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Secrets of Stress-Free Cooking for Crowds

S Caron By

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When I was first married, I dreamt of having lavish dinner parties and filling our house with laughter and good food. Of course, I didn’t know that much about cooking or hosting parties back then. And when I tried to have a couple of my imagined parties, they always fell a little flat. Why? Because I was constantly stressed out about cooking and getting everything done and putting on a great event.

In my haste to become this modern Martha Stewart-esque hostess, I had missed a very important lesson: you need to be prepared.

These days, I don’t bat an eye at cooking for 12 or more. Heck, that’s a normal Sunday dinner with our extended family. Here are my best tips so that you can become zen about cooking for crowds too.

1. Choose One Amazing Star Dish


Part of planning a great dinner is allocating time to what’s most important. And having one amazing dish to be the star of the meal is one way to do that. It should probably be the main course (though it might be the dessert instead). Choose it based on your guests likes, your likes and your ability to prepare it.

2. Don’t Choose Dishes You’ve Never Made


We all love to show off our skills, but when it comes to cooking up a great feast, your skills are best used on dishes you’ve made before. That history, and knowledge makes the cooking part easier. If you want to try something new, limit it to one supporting dish.

3. Plan Around the Star Dish


Once you’ve selected that one amazing dish, plan the other dishes around it. If it’s complicated to prepare, be sure that the side dishes can either be made ahead or have a brief cooking time. Also, the more dishes you make, the fewer portions you need. So, if you are serving a soup, salad, sliders and two side dishes, you don’t need to make 12 full portions of each. Usually 8 portions, when you have that many dishes, will do the job with some leftovers.

4. Timing is Important


Okay, so your guests are arriving at 6 p.m.-ish. When should your dinner be done cooking? Unless you plan to show them from the door to the table (probably not), have some appetizers laid out for guests to munch on when they arrive and plan for 30 or so before you sit down. But that doesn’t mean that you should be cooking for that time. If the main dish takes awhile to cook, plan to have it done at about 6:15 for a 6 p.m. dinner party. Hot side dishes can be made ahead and transferred to oven-safe dishes. Keep them in a 200 degree oven until it’s time to eat (assuming you have the oven space for that).

5. Consider your Resources


Look, if you have two burners and a tiny oven, you won’t be having a feast of roasted chicken and homemade garlic bread. When you plan your timing for the meal, you also need to plan where everything will need to be cooked, taking into account how many burners, ovens, etc you have at your disposal.

5. Remember the Basics


You will need drinks to serve (make sure they are chilled – whether it’s lemonade or martinis). Have the glasses and plates out and ready. Make a salad (this can be done at the last minute or easier in the day).

6. Say Yes


When your guests ask to bring something, say yes!  Dessert is a great part of the meal to assign out. But if you have your heart set on making it yourself, you could also farm out the appetizers or side dishes. Just remember what you tell people to bring so that you can cross that off your list.

What’s the biggest party you ever hosted?


Sarah W. Caron (aka scaron) is a food writer, editor and blogger who writes about family-friendly foods and raising a healthy family at Sarah’s Cucina Bella.
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