Ever feel like you’re chained to the stove while everyone else at the party is mingling? I’ll raise my own hand for that one.
That goes double for cookout season when the party moves outside. It’s like that time when you were eight and your mom made you sit in time-out by the window while all your friends were living it up on the trampoline. Ooof.
Have I ever mentioned that I catered my own bridal shower? Yes, I did that. The graphic above? A photo of me doing that. I wanted to spend time cooking with my best friends and save a little money. Overall, it was a blast, and I would SO do it again.
I would do it a liiiittle differently. The experience definitely taught me some lessons in time management, food prep and this crazy thing called delegation. That’s probably a whole blog post in and of itself. For now, I’ll just say that if during the party your friend physically bars you from the kitchen, know there’s a real good chance something exploded in there.
P.S. You cannot put a slow-cooker’s ceramic pot on the stove to make things heat up faster.
So what can you do to make cooking for a crowd feel more like a party and less like Cinderella’s 16-hour day? Honestly, I still struggle with this. There’s a reason you don’t see chefs or caterers out of the kitchen often, and it’s not just about restaurant rules. I also reaaaaally like to challenge myself and go all out for parties, to a fault. That being said, I’ve gotten better about this over the years.
Listen, I’m not trying to go all “Good Housekeeping” on you. This isn’t about being perfect. It’s about chilling out already.
It’s 2017, not 1950. Your guests would probably rather have you relaxed and in a good mood than panicking over things they won’t remember.
Sooo, here are my best tips for making great food for your guests without missing the party.
1. Plan like a pro
This one sounds pretty obvious, but I can’t stress it enough. You shouldn’t be grocery shopping the day of the party. You shouldn’t be deciding what to make the day of the party. You shouldn’t be doing last minute dishes and cleaning the kitchen the day of the party. Everything should be in the kitchen, cleaned, organized and ready to go. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a mondo headache.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes you have last-minute guests or you just want to keep things casual—there’s something to be said for impromptu visits and scruffy hospitality. I’m just saying having fewer things to worry about will take a lot of pressure off of you, and you’ll be more relaxed for your guests.
2. Don’t try to save the world while you cook
Make sure the food is all you have to worry about while you’re cooking. Everything else can be done ahead, or by someone else. Your playlist isn’t going to go bad if you make it a week early. This post is about cooking, not party planning, buuuuut, I tend to be a do-everything-yourself-because-you’re-superwoman-and-you-can-handle-it-all kind of person. That’s my nature.
And it makes things really difficult sometimes.
Heed my warning: do not try to cook, clean, decorate, host, make favors and do everything else—especially not at the same time.
If you can, decorate the day before. Have everything spick and span the day before. Maybe you are superwoman/man and you CAN in fact do it all… but do you really want to?
3. Enlist help
The smoothest parties have many hands involved. If you don’t have to worry about the food AND the decorations AND the games AND the whatever, you’ll remove approximately 80 lbs from your shoulders. You probably have a friend who likes to cook—or even one who wants to learn—and would be happy to help out.
Things go so much smoother when there’s someone to grab the extra salt from the pantry when you’re tied up at the stove, to help bring the food out when it’s ready and especially to help clean as you go. Most homes don’t have the space or the amount of dishes of a catering hall. Things take forever if you have to stop every half hour to wash dishes and clear off the counter so you actually have room to cook.
4. Prep ahead
Prep as much as possible. If you’ve followed my advice so far, you already know what you’re making. Take note of what can be made ahead and do it! Certain things can’t be made ahead or are better fresh, but there are plenty of things you can do ahead for just about any meal.
Or you could rush around like a chicken with its head cut off hoping it’s somewhat productive.
Really take this into consideration even as you’re planning the menu. If you have the fridge space, prepping ingredients ahead and even making cold or reheat-friendly side dishes (cucumber salad, risotto) the night before can make a huge difference in your stress level the day of.
Maybe you can’t make the salad ahead because it will get mushy and gross, but can you make the dressing ahead? Chop some of the vegetables? Chicken breasts are better fresh, but you could marinate them the night before. You could make the dry rub ahead. You could even get up early and make something in a slow-cooker so you can forget about it until showtime.
5. Make it a potluck
I mean, what’s more fun than that? You make a few big staples, and everybody else gets to showcase their favorite dish too. If you’re going this way, just do your best to find out what people are bringing so you have the right dishes and utensils ready. Make sure you have plenty of room for serving, lots of ice, and check to see if anything needs to be kept hot or if anyone needs the oven to warm things up before serving. A major perk is that you can pick one or two things and make them shine, then relax.
Having less to cook and making sure to coordinate will make things easy breezy—literally and figuratively, because in the summer you don’t want the oven and stove blazing half the day.
Finally, keep it simple, spazzy! If you’re making a big, impressive main dish, your sides don’t need to be super-impressive. If you’re making intricate side-dishes, your main dish can be simple. Maybe the whole meal is really simple, but you have over-the-top appetizers and dessert that you made ahead. Most importantly, don’t try to go above your current skill level or try out new recipes on party day. Time management is difficult enough without trying to flambé for the first time ever.
Honestly, the food probably doesn’t need to be crazy complicated at all if it’s cooked well—one of my biggest takeaways from our trip to Italy last summer. I’m the biggest culprit of not listening to my own advice here as I’m my own harshest critic, but I’m getting better by thinking about my own expectations when I’m in the guest chair. If the food is tasty and the company is good, I’m always a happy camper.
Learn from my mistakes. Every gathering doesn’t have to follow an all-nighter, and I’m betting your friends and family would rather have you awake and happy than have a 10-course meal.
I’m sure I’m missing plenty of tips, which I’ll probably think of 20 minutes after I hit publish.
In the meantime, what are your tips for making sure you’re not the kitchen wench at your parties? Share the wealth in the comments!