Emma's 5 Do-Ahead Tips for Planning a Stress-Free Dinner Party

Emma's 5 Do-Ahead Tips for Planning a Stress-Free Dinner Party

Emma Christensen
Jun 28, 2013

To cap off this week's series on my All-American Beer Bottling Party, I wanted to share some of my best do-ahead tips to — hopefully! — reduce the stress many of us often feel in the days leading up to, and the day of, a big dinner party. I have not always been the world's most calm and collected hostess (...ahem...), and these tips have been hard-earned. But they're easy! More like habits, really. Once I got used to thinking about a dinner party in terms of doing things ahead, the amount of anxiety I felt in anticipation of the party itself disappeared.

1. It starts with planning a time-conscious menu: A stress-free dinner party starts the week or so before with taking a good, hard look at your menu. I wish I could send my younger self a note about this one! Do you have too many dishes that need last-minute work? How many trips to the grocery store (or stores!) will you need to make? Does your "stress-free" menu have you cramming all the prep into the evening before?

When I throw parties like my All-American Beer Bottling Party, I aim for a balance of three types of dishes: dishes that can be made 1 to 3 days ahead, quick-cooking or quick-to-assemble dishes to make the day of the party, and prepared foods that I will pick up locally, like the pie and pretzels for my party. This way, the work is spread out and I never feel overwhelmed at any one time.

2. Chop vegetables the day ahead: I feel like chopping vegetables is the sneaky time-suck for any dinner. A recipe looks like it can be made in an hour...but then you spend an extra 30 minutes on top of that just chopping up the vegetables. This throws off my dinner party game faster than anything else.

Happily, most vegetables can be chopped the day ahead and kept overnight in the fridge. I made all the components for my Chopped Brown Rice Salad the day before my beer bottling party — including making the rice and slicing the grapes — and tossed everything together just before sitting down to dinner. You can do the same with vegetables that will be sautéed, braised, or grilled.

3. Look for easy "Make-Ahead Moments" in recipes: Even if a recipe can't be made entirely ahead, often there are components within the recipe that can be. The shrimp for my Shrimp Tacos and the Honey & Chili Chicken Thighs were both going to be quickly cooked just before serving, but I made the sauces for these respective dishes the day before. Both sauces were easily made in minutes, but having them done and out of the way made me feel less stressed.

Packing up the prepped salad ingredients.

4. Use the freezer to your advantage: I sometimes forget that the freezer isn't only for longterm storage of freezer meals and smoothie ingredients; we can also use it to store foods for just a few days, thereby cleverly extending the number of days we can make things ahead for parties. Fresh pasta, dinner rolls, pie crusts, and even things like soup bases and sauces can all be made at our convenience in the days (or weeks) before the party — ust remember to let these foods thaw overnight before the party!

5. Set the table the night before: This is an old tip of Faith's that I have adopted wholeheartedly. Setting the table the night before or the morning of the party gives you one less thing to worry about. (Bonus: you get a wrinkle-free tablecloth without ironing!) I sometimes extend this idea a little further by setting up the appetizer station, arranging bottles for making cocktails, and even pulling out serving trays that I'll be using and keeping them on the counter.

Tossing the salad components together just before dinner.

Hanging out while waiting for the main dish to cook... woops!

Chicken is ready! Finally!

I cannot emphasize #1 enough. Planning that time-balanced menu is really key to the whole party coming together without a host meltdown.

This said, there are always things you can't anticipate — like, the dinner at my beer bottling party was late because I forgot to preheat the oven — so my last tip is really just to give yourself a break. I know very few people (myself included) who don't get stressed out at some point while throwing a dinner party. But you know what? It's fine. The party will be just fine. I always remind myself that if the worst happens and dinner is ruined, we can always order pizza and grab some more beers.

What are your best tips for throwing a stress-free party? I love to hear them!

Photography: Danielle Tsi

(Images: Danielle Tsi)

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