prepared the food, and organized your decorations. You have a couple days before the big test- a dinner for 30 people. Are you nervous, excited, panicked? In this post I will walk you through your timeline starting with two days before guests arrive. We will talk about planning, cleaning, setting up, ambience, cooking, hosting, and debriefing.
TWO DAYS BEFORE (or earlier if you do not have two mostly free days)
- Get all of your messy cooking done. It is close enough to the party that you won’t need to freeze anything. But if you are serving cut fruit or salad greens, you may want to save them for the day of.
- Iron your linens. Enjoy the process by putting on a movie while you do it.
- Choose all of your serving pieces, including spoons. You can even put a slip of paper in each one to remember what the dishes are for.
- Make labels for your food. Sometimes we use cute ceramic labels, other times we print them on card stock and put them on a stand.
- Make a schedule. Read on for details.
As with preparing food ahead for the party, planning and time management in the home stretch are key to things running smoothly with less stress. Your schedule for party day should include time for:
- last-minute food prep
- lighting candles
- turning on music
- doing a quick wipe-down in the guest bathroom, making sure there are fresh towels, soap, and toilet paper
- getting yourself ready.
Be sure to allow extra time for anything you are cooking. It’s much better for food to get done early rather than to be waiting forever for it to cook. By the way, everything takes longer in a full oven. A good goal is to have all the food, except for fresh bread, cooked by the time guests arrive. (If using chafing dishes for a very large party, it should be much earlier.) If I aim for 30 minutes before the party starts, I have a chance for dinner to be on time. This way any pots and pans can be cleaned up and put away. You probably don’t want your kitchen trashed when your guests show up.
Also, EVERYONE wants to gather in the kitchen, whether they are helping or not. This can make food prep really difficult. So, it’s better to have everything you can out of the way. The exception is fresh bread. Put that in the oven after the guests have arrived.
THE DAY BEFORE
- Clean. Don’t knock yourself out. People don’t need to wander all over your house, unless that is the intent. This is not a time to deep clean. Just do what you need to do. Straightening up is the most important thing.
- Buy fresh produce.
- Start thawing frozen items.
- Finish anything you did not earlier in the week.
- If eating outside, blow leaves off your entertaining area.
- Set all up tables.
- Set up buffet, including dishes, glasses, and flatware putting things on different levels.
- Make drinks and set up a beverage station out of the flow of traffic. Think about investing in a drink dispenser.
- Don’t forget the ice.
- Be sure the dishwasher is empty.
- Empty trash cans.
- Follow your schedule! You did all your thinking when you were not under too much stress, so trust your schedule and follow it. This is especially important if you get distracted easily.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, plan to have a friend come and help. The hubs and I have a rhythm. He does the outside prep, heavy lifting, last minute wipe downs, drinks, music, and candles, while I concentrate on décor and food. Without two of us, this would be enormously stressful and entertaining would be dramatically different. Even with my man there, or for larger events, I still need another set of hands. So, if you don’t have a significant other, consider phoning a friend or two.
Confessions of a Distracted Cook
One of the reasons I like to have all my cooking done before guests arrive is that I lose focus when I am trying to talk to people. Huge mistakes can happen and dinner can be uncomfortably delayed when that occurs, like I may forget to cook the chicken.
The most disastrous instance of this was when we had a youth group of 14 in the house. The dishwasher was open because I was loading it while talking to guests. Being the klutz that I am, I forgot it was open, fell backwards on the open door, destroying it in the process (by permanently leaving behind the imprint of my derrière), and bonking my head on an adjacent cabinet at the same time. Did I mention I was wearing skirt? The worst of it was, we had just spent $200 repairing it and I had just done $500 damage to the door alone. We now have a strict rule about keeping the door closed.
Embrace the Imperfect
Chances are, something will go wrong. That’s another reason to cook ahead of time. It gives you an opportunity to correct the error, or in my case on several occasions, to get the smoke out of the house. If you do screw something up and can’t fix it, my mom’s advice was to simply rename it (preferably something French) and serve it. For all we know, creme brûlée was a mistake. Besides, goofing up here and there lets people know you aren’t perfect so they feel better about themselves. Think of it as performing a public service. I’ve done it many times. By the way, don’t point out your mistakes. Ditch the pride and just go with it.
The last bit of preparation is to light (or turn on) the candles, dim the overhead lights, put on some music, and put out an appetizer or two. Don’t skip any of these details. They all make your home much more inviting.
The most awkward wedding we ever attended was in the fellowship hall of a church. Nothing wrong with that. The problem was that the lights were too bright, no food was being served, most people were lined up along the walls like a bad junior high dance, and there was absolutely no music when people came in. I could almost hear crickets chirping and since we didn’t know anyone, it just made us want to leave. No one wants 8th grade flashbacks and I know that most certainly is not the way you want your guests to feel.
When first people arrive, offer them a beverage and appetizer. This will just help them to relax and ease into party mode. For most occasions, if guests are determined to help you, let them. Some people, myself included, feel more comfortable when we are making ourselves useful.
If using chafing dishes, food can be put out 30 minutes in advance. But if you are not using them, put the hot food on the buffet about five minutes before dinner.
During the party, keep an eye on food supplies and replenish as needed. Load the dishwasher as you can. At the very least, stack dishes in the sink in water to make cleanup easier later on. But keep in mind that you are a host before you are a scullery maid. So be sure to spend time with your guests. I have to admit that I am so task oriented that I have to be intentional sometimes about stopping the work and enjoying my company.
The Party’s Over
After the event, debrief your party. I have a document on my computer that has all of my company menus, dates, guests, and occasions. I make notes of everything that went right and went wrong. It is also good to keep track of how much you prepared and how much you actually used. A record like this will help make future entertaining so much easier. After that, do yourself a favor and RELAX!
In a Nutshell
So, there it is. Start to finish, we have broken down what it takes to feed a large crowd. The mystery has been revealed. So, when the opportunity arises to host your small group, colleagues, or child’s soccer team, don’t sweat it! Just remember to: