How to Host a Dinner Party: The Plan

November 04, 2015

how-to-host-a-dinner-party-the-plan

Dear overly ambitious home cook:

If you decide to shop the morning of your dinner party, or start cooking 4 hours without any forethought to organization, this is for you.  If the kitchen (or you!) are a mess before or during your party, you have failed.

Dinner parties don’t have to be stressful.  You need a plan, an organizational strategy that’s going to help you pull off a fabulous meal WHILE having fun.

No reading your recipes the day of or trying to pull off dishes you’ve never made before.

For today, we’re going to use my traditional Thanksgiving menu to illustrate how to plan a dinner party of 10.  Recipes coming next week.  🙂

  • Roasted Turkey with Caramelized Onion and Pepper Sausage Stuffing
  • Shallot-White Wine Gravy with Fresh Thyme
  • Brown Butter and Pecan Sweet Potato Bake
  • Mashed Potatoes with Vermouth and Mustard 
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lemon and Parmesan

I chose to do this family style, served as a buffet in the kitchen. I am making everything from scratch, and I hate making pie, so someone else needs to bring dessert. While grazing appetizers might be nice, I’m putting 100% of my effort into pulling off a perfect meal. And does anybody actually like cranberry sauce?

This list is what I need to make sure I have. You should also take all of this out the night before. The less thinking you have to do the day of, the better. This is the KEY to pulling off a dinner party without being flustered.

  • 1 turkey serving platter and fork
  • Large enough cutting board to carve turkey
  • Turkey roasting pan
  • Pyrex dish for stuffing (served right out of the pan)
  • Pyrex dish for sweet potatoes (served right out of the pan)
  • Serving bowl for mashed potatoes
  • Serving bowl for brussels sprouts
  • Gravy boat
  • 4 serving spoons

My grocery list

  • Turkey – 1 pound per person, 10 people, 10-12 pound turkey
  • Sausage Stuffing, recipe x2 (2 large onions, 2 red peppers, celery, garlic, 1 pound sausage, 2 loaves crusty bread, chicken stock)
  • Mix of russets/yukon gold potatoes for 10, 12-13 (a little over 1 potato per person)
  • Cream, 2 pints, butter x2, vermouth
  • Large Sweet potatoes, 10 (1 per person)
  • Sage, 1 bunch, pecans, 1 cup
  • Brussels sprouts, 4-5 per person, 45 total
  • Lemons, 3, Parmesan
  • Shallots, 2, Fresh thyme, 2 bunches (I want some for garnishing the turkey as well)
  • White wine, for cooking and drinking

I already have some of staples on hand, like brown sugar, cinnamon, mustard and homemade chicken stock.

When to do the shopping:

If you are cooking for a large group, whatever the occasion, try to do the shopping at least two days before.  Things like fish aren’t going to keep well in the fridge, but if you are doing beef or chicken, you can take it out of the package, place on a paper towel lined plate, season with salt and pepper, and cover very loosely with plastic wrap.  This way you are marinating and preserving the meat.

For something like a Thanksgiving meal, I would do the shopping at least 4-5 days before.  You may need a last minute trip to the store, but there is nothing worse than grocery shopping the day before or on Thanksgiving.

If you are cooking for 2 or 4, you can afford to do the shopping the day before.

Never do the shopping on the same day!  You are trying to conserve energy for cooking AND the party.  Don’t overextend yourself.

When to start the prep?

Depends on the menu and how many people you are cooking for.  At the very least, you want to prep whatever can be done the day before – dressings, sauces, marinades, vegetable prep.  The goal is to get as much of the small stuff the day (or 2-3 days) before. A couple of hours of work spread out over 2-3 days will make a HUGE difference in the final result.

For my Thanksgiving menu, I will start the prep at least 3 days before. Here’s what the prep list looks like:

Tuesday:

  • Dry brine turkey (10 minutes)
  • Roast sweet potatoes, brown butter, toast nuts, assemble dish (20 m, 2 hours unattended)
  • Clear counters, make sure kitchen is clean and stays clean.  To cook for large parties in a home kitchen, you need 100% of your counter and kitchen table space AND you need to clean as you go.

Wednesday:

  • Make gravy (15 min)
  • Prep brussels sprouts (grate cheese, wash and slice sprouts) (20 min)
  • Prep stuffing: cut bread, cook vegetables (30 m)
  • You CAN make mashed potatoes and even cook the brussels sprouts today.  I don’t because I have enough kitchen experience to pull it off the day of without exhausting myself.  You need to add enough butter and cream to the mashed potatoes the next day, and they’ll be almost as good as fresh.  Plus the pots and equipment will already be washed, so you don’t need to do it the day of.)
  • Set table (20 m)
  • Take out serving ware (but careful where you place it – don’t take up counter space yet because you will need it all.)  If you have space, take out all the plates and glasses you’ll need as well. Having to think of this while you’re carving turkey and making sure everything else is hot: not fun.
  • Take out whatever cooking equipment you need for the next day: pot to cook mashed potatoes, potato masher, measuring cup for cream, saute pan for brussels sprouts, pan to re-heat gravy, brush for basting turkey

Day of:

Morning

  • Take turkey out of fridge to bring to room temp, place on roasting pan
  • Peel mashed potatoes, place in pot with cold water

Late morning

  • Roast turkey (3-4 hours, largely unattended. Needs to rest 30-45 minutes after done)
  • Cook brussels sprouts if you haven’t already done it (30 m)
  • Place gravy in pot ready to be re-heated (5 m)
  • Assemble stuffing, bake while turkey is finished cooking and resting (15 m)
  • Cook potatoes and mash (20 minutes active time)
  • Clean up kitchen and set up for buffet

To serve:

Before you carve the turkey, you want to make sure the gravy is heating, the mashed potatoes are covered and simmering over a pot of water, and the brussels sprouts aren’t cold.

To cook the stuffing, you can place it in the oven while the turkey is resting, along with the sweet potato bake.

  • Carve turkey
  • Line all the dishes up buffet style

Eat and ENJOY.

To pull off a good dinner party, you need a focused plan.  You need a clean kitchen.  You need to think through what you’ll need so that you’re not running around like a crazy person the day of. You need to delegate (make someone else peel those damn potatoes!) You need to set the table the day before, not 45 minutes before your guests arrive.

Look out for Thanksgiving recipes next week.  And I’ll write more on how to do a plated dinner party for 6-12 – which is another beast you can’t pull off without some serious organization.

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