7 Rules for Cooking a Multi-Course Meal with Confidence

updated May 12, 2022
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

In the past few months, we’ve covered several common cooking fears — from food safety to pressure cookers — that keep people from attempting recipes in the kitchen. But today let’s talk about something that happens once you get comfortable in the kitchen and actually start cooking a meal; a full meal, made of multiple dishes.

Chances are, if you’ve ever attempted a big dinner party or holiday gathering, you’ve come across this scenario: You decided to make a multi-course menu with some dishes that require cooking in the oven, others that need your full attention, and then a few that must be made right when the guests arrive.

You’ve planned and prepped, set a timeline, and so far, everything is looking just swell. Then guests start to arrive. You remember you need to start sautéing onions for the side of chard, or get called away to grab another roll of paper towels, and that’s when it hits — the familiar burnt smell of something gone awry. And you realize that one (or several) of those planned dishes cooked too long or went to a place of no return.

This is the scary truth about cooking several recipes at once: the timing is tricky. But don’t let fear keep you from attempting a multi-course meal (or attempting to host Thanksgiving dinner) — just use the tricks below to keep track of your dishes, and in turn avoid stress, smoke, or making an S.O.S. takeout order.

(Image credit: Kristin Teig)

Use Timers

This seems obvious, but seriously — don’t rely on your brain to remember that the chicken is in the oven, the pasta is boiling, and that you need to take the wine out of the freezer before it explodes. Chances are you will forget something and have a mess to clean up (on top of all the cooking you have to do). So set timers for each dish or to-do item on your list, label those timers, and then listen for the various dings to keep you on track.

Take Stock

Nothing will crimp your cooking like forgetting something, whether it’s an essential ingredient, the roasting pan, or letting your beans soak overnight. So scan recipes at least one day ahead to make sure you know what you need. That includes rearranging the oven racks according to the size of your dishes and roasting needs. And here’s what to do when you do forget something on the ingredient list.

Prep Ahead

Cut down the “active time” in recipes by doing as much chopping, slicing, and measuring ahead of time. That way, you’ll move fluidly through a recipe and are less likely to, say, get distracted by dicing garlic and forget that your oil is heating on the stove.

Choose Recipes Wisely

When making several dishes at once, stay sane by choosing recipes that require very little of your attention. This mean making dishes which can be made a day ahead and cook in one pot, let the oven do all the work, or can sit in a slow cooker until you’re ready to serve. Recipes that are mostly raw and require no cooking are great, too.

Line It Up

Take out the measuring cups and spoons, spatulas, pots, and serving dishes. This way, when you need to drain the pasta, you won’t be hurriedly looking for the colander and letting those noodles overcook.

Cheat a Little

Don’t feel guilty about using some ingredients (rotisserie chicken, pre-chopped onions, tomato sauces) that come cooked or prepped and ready to use. When it comes to making multiple dishes, the prepared food aisle is your friend. Choosing prepped ingredients (or even an entire course, like dessert) will cut down on both your active cooking time as well as your potential risk for distraction.

Let Guests Help

The easiest way to overcome multiple-dish anxiety is to get others involved. That may mean creating a build-your-own buffet bar for the main course, letting guests assemble their own dishes from prepped ingredients, or asking people to contribute to the appetizer or dessert spread. In sum: Manage multiple dishes by dishing out some of the work.