Cooking for a Crowd: How To Cook a Stress-Free Feast

Thanksgiving brings out dinner party anxiety in the best of us, but it's really just a heightened version of the more common dinner parties we all throw throughout the year. So how does one plan a Thanksgiving meal — or any other big meal for lots of people? Here are a few thoughts on planning a well-balanced meal and staying (relatively!) unstressed while preparing it. We've done several posts on planning a meal and organizing your thoughts for cooking. Here's a look back at them:

Dinner Party Timing: Five Tips for Cooking a Full Meal
Dinner Party Planning: Scheduling Backward
Entertaining Tips: Get Organized! - With a spreadsheet!

It seems like the planning and then COORDINATING all that planned food on the day of Thanksgiving is what is most daunting to many of you.

Here are some thoughts, which partially recap and also build upon our posts above.

1. Make as much as possible ahead - Give yourself breathing room and empty space with making as much as possible ahead. Potatoes can be made and refrigerated, then baked. You can make cranberry sauce, rolls, salad, and many other dishes for Thanksgiving (or other meals) ahead.

2. Have no more than ONE "tricky" dish to handle at once - If there is something new you're making (a turkey, for instance, or a pie) let that be the ONE experimental or new thing you are handling on the day of the dinner party. Do everything else ahead of time.

3. Schedule backwards, then add an hour - Don't schedule too tightly; if you think you need three hours to prepare, then add an extra hour and make it four.

4. Put your menu (and timeline) where you can see it - Don't keep your menu in your head. This is how we forget green beans and never take the salad out of the fridge until after pumpkin pie. Put your menu somewhere highly visible, with notes on timing, if necessary. We always write our dinner party menu on a whiteboard, right next to where we hang our recipes.

5. Give yourself a moment to get centered before guests arrive - The whole point of a dinner party, of course, is to be with people. So if you're harried and worried leading right up to the time the doorbell rings, it's hard to be present with people. So build in five minutes to go have a glass of wine, light some candles, and powder your nose, if necessary! Even if it means the roast is five minutes late. Your guests would rather have you be warm and less stressed; they'll be more in tune to that than the timing of the food. Honest.

All of these are really common sense solutions, of course. What are your own coping mechanisms for big dinner parties? Any tips for being less stressed? We lean on these methods really hard; the more we do ahead, the happier we are on the day of!

Related: Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Get Ready for Thanksgiving

(Image: Flickr member roland licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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