This is a hard question to answer. This is one of those all-encompassing sets of kitchen wisdom that accumulates over time as we amass more skills, better instincts, and a deeper feel for our favorite recipes.
We are still learning this too! How many times have our dinner preparations run 30, 40 minutes over? How many times have we been half an hour late to the potluck we were catering. (Raise hand sheepishly. Too many to count.)
But through that we have picked up a few tips. The thing is, these are all rather obvious, and you could probably figure them out yourself. These just take practice and an organized mind. You have to think ahead and know the hidden danger spots in recipes (oh oops! I have to DE-STRING all these green beans. 5 minute recipe turns into a 25-minute time suck. Etcetera.).
Here are five steps that we go through when planning a whole meal to be ready at a precise time.
1. Schedule: Work backwards.
First, make a schedule of your evening. If your guests are due to arrive at 7pm and you are getting home from work at 4:30, then work your schedule backwards from 7pm. Actually, work it backwards from 6:45, so you have some breathing room! Then work closely with your recipes to make sure that each fits into that time. If this is your first dinner party please just use recipes you already know.
2. Diversify cooking methods: Broiler, stove, oven, microwave, raw.
Plan your menu around a variety of cooking methods. A classic mistake is to plan a roast chicken, bread, roasted vegetables AND a cake all at the same time. Look carefully through your recipes, and choose a variety of cooking methods. Maybe this means blanching the asparagus instead of serving them roasted. Maybe this means a stovetop pudding with whipped cream instead of baked custard, or steaming your broccoli instead of on the stove - already full up with boiling pasta and simmering ragu.
3. Do ahead, do ahead, do ahead.
If we had to choose just one tip, this would be the one! So many dishes can be done ahead, especially when cooking cool summer and spring menus. The salad and dessert can easily be done ahead - think pretty berries in individual cups with heaps of whipped cream and ginger biscuits on the side, or plated ice cream bombes set up in freezer. (Set up your coffee pot ahead of time too so all you need to do is boil water or push a button.) So many shaved cabbage and green salad options, too - toss a salad, put it in the fridge and it's ready to go. Cook the meat too if you can - a braise does very well made ahead, warmed up on the stove right before you guests come.
4. Don't forget appetizers (and drinks)
Buy yourself a little extra time (just in case) by having a dish of cheese, nuts, and crackers ready ahead of time with the wine already open. Then when your guests arrive you can ease into the evening and do any last minute tasks while they are happily appetizing. Less pressure for you and a nice beginning of the evening for them.
5. Work in a cleaning break
Don't forget to clean as you go; it helps you feel less stressed and more ready to welcome guests. As you work backwards from 7pm (or whenever) don't let your cooking tasks flow right into each other; clean up and take a few moments to clean up as you go. This helps you be more on top of your cooking tasks anyway - more prepared and clear. Also, in small kitchens it's nice to clear as much clutter out of the way as possible!
One extra: Set the table first. If you're sitting around a table with guests, set the table before you start cooking. It helps you get in a good frame of mind and lets you work towards a psychological goal. Also, your guests walk into a kitchen or dining room that is obviously prepared for them. It doesn't help get the cooking done, but it does help you - especially if you run over a bit!
What are some other tips for juggling an entire meal and having it ready on time?
Related: Cooking Without Recipes