Whether you’re celebrating Easter, Passover, or a non-secular long weekend, cooking dinner for a crowd can be stressful. If you’ve never done it before, or you’re still feeling a little shell-shocked from trying to host 20-plus family members over the holidays, don’t panic! There are lots of little tweaks you can make to manage your cortisol levels. Follow these simple tricks and your spring feast will go off without a hitch.
Go with what you know
A big family dinner is no time to experiment; leave the mini artichoke quiches to quiet nights with loved ones or a small, close group of girlfriends. When you’re testing something new on a big crowd, you don’t only risk disappointing more people, but you’re also adding unnecessary stress to an already trying situation. Of course it’s always nice to stray from overdone casseroles and serve something new and unexpected—just make sure you give the dish a test run a few weeks in advance. And if you are sticking to something classic, you might want to practice a party-sized version ahead of time to ensure you have your portions down.
Ask about diets
You don’t want to hear that your niece recently turned vegetarian or that Uncle Sal’s been diagnosed with celiac disease as you’re setting the table. To avoid hungry guests—and an awkward moment—ask if there are any dietary restrictions you should know about when you’re sending out invites. If there are, it’s not a death sentence for your menu. To appease any vegetarians, keep your side dishes meat-free—the carnivores will get their fill from the main anyway. As for the gluten-free folks, naturally gluten-free foods like root vegetables are always best. But to ensure they can indulge in all the fixins, use flour substitutes like Cup4Cup and BetterBatter to thicken gravy and pie crusts.
There’s no doubt you’ll be planning your menu and shopping for ingredients ahead of time, but don’t stop there! Take the opportunity to chop or shred your vegetables a day or two before (they’ll be fine in the fridge), set the table early (you’re probably using special silverware and tablecloths anyway), and do some baking for a few low-maintenance desserts. There are lots of simple ways to make sure you have enough time and headspace to handle the main and entertain your guests at the same time. Plus, it’s always satisfying to cross a few things off your list before you’ve officially started.
No one likes to show up to a dinner empty handed, so go ahead and ask your guests to bring something. It will take the guesswork out for them, some of the workload off of you, and leave everyone feeling less stressed. It can also reduce waste, since there’s no chance of three people showing up with the same dessert. For family and friends who are kitchen-challenged—or maybe a little less reliable—put them to work with a few simple but time-consuming tasks like slicing citrus fruit for drinks, filling water glasses, or covering up leftovers.
Stick to low-maintenance dishes
Choose recipes that won’t have you chained to the stove—you are the host after all, and you might need to wander away from the kitchen from time to time. Roast chicken, turkey, pork, and even fish are great options, but an entrée you can bank is even better. A braise or stew generally tastes better after it’s had some time to sit, so you can make either of these long before your guests have arrived, and maybe even the night before.
Don’t stress just because you have a small kitchen or you’re missing a certain tool. There are often alternate ways of doing things if you exercise a little creativity. For example, did you know that you can use your dishwasher to scrub a huge pile of potatoes? Or have you ever considered using your slow cooker to keep them warm once they’re done? Thinking outside the box can also come in handy if you find yourself missing something at the last minute. Without a roasting rack? Crumple some sheets of tinfoil into a thick spiral lining your pan, or use a bed of halved onions, carrots, and celery for a little extra flavour. If you’re planning to make biscuits but don’t have any metal cookie cutters, the rim of a wine glass will do just fine.
Keep the kids entertained
A good playlist and a few simple hors d’oeuvres are all you really need to keep the adults satisfied while dinner is cooking. Children, on the other hand, may need a specific task to tie them over. Stock a separate room with art supplies—markers, crayons, Play Doh, construction paper, scissors—and tape newspaper to the floor to keep things tidy. If it’s an Easter celebration, make the craft space holiday-themed with pastel-coloured supplies and eggs. For a simpler and sometimes more helpful way to keep the kids busy, try assigning them hosting tasks. Whether it’s taking people’s drink orders or serving dishes, kids love to role play.
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