April 10, 2014 at 1:15 PM ET
You’ve picked out the perfect recipes, bought all the groceries and handpicked the perfect guests for your dinner party.
Now comes the hard part: getting all the food on the table at the same time—while somehow managing to shower and dress in the process. We asked entertaining gurus how to keep your act together in five easy steps:
1. Prep, prep, prep the night before.
“Isn’t it so weird how students who study tend to do better on tests?” jokes lifestyle expert Brooke Peterson. And just as there are a few outliers who can throw a dinner party together in 15 minutes—like those who never crack a book and ace the final—they are the exception not the rule. “Things get hairy when you’re trying to set the table, stir the beurre blanc and roll out pastry dough with your third hand,” she says.
So, the night before, Peterson recommends cleaning, setting up the bar, selecting a playlist, chopping ingredients, preparing make-ahead appetizers, setting the table and even filling up the coffee pot.
2. Make a timeline.
Another essential strategy: Create a menu timeline, says Cheryl Najafi, lifestyle expert and CEO of CherylStyle.com. Pick a cut-off time for all your cooking, and then work backward, noting the times that you need to prep each dish by and when each should go in the oven. “This helps ensure the dishes finish at the same time,” she says.
Peterson agrees. “I always start at the ‘ta-da’ moment of my dinner party and plan backward, because if that plan starts to look a little, shall we say, ‘challenging,’ then I can adjust the menu or my strategy!”
3. Set a bunch of timers.
Keeping track of what will be done when requires a lot of attention—and quick math.
So buy a bunch of cheap egg timers and try Najafi’s trick: She keeps five kitchen
timers on the counter and writes each dish’s name on a sticky note next to the corresponding timer. When a timer goes off, she knows what’s done or needs additional work. “This works great for a big meal like Thanksgiving, when you have several dishes that require various stages of preparation,” she says.
4. Use that “keep warm” setting.
If your kitchen is fancy enough to have a warming drawer, use it—or the next best thing, the “keep warm” setting on your oven (usually about 200˚). Just make sure to cover your dishes so that they don’t dry out and use the lowest heat possible, Najafi says.
5. Ask for help—before you need it.
Assume that you will need help, Peterson says. “Because answering the door half-dressed while the blah-blah burns and frantically apologizing is a rookie move.” Ask one person to come a bit early—she calls him or her the Very Important Guest—to help with random tasks, and you’ll find that you’re actually dressed an hour early, she says. Plus, she adds, “With the arrival of this guest, you may officially have a glass of wine, because it is now not considered drinking alone!”