Thursday, June 23, 2011

Twelve Tips for Stress-Free Entertaining

Having a crowd over for dinner or a party certainly can be stressful. What are some tips for cutting down this stress? Here are the top ideas that really work for me:

--Plan your menu carefully. Choose dishes that can be made up ahead of time and either frozen or refrigerated until serving or baking time. Don’t serve a lot of foods (no more than 1or 2 dishes) that need a lot of “last minute” prep.

--Do whatever you can ahead of time as far as cooking prep, as well as cleaning the house, folding cloth napkins, making place cards, setting the table, etc. If something can be done in advance, do it.

--Make a timetable and stick with it. When I plan a very large party or formal occasion, I make a list of everything that needs to be done and when. This includes grocery shopping, food prep, cleaning, organizing entertainment or games, sending out email reminders to guests, etc. Usually the week before a party, I have a “to do” list for every day. Then the 24 hours before a party, I’ll make out a schedule for what dishes need to be assembled, put in the oven, pulled out of the oven, etc., at each hour. It really helps ensure that everything gets done, and that there’s enough time for each task.

--Clear out your refrigerator. Eat up leftovers in advance of your party, so that they’re not taking up space in your fridge. You’re going to need that space to store the food for your party. Keep in mind you may need to turn down the temperature a degree or two in your fridge, to compensate for all the extra food you are trying to keep cool. If you don’t have enough fridge space, ask friends, relatives and neighbors if they have some extra freezer or refrigerator space where you could store some of your food.

--If there’s going to be a lot of last-minute arranging food on platters (such as for a cocktail or appetizer party) figure out in advance what platter will work best to serve what food. Otherwise, if you wait until right before your guests arrive to figure out what food you should put on what serving dish, this can waste a lot of time. You have to make the decisions about what trays and platters will work best, you have to locate the platters, maybe unload them from storage boxes or get them down from high shelves—and this can take a lot of time. What I do a day or two before a party is put little post-it notes on platters and serving dishes, noting what food’s going to go on what. My husband laughs when I do that, but it really helps streamline things! Also, by figuring out what tray or platter will work best for what foods, this can help you figure out if you need to borrow any serving dishes.

--When you assign guests to bring food items to your party, anticipate how well they’ll follow through. If there are “important” entrees like desserts (right?!!) or specific side dishes you really want to have at your party, assign those items to people who really like to cook and have the time in their schedules to do so. If there are guests who aren’t so “in” to cooking, let them have an easy assignment, like pick up a bag of chips and a container of salsa, or a bottle of wine. You have to kind of know your guests. One person I know will walk in the door to a party with a head of iceberg lettuce and a bag of whole tomatoes when I ask her to bring a tossed salad—usually when I’m scrambling around doing all kinds of last-minute things and five other people have asked me: “Where are your serving spoons?” “Where do you keep your…?” So for this guest, I have a knife, cutting board and salad bowl waiting for her when she walks in the door.

--Ask one of your guests to stop off at a convenience store on the way to your party and bring an extra bag or two of crushed ice. Invariably, you will run out of ice at your party, and ice is always in big demand at parties—especially outdoor gatherings where people are seeking out cold beverages! However, there’s often not enough freezer space to store extra ice bags. So it’s very helpful to have a guest bring some extra ice over. Have a cooler ready to store the ice in during the party.

--Have the dishwasher unloaded and ready to fill—before your dinner party. Also, have the kitchen sink emptied out and clean. That way you’re ready to wash dishes and load the dishwasher if your guests offer to help clean-up after the party.

--If it’s a casual gathering with paper plates, have an empty trash can with a new trash bag in it, ready to go so your guests will know that’s where to put their disposables—and you won’t have to stop what you’re doing during the party and take care of this.

--Plan for accidental messes ahead of time. Buy some stain remover, particularly one for wine (if you’re serving red wine), and have it on hand before the party. More often than not, there are going to be some spills—on table cloths, carpets, etc. Better to deal with these stains when they happen, rather than let them set in.

--Know your limits. Don’t try to do more than is realistic for one person to do. Oftentimes guests will volunteer to help out, either with set-up or clean-up. Let them! Don’t be shy about accepting their offers to help. If you’re serving a formal dinner for a large crowd and there’s going to be lots of china, crystal and silverware that have to be hand-washed afterwards, hire some teenagers in the neighborhood to clean up afterwards. The idea is to NOT wear yourself out—so that you can enjoy yourself too.

--Aim to have all your prep work done before your guests arrive. That way, when your doorbell starts ringing, if you pour your guests some wine, you can also pour a glass for yourself. It's time to kick back and enjoy your company! Remember, if you’re relaxed and stress-free, your guests will be much more likely to have a good time themsleves.

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