Feeling rusty or just a little shy when cooking for others? Here’s your plan for guaranteed success.

Having folks over for a meal—whether it's neighbors, in-laws, or that cool friend who's a great cook—can bring on a slew of self-doubt. Plus, we're all out of practice after so many months in pandemic-related isolation. Here are 8 shortcuts and tips for regaining your confidence in the kitchen, from how to plan your meals to taking advantage of appliances like that slow cooker. You got this!

1. Don't apologize in advance

Food offered with love at your home will always satisfy and make even your fussiest foodie pal happy. Don't extend your invite with a caveat that "It won't be as good as your food," or "we aren't as fancy as you are," or "I hope this will be okay." You just set yourself up to be worried, and you make your friends feel like they somehow have made you feel as if they are judgmental about you. No one is writing a Yelp review of your dinner party, so don't ever feel the need to pre-lower expectations.

2. Do lean into your skills

You know what you do well, so make sure you rely on that. If you are better on the grill than the stovetop, or you are a great cook but not much of a baker? Focus your energy on the stuff you really know how to do! If you know you make a killer meatloaf? Make that. Are there old tried and true family recipes? Make your Nonna proud and serve her Sunday gravy or pull out Aunt Nani's chicken and rice. 

3. Make what you can, buy what you can't make

Anyone can make a big salad, but if you don't usually make your own dressing, buy a bottled one you love. If you love to bake bread or desserts and do it all the time? Go for it! If not, hit up a local bakery for your rolls and sweets. Are you better at mains than side dishes? Roast a chicken, pork loin, or a leg of lamb, and buy great sides at a local deli or restaurant. 

Credit: Getty / istetiana

4. Slow cooking is your friend

Dishes that cook a long time, whether a braise, soup, or stew are terrific for those times when you are feeling unsure. Using a low oven, slow cooker, or even sous vide machine to ensure that you are not worried about something being overcooked or having to check it every five minutes will make you a much more relaxed host. Even better? These dishes are often one-pot style meals, needing only a salad and some bread to round them out. You can focus on making that one great dish and not fuss about a bunch of sides and extras.

5. Think grazing and snacking menu if you really can't cook

We all love a small-plates restaurant, or a terrific heavy-apps cocktail get-together. And most of the things you eat at those times can be bought and assembled at home instead of cooked from scratch! You can go to your local Middle Eastern or Italian deli and buy most of the items already made. Think about a great cheese and charcuterie platter, vegetables with different dips, some breads and spreads. Maybe some small skewers of things, some salads. Add some olives, pickles, fruit and cookies or other sweets and you have a whole meal of great grazing style nibbles and all you had to do was put everything out! 

6. Keep sides simple

Make easy baked white potatoes instead of fussy gratins. Roast a bunch of vegetables together instead of several different sides. Use a rice cooker to make foolproof rice that will stay hot in the cooker until mealtime. Keep your focus on the main and let the rest just be easy to fill in the plate.

7. Cold dishes help with time management

Serving some things not hot—green salads, slaws, pasta salads, room temp grilled or roasted vegetables—will allow you to work in advance. Just put them out at mealtime, and you won't have to juggle a bunch of hot dishes to pull them all together at the same time. This is a key stress reducer! 

8. Make your main in advance

Braises, curries, tagines, stews, and chilis all taste better the next day or even two days later! Pick a main like one of these that you can make in advance, so that you just have to reheat. Bonus? If something does go wrong? You have time to pivot and make something else and no one will be the wiser!