Are you planning to make a big meal, either for guests, or even just your family? First time? Or if not, have you made big meals in the past, but found some hot dishes went cold by the time they got to the table? Or dishes that need to be cold or frozen went room temperature? Here are some tips to synchronize the completion of dishes so that each dish gets served at just the right temperature at the right time. It takes practice and strategy to master this, and some good time management skills.
Planning the meal ahead of time strategically
- Cold or room temperature dishes – If meal components can be made/prepped hours or a day ahead of time and refrigerated (or left out covered), that’s the best thing to do. Really! Salads, soups, hors d’oeuvres, side dishes, desserts, and even the main course, in some cases. Some dishes can be plated or on the table 15-20 mins before serving. Those that must be very cold can be put in the serving dishes in the refrigerator, covered, and then taken out immediately to the serving table. Some room temperature dishes can be on the table even earlier than 30 mins, such as nuts, crackers or certain dried fruit (unless you have some “mice” in the house).
- Hot dishes – Hot dishes need to be baked or reheated so the baking/reheating time ends no more than 5-10 mins before serving time in most cases, unless you have chafing dishes or hot pots. Dishes that will cool quicker than 5 mins can be on the table with lids or foil to trap in the heat, with the coverings removed right before eating. Meats like chicken, turkey, roast beef, pork, veal, fish or seafood usually do best baked/roasted/cooked so they are just done minutes before serving. Poultry and meats often need to rest outside the oven for 10 mins or so (covered) before serving, to rest. Fish and seafood are best served immediately upon cooking completion. Miscalculating times or overcooking can be disastrous.
- When multiple hot dishes need to be cooked and served at approximately the same time – Having a stove with multiple burners makes cooking or reheating stove top dishes easy as long as you create and follow a chart of cooking/completion times. When you need to have more than one dish baked or roasted, either two ovens are needed (or use of a grill, if applicable), or you have to plan strategically. Can the dishes be baked/roasted at the same temperature for all or some of the time? Can a dish be partially microwaved and then put in the oven for just a small amount of time to “crisp up”? Can one or two dishes (like casseroles) be baked and refrigerated ahead of time and then just reheated 15-30 mins before serving? Can a guest bring a hot dish that just needs minor reheating at the last minute? These are some questions to ask yourself.
When to start everything?
Again, if anything can be prepared, prepped, and/or cooked the day before or morning of, then definitely do it/them then. That’s a huge time saver, reduces oodles of stress, and helps ensure success. Balance out the dishes between cold and/or room temperature dishes, and hot dishes. Of the hot dishes, pick ones that have a place to be heated, and are maybe quick or easy to prep. Make sure some can be unattended while you attend to others. Four pots on the stove may require four spoons, but one person only has two hands.
If you must prepare or cook multiple things the same day, then make sure you have enough time for the longest cooking item to be finished by the time you want that item served. If it is a turkey and takes 3 hours, then start preparing other things at a time that allows all things to be completed by the deadline time. If handling all of the other things (prep, refrigeration and/or cooking) exceeds the 3 hour turkey roasting (assuming the 3 hour item needs little tending to), then you’ll have to start the work more than 3 hours before the main course is to be served. Prep can’t be done for more than one item at a time unless you have two or more chefs in the kitchen (which is nice), but cooking time does provide for extra time for the prep of other dishes. There are some serious calculations to do if you take on too many things in too limited of a time. Believe me, it’s possible to multi-task, but make sure you get your calculations right, and don’t have a nervous breakdown at the end of it. Create a schedule with times, and set timers and alarms accordingly.
Setting tables is best done as far in advance as possible for guest meals. If you have to, set the table in the morning for a guest dinner, and have the family eat in the kitchen for breakfast and lunch. Also have dishes and silver ware ready for any hors d’oeuvres, first course and/or dessert. Putting them in a stack on a side table works fine.
Remember that the stress and heat in the kitchen can make you sweat. Reserve time for a shower and/or “beautification”, or have a partner take over while you do that. [Teach them what to do way ahead of time, or write instructions.]
When the guest(s) arrive you may likely need the hors d’oeuvres and drinks either on the table or served immediately upon their arrival. Someone in your household should ideally be with them during this process. Either spouse/partner entertains while you get the drinks and hors d’oeuvres, or the opposite. Reserve time to join in the initial entertainment. You don’t want to be in the kitchen the whole night except when dinner is served. I don’t know about you, but I HATE when guests join me in the kitchen while I’m working up a storm, and the kitchen looks like a tornado went through. They usually want to talk to me when I need to be concentrating on the preparations. Keep them with the spouse/partner in the living room, if you agree.
Newbies to serious guest entertainment should really have mercy on themselves until they’ve gotten practice with more difficult meals. Consider a cold hors d’oeuvres (or none), a dinner with plenty of cold sides prepped way ahead, and a cold dessert (ice cream, chilled cake or pie). Or if some food preparation and cooking is intimidating, don’t feel bad about having some dishes catered or bought from a nice grocery store. Add more ambitious meals after some practice.
After the guests leave, ask your spouse/partner to either help with any remaining clean up, and/or recruit the kids to join the “fun”. Siblings or parents also sometimes ask to help. If you feel comfortable with that, take them up on their offer(s).