How To Make a Prep List for a Big Dinner Party

published Nov 20, 2012
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I really like the idea of big dinner parties, be it hosting Thanksgiving or inviting friends for Saturday dinner. I imagine everyone gathered together, looking sparkly and fancy, sipping cocktails before sitting down to a table of good food and conversation. But the reality is slightly more chaotic at my house, particularly that last hour before the guests arrive. I’ve found that the only way to both save my sanity and have a good time is to make a Big Bad Master Prep List.

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To save sanity, make a Master Prep List for your dinner party. (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I fully recognize and accept that I am your typical Type A organizational fiend. I have a feeling that the following words of advice will speak most clearly to my detail-oriented kindred. If all this seems like overkill to you, three cheers! You are probably a much more relaxed and confident dinner party host than I am. For the rest of us, there are lists.

The Week Before The Party: Pick Your Recipes

Be firm with yourself and try not to waffle with your decisions. I recommend a good mix of easy-peasy recipes and tried-and-true favorites. Make no more than one recipe that you would categorize as “challenging” or that you’ve never made before. Decide what drinks you will serve. Make note of any recipes or parts of recipes that you can do ahead.

One to Three Days Before The Party: Go Shopping

Make your shopping list, check it twice, then head out to the store. Except in the case of buying very fresh meat or seafood, my advice is to split the grocery shopping and the dinner-making into two separate days. If there were any recipes or parts of recipes you could do ahead of time, now is the time to make that happen.

The Day Before the Party: Make Your Master Prep List

Sit down with your recipes and a clean sheet of paper. Work backwards from the time when your guests will arrive. Read through every recipe and break each one down into the specific tasks that need to be done at specific times. Don’t forget to make note of prep time, cooking time, and resting time. Check on baking temperatures; you don’t want to get caught with two dishes going into the oven that cook at different temperatures. Ditto with the number of stovetop burners being occupied at any particular moment.

But most importantly, give yourself some wiggle room. Just in case. Also, if you’re like me, don’t forget to schedule in time to shower and put on your fancy clothes before guests arrive.

The Day of The Party: Go Time!

Tape your schedule to a cupboard and get to it. The aim is to have everything in a state of readiness by the time your guests arrive. This way, you can actually hang out with them without feeling pulled back into the kitchen. You can do it. I have confidence in you. Trust your Master Prep List.

Here is a basic template for the hours leading up to a dinner party. I usually work out the schedule for one recipe at a time, starting with the most complex or labor intensive, and then adding the tasks for simpler or make-ahead recipes where they fit. Once prep time actually hits, this schedule can be used like a check list to make sure each task gets done.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Master Prep List


Early Afternoon [Set the table; prepare dessert; other do-ahead tasks]

3:00 [Set out mise en place for recipes; dice vegetables; marinate meat; thaw frozen stock; etc]




4:00 [Cook vegetables to reheat later; start soups; assemble side dishes; preheat the oven; finish desserts; etc.]




5:00 [Simmer sauces; boil potatoes; start roasting meat; etc.]




6:00 [Finishing touches; puree soups; check seasonings; boil pasta and rice; etc]



Guests Arrive!

Last Minute Dinner Prep [Pull roasts from oven to rest; re-heat side dishes; finish sauces; etc.]

Dinner is Served

Tasks to Add Wherever They Fit:

• Set the dinner table
• Make space for drinks and appetizers
• Take a shower and get dressed


More On Dinner Party Planning:
• How to Throw a Dinner Party: 25 Ideas, Tips, and Resources
• Throw a Stress-Free Dinner Party: 5 Tips

My Top 10 Tips for Hosting a Dinner Party

Entertaining: Make Ahead Tips for Dinner Parties

18 Real Life Menus from My Dinner Party Journal