Have you ever been asked to host dinner for lots of people when you don’t have much time to plan? It can seem overwhelming and stressful – I know it did to Clyde and I the first few times we hosted a dinner party for more than four people. Over the years however, we have been in that position so many times that we are old hands at it now. I thought I’d share my tips for a less stressful experience if you ever find yourself in the same spot.
Tip 1: Cook What You Know
This is probably not the time to try out a new recipe or use ingredients that you’ve never eaten before. With 6-10 people around, you’ll be distracted and pulled in a couple directions, so the less you have to worry about your main dish and sides, the better. Go for a stand-by dish that you cook often and could just about fix in your sleep. Over the years, Clyde has become a master at cooking fish, chicken, and turkeys on a charcoal grill, so we usually default to one of those items for our meat dish.
If you feel your entree seems too ‘plain’, you can always dress up your meal with fancy dishes, garnishes, or sauces. Save the experimental recipes for smaller gatherings when you have more time and less distractions. The added benefit of this strategy is that your local grocery is more likely to have the ingredients on hand that you’ll need, saving time and hassle at the grocery store!
Tip 2: Cook With A Buddy
Clyde and I have a pretty well-established routine when we have people over for dinner (whether it’s 2 or 10 people!). In general, Clyde grills meat, and possibly a side or two. I’ll make salad, possibly another side, and often take care of the appetizers & dessert. During the event, I’ll generally greet guests, pour them wine, and set out appetizers while he gets the charcoal heating. Then he can come in and enjoy visiting with everyone while the charcoal fires up and I can disappear to prepare my items. We’ll switch places once the coals are ready, and Clyde will finish off the rest of the cooking while I visit with folks and set out tableware. This tag-team approach works well for us so we can both relax and visit with guests during the meal preparation.
If you don’t have a hubby/wife to help, ask a friend that’s coming to help out with the cooking. You could also ask guests to bring a dish to share (try to make it items that don’t need heating such as salads, appetizers, or desserts). Or, if all else fails, make the deli section of the grocery store your cooking buddy! Most stores carry an array of salads and sides all ready to go at a moment’s notice. Many stores will even cook meat items to order with a small amount of advance notice.
Tip 3: Buffet Line For Food, Condiments For The Table
A buffet will make it so much easier to serve a large group of people, but I’ve found that condiments should be waiting on the table, not served at the buffet. For larger groups, we’ve found that it is much easier and faster to serve everyone if the plates, napkins, silverware, and food is all on a buffet line. Alternatively, you could have the napkins and silverware out at the table already, but do leave plates near the start of the food line. Condiments like salt & pepper, salad dressing, butter, etc. are best to leave on the table. This will keep everyone moving through the buffet line quickly, and lets your guests sit while they add spices/sauces to their food. If you can, set out two sets of each of the condiments – one set at each end of the table – so everyone is within easy reach of what they might want to dress their plates.
Tip 4: Stock Up on Tableware
If you find yourself serving lots of guests on a semi-regular basis, it would be good to invest in extra table settings. I have a stack of sturdy plates and bowls that my mother-in-law picked up at a sale for $1/place setting. I also have three older mugs which each hold a bunch of (dollar store) silverware: one mug for spoons, one for forks, and one for a combo of butter and steak knives. I’ve also got a large, inexpensive mug that holds extra service pieces like spatulas, tongs, slotted spoons, etc. The plates, silverware, and mugs of utensils are all stored in one spot where I can easily pull them out and plunk down on the buffet line (or carry around to set around the table).
Tip 5: Don’t Sweat It, Pour It
If something is going wrong, don’t sweat it – just pour more wine! Explain to your guests what the problem is and don’t be afraid to ask for a bit of help. In my experience, most people attending a dinner party are more than happy to pitch in, and even find it fun to be of service to their host.
One time I had to explain to guests that the turkey cooking on our charcoal grill, which usually cooks in 3 hours, actually needed 4 hours to cook since it was zero degrees outside. Yikes! I was sure people would be, at the very least, annoyed to have to wait for a whole extra hour to eat. So I gave them three possibilities: ‘how about another glass of wine to fill in the time?’ or ‘how about we be ever so European and serve in courses, leaving the meat until last?’ or ‘Do you like pizza?’. Admittedly, the third option was given for a laugh, and it worked to relax everyone. We ended up pouring a glass of wine for our guests, visiting for a while, and then after 20 minutes or so, we started serving in courses. The turkey was served at the end of the meal to rave reviews (probably due to the extra wine!), and our guests went home happy. So don’t sweat it when things go wrong – just pour wine and offer pizza. Ha!
So that’s everything I can think of that works for us when we serve a large crowd on very little notice. I hope these tips help you for your next dinner-party-on-the-fly. What tips do you have for hosting a big dinner?