I have fond memories of holiday dinners at my grandma’s house, where she fed about 20 people a lovely meal each year. Everything was perfectly prepared and timed. The table was always beautifully set, and cleanup seemed a breeze. I often wonder how she managed it all. Although I am still not able to fully replicate her holiday meals, I’ve started to do a few things that make entertaining a little easier and more enjoyable.
It sounds elementary, but actually writing down the list of people you’re hosting, including children, is a good place to start. Once your list is complete, begin to think about seating. Will you need to move a table from another room or borrow a table from a neighbor to accommodate everyone? Do you have enough chairs?
Take a quick inventory of your dinnerware, silverware, cloth napkins, and place mats to make sure you have enough of each and that everything is in good condition. If there are things you need to buy, shop early while the selection is good.
Start planning your menu. If it seems ridiculous to start thinking about what you’re serving for Thanksgiving 21 days from now, it’s not. A holiday dinner is not your typical dinner and requires extra planning to do well. Think about everything from appetizers to dessert and start to compile your recipes.
As your food choices crystallize, make a note about how long things will take to cook. If you’re making a turkey and only have one oven, there won’t be adequate space to cook six other dishes simultaneously. Will there be things you can make ahead of time, or do some dishes not require oven space?
Once you’ve selected your appetizers, entree, side dishes, sauces and dessert, begin compiling your shopping list. Write down everything you’ll need for each recipe, including quantities, and compare your list with what’s already in your cupboard so you don’t overbuy. Don’t forget to include beverages, alcoholic and nonalcoholic, caffeinated and noncaffeinated, and fresh flowers.
Go grocery shopping for everything on your list that can be bought in advance. The stores are a zoo the day or two before a holiday, so shop early to avoid frustration and long lines. Keep a separate list of things you’ll need to run out to buy the day before. If your turkey is frozen, be sure you have space in your refrigerator to thaw it. Read the directions on the package when you buy it, but on average it takes one day for every four pounds.
Take time to set the table(s) the night prior. Or, if you’re serving your meal buffet-style, put out stacks of dinner plates, salad plates, bowls and silverware. Having everything out the night before means less work the following day and gives you a little cushion in case you realize that you’re short two water glasses or don’t have a gravy bowl.
Keep it simple. You will have to clean everything you put on your table, so choose wisely. Placecards are not required, but they can be fun and are useful for eliminating guest indecision just when you’re ready to serve food.
Organize all of your platters and bowls, along with serving utensils, in one area so you’re not scrambling to find a dish for those piping hot mashed potatoes. And, if you’re cooking a turkey or other type of meat, dig out the roasting pan, meat thermometer and baster that you haven’t seen in a year.
Clear away all the clutter on your countertops. You’ll need the space for food preparation, and you don’t need your relatives reviewing your credit card statement. Place fresh flowers in their vases and arrange.
Start the day with a clean kitchen and begin preparing foods earlier than seems necessary, especially if you’re attempting a few new recipes. But first and foremost, think about how long your main dish needs to cook and plan around that. If you’re serving turkey, look at the directions to make sure it’s ready to go in the oven in plenty of time and keep in mind that it will have to sit for a while after you take it out of the oven. Chill white wine and beer and make sure you have enough ice on hand for mixed drinks and water. Clean as you go and run the dishwasher when necessary.
Set up a space where guests can grab a drink and easily refill their glasses later. Put out an ice bucket or bowl and tongs, bottle openers and cocktail napkins, as well as all necessary glassware. Double-check that the glasses are spotless and open a couple of bottles of wine.
Take out appetizers and cocktail napkins, but don’t put everything out at once. Have your reserves at the ready, so you can refill as needed.
Make sure the guest bathroom is clean and stocked with hand towels or paper napkins, hand soap, and extra toilet tissue. If you have a coat closet, make sure there are hangers inside and enough room for everyone’s coat. If you don’t have a coat closet or can’t clear yours out sufficiently, set up a portable hanging rack in a space your guests can access, but away from the main entertaining space, if possible.
Select your music and have it playing when your first guest arrives. This is a detail usually left until the last minute, but when you’re welcoming guests and serving drinks, it becomes hard to sneak away and tinker with electronics.
Buy some disposable containers, so that if people are willing to help out by taking food home, you’ll be able to package it up quickly and easily. Empty your dishwasher before guests arrive.
If you’ve been to a dinner party where everything seems to happen with little or no planning, the exact opposite is probably true. Spontaneity can be fun when you’re entertaining, but preparedness will make the party even more enjoyable.
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Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.