planning a dinner party

In my 27 years of teaching people to cook, the most commonly asked question is:

Now I know how to cook all of these wonderful foods, but how do I get them all together for a party and still be able to open the front door for my guests without having my hair on fire?


I have a fair amount of experience a this, so I would like to share my tips and experience with you. In a recent blog, tips from the do ahead diva, I have detailed the lists I make, and the menu planning. Stay true to the idea of doing as much in advance as is possible, not waiting until the day of the party to shop, cook, clean, set up, get dressed for guests, etc.

Check your menu list:

How early can each recipe be prepared? If any of the items chosen can be prepared weeks in advance and frozen, DO IT! You’ll be less stressed later and have more time the day of the party.

Which serving pieces will be used for each recipe? Pick out platters, plates or bowls and serving utensils for each recipe including trivets, etc. I may even pull the dishes, and mark them each with a sticky note, so that I know everything has ‘a home.’

Several days ahead:

Check your menu, including the wines and non-alcoholic drinks. Read through each recipe you still need to prepare and highlight all of the ingredients that you need to buy. Check how many each recipe will serve. Make two shopping lists: one for only the freshest ingredients to purchase the day before the party; and one for everything else to be purchased right away. Don’t forget condiments, paper supplies, and ice.

Pick out the music you want to play and set up the music equipment.

Decide what you are going to wear; the last thing you want is to discover something needs to be dry-cleaned or pressed as your guests are ringing the doorbell.

Press any linens and fold the napkins, if desired.

Three days ahead:

Chop and measure foods, such as nuts or chopped vegetables for sauces or casseroles that may be refrigerated in plastic bags.

Two days ahead:

Prepare the foods that may be refrigerated, and store in covered dishes: molded salads, salad dressings, sauces, desserts. Chop and slice salad ingredients; refrigerate in plastic bags.

The day before:

Shop for fresh ingredients on your list. Wash and dry all produce, wrap salad greens in paper towels, and put in plastic bags and refrigerate. Prepare fruit for salads or desserts. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Thaw items that were previously frozen, and put into serving dishes if possible. Prepare casseroles, vegetables, desserts or any dishes that can be refrigerated overnight.

Prepare any garnishes that can be made ahead.

Chill the wines and other cold beverages. Make ice.

Clean the guest powder room and make sure it is stocked with sufficient hand towels, soap and other supplies.

Designate an area for hanging coats; if the weather is inclement, you don’t want wet garments thrown on your bed.


Set the table, arrange the flowers, and candles, if desired. Put any non-food items and serving pieces out (salt and pepper, wine coasters, etc.). Put extras such as butter on serving plates or in dishes; wrap and refrigerate. Set up a tray for after-dinner coffee/tea. On the day of the party, you will have saved yourself a large chunk of time.

If you are having cocktails and hors d’oeurves in an area other than the dining table, set up for that as well, with glasses and napkins, bowls of nuts or other cocktail snacks.

Plan tasks for those who invariably ask “What can I do to help?” Hand them an apron and put them to work with the last minute preparations such as filling water glasses, lighting candles, opening wine, plating salads. This way, you can visit with your guests and enjoy a cocktail while you finish preparing the meal.

The morning of the party:

Remove all food that has not been thawed from the freezer and thaw as directed. Place foods to be cooked in appropriate cooking dishes; refrigerate or place near the stove.

Garnish desserts. Assemble salads. Unmold and garnish molded salads.

Set up for coffee/tea, cream and sugar for after dinner.

Take a deep breath, you’re doing fine!

Before your guests arrive:

Cook and heat foods as necessary. Arrange any foods on the table if appropriate.

Warm the dinner plates or serving dishes. This is an especially nice touch, and helps to keep the food hot as you are plating it. The easiest way to do this is to put plates in the oven, heat it to 170°F. This is also a good place to hold hot foods until you are ready to serve them. If your oven is not available, you can warm plates in the dry cycle of your dishwasher, or cover them with very hot water in the sink.

When your guests arrive, greet them with a smile, relax and enjoy their company. Your guests will enjoy the occasion if you’re having a good time too.

Whatever happens, don’t admit it when things go wrong and DON’T PANIC! Far more likely than not, a recipe you accidentally overcooked will not be noticed by your guests as long as you don’t announce the mistake. Remember that a great party has a life of its own, independent of your plans. Relax and enjoy it yourself, and your guests will too. Relax…breathe…it’s a beautiful party.

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