Okay, not that any of my close friends will be surprised, but I confess that I write to-the-hour (maybe quarter-hour) plans for big food days. Why, other than to appease my control freak nature, would one write a cooking play book?
Because this home-chef doesn’t want to forget something important or force house guests to fill up on decorative walnuts while waiting for the still-raw turkey to transform from an icy, netted bird to a glorious glowing Fifty Shades turkey.
Oh, and because it can seem stressful to plan a big meal.
Various magazines and home-maker websites fill their pages with strategies, plans, and lists for accomplishing the next glorious dinner party. But if you’re not plating a sumptuous Sunset-style Thanksgiving cocktail party for your 50 closest friends, and you’re actually responsible for just one of a brigade of home-chefs converging on your home with hot pans and platters, then this will be a little more helpful.
First, RELAX. It’s just one meal. Thirty minutes into eating, everyone will forget the stress of setting it up.
Second, grab a large piece of paper and start mapping out the “who’s bringing what and when” of the menu.
If you’re following a typical Thanksgiving menu for your clan, list out the food item and leave space to assign someone to it. If your party is filled with people bringing multiple items or can’t exactly tell what the dish is, you might want to sort by the person’s name, then by the dish. Either way, I recommend listing out the general categories (meat/turkey, potato, vegetable side, vegetable side, pie, etc) to make sure everything is covered. That way you won’t sit down Thursday night and wonder where the gravy is.
Don’t forget to assign a time for when you want the guests to arrive with their food offering, and agree with each other whether or not they’ll cook or finish the item in your kitchen, or if they should bring it ready-to-eat. (RTE means more things on your counter, but fewer things in your oven or on your range)
After you’ve assigned menu items and responsible parties, make a sub-menu for the items you’re cooking. While you’re writing it out, keep a separate paper for a shopping list, and jot things down as you’re drafting your list. Then decide which day you’ll go shopping. Don’t forget the list.
I also write an equipment list and a dish list. One restaurant I worked for actually labeled the serving dishes for each item and would put the serving spoon/fork with that dish. Then as the cooks had items ready to serve, they knew which dish to use. Easy peasy, and the cook didn’t have to seek the catering captain to find out how something should be plated.
Third, assign a time for dinner/eating time. How about a normal dinner time, like 5 or 7 pm? It always baffled me when a meal time of 4 pm or 2 pm was selected. Who normally eats at those times?
Fourth, write your timeline backwards, starting with the time that you’ll be sitting down and working backwards by the hour. Use real times, not minute times. Instead of “45 minutes before dinner” say “4:15.” Then anyone reading your list can see your progress, and you’ll know if you’re “in the weeds” pretty easily.
Incorporate a cocktail time, a guest arrival time, and an oh-crap buffer, in case you have to dash to the supermarket. Don’t forget to work all the way back to wake-up time and incorporate any last-minute cleaning or organization you might want to do. Work back past “game day” to “thaw-the-turkey” day, which should be started at least 36 hours before you want to roast it. Nothing worse than trying to bake a frozen turkey. Buzzkill.
Timeline pointer: If you want to pick up the play area (aka living room), leave that to the last possible moment, because it will get refilled with a new layer of playthings as soon as it’s cleared. Better yet, don’t sweat that, because kids coming over will be overjoyed to see toys-ready-to-play (TRTP).
Fifth, hang the list on your refrigerator (yes, you can temporarily cover Christmas pictures and recent artwork), or email it to yourself so you can view it on all your mobile devices. Then reference it a few times to help keep your brain clear and your plan mostly on track.
Sixth, enlist your troops. That’s your partner, your spouse, your kids, your housekeeper (what, don’t you employ one? You should!), whomever.
Assign some of the tasks that your household has taken to other members of your household.
If the kids are old enough, have them organize their toys and only leave out the most important ones. If your partner is old enough, have him/her organize the office or coat closet so there’s a home for purses, bags, coats, scarves, and all the accoutrement the guests will bring.
Finally, nothing will go exactly as planned. The whole mission of a list is to get things out of your brain and onto something reference friendly. Then stop worrying about it. I take pleasure in ticking tasks off the list – try it, perhaps you’ll become addicted, too.
There you go. How a left-brained chef thinks about a dinner party at home. Sans menu.