Stressless Entertaining: An Ode to Planning

Between now and December 26th I’m have a slew of major entertaining activities on tap. I’m going to:

  • Organize a Thanksgiving potluck in another city and do all of my cooking for it in my mother’s kitchen
  • Throw an open house for 75 people (give or take a few) that I’m catering myself
  • Figure out ho to surprise my husband for his birthday
  • Make Christmas Eve dinner for 10 or 12
  • Serve Christmas morning brunch while we open presents
  • Make Christmas dinner after the tornado of unwrapping has passed

Looking at this list on it’s own it’s not particularly daunting. However, when I put it in the context of real life, things get a lot more…interesting. In and among all of this entertaining I’m going to:

  • Run a half marathon (and possibly begin training for a full marathon)
  • Travel out of town three weeks in a row
  • Attend local food events and other holiday parties
  • Continue to play mom’s taxi as the winter semester trucks right on along
  • Blog (every day for a month in November in fact)
  • Support my non-profit
  • Buy and wrap Christmas presents
  • Plan for every meal in and amongst my entertaining fun
  • Hang out with my great family
  • Work
  • Sleep
  • Run

You know, just a few things here and there.

All of a sudden my original list has the potential to be daunting. But, it’s not because of my secret stressless entertaining secret weapon: a good plan.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Plan

While making a plan may sound like the most tedious and least interesting part of throwing a great party, it’s really the key to making every part of a party fun and easy. When I have even a general idea of how I’ll get each dish made, when things need to go into the oven, what serving pieces you need, and of course what to buy at the grocery store the whole process is a million times easier. The plan also helps me figure out if the menu I’ve put together is actually doable in the time I have. That’s a particularly useful bit of information I’d rather have up front instead of the day my guests are going to arrive.

I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a planning freak. I use multi-tab spreadsheets as my planning tool but that’s my own personal, ah, idiosyncrasy. A notebook, dry-erase board, Everynote notebook, or even random scraps of paper can all be vehicles for a plan. What matter is the act of planning. A good plan isn’t about the format, it’s about the components, and the ones I always think through are:

  • The party size and theme. Planning a dinner party is very different from an open house or a BBQ. I like to think about the kind of experience I want to create for guests and all of the elements are tied to that idea.
  • The guest list. The mix of adults and children, special diets, and other guest-related considerations are always at the top of my mind as I think about the time of the party and the menu.
  • The menu. Figuring out all the goodies I’ll put on the table is my favorite part of party planning and if I’m not careful I’ll tinker with it for weeks on end. As important as the combining the right flavors and textures on a menu is picking the right combination of preparation techniques. A solid mix of dishes that can be prepped ahead along with those that need some last-minute love help me avoid the need to stop cooking and start trying to figure out how to clone myself.
  • The timeline. Probably the most tedious part of the plan, figuring out when I’ll do everything from buy the wine to set the table and of course prep each dish is critical to the plan. For a simple dinner party this might only take 15 minutes or so. For my big holiday party it’s a good hour long activity. Over the years I save my plans so I have timelines from past years to start with which really helps speed things along.
  • The grocery list. Because there’s nothing worse than realizing I don’t have enough flour, butter, chicken stock, or any other ingredient when I’m in the midst of party prep.

Obviously the size of the party has a big impact on the complexity of the plan. So even though a plan for a casual diner with friends may only take 45 minutes or so to put together, I still think through all of these pieces and parts even if only briefly.

Tonight I spent a healthy chunk of time making a first pass at the plans for Thanksgiving and my holiday open house, even though both are several weeks away. When I looked at all I have to do in my everyday life and what I’d like to do for these parties I realized I’ll need to spend most of this coming weekend baking for my holiday open house. If I can get most of the dessert table handled I’ll have a great head-sart on my party. The weekend after Thanksgiving I’ll have a big cooking day and on the day of the open house I’ll be able to run in the morning, enjoy lunch with my, and then finish the food before guests arrive — all without stress and all thanks to my plan.

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