Learn how Cooking Light helped one reader host a dinner party with less stress and more flavor.
Easy Entertaining
Credit: Randy Mayor; Styling: Jan Gautro

Problem: An Arizona reader struggles to cook and serve entrées and sides at the same time for company.

Strategy: We make preparing multiple dishes manageable with two menus that prove the value of planning.

For Janis Milham, 47, mother of Kate, wife of Allen, and a hotel general manager in Scottsdale, Arizona, entertaining is about "community and conversation." But when she's cooking for company, she often feels harried. "I'm always doing everything last minute and don't have time to be with my guests," Milham says. "I'd like to know how to do it with less stress and have everything get to the table at once."

It's a common dilemma for hosts. Successful entertaining depends on careful planning and preparation. To set main and side dishes on the table at the same time, Milham will need to choose a manageable menu, partially prepare some dishes in advance, and cook others simultaneously. We've developed two menus that put these principles to work. We've also provide a recipe for hors d'oeuvres to buy Milham time before dinner. This approach gives her better control of the event, which means less stress, more time with guests, and a more enjoyable evening for everyone.

Logistics Lesson
1. Design a menu that allows dishes to be cooked at different times–some in advance, some later. Avoid tackling too many cooking chores at once or preparing all the dishes in a rush just minutes before dinner.

2. Devise a game plan. Read recipes over carefully to determine when dishes need to be cooked, where they'll cook, and how much space they'll require. Then sketch out a schedule of what needs to be done, who will do it, and when. Taking a few minutes to detail the plan on paper prevents stressful surprises.

3. Organize ingredients. In professional kitchens, chefs call this mise en place–"to put in place." Have ingredients prepped and easily accessible when it comes time to cook last-minute dishes. For instance, have chopped broccoli, sliced mushrooms, and sliced shallots ready by the stove so when it's time to make Sautéed Broccoli and Mushrooms, you stay on schedule.

4. Keep appetites in check. Provide guests with light hors d'oeuvres so they won't be overly hungry or impatient for dinner. The snacks sate them temporarily as you put the finishing touches on the meal.

5. Work ahead whenever possible. Some dishes must be cooked last minute. Others can be prepared in advance and reheated just before serving. And some dishes have components that can be made ahead. You can toss a salad and prepare dressing separately, for instance, then mix them when it's time to serve. The more work you do in advance, the less pressure you'll face as dinner approaches.

6. Use the stove efficiently. Some foods won't require your immediate attention, such as roasts and braises, which frees you to cook other dishes at the same time on the stovetop. Spicy Potato Wedges can cook in the over while you prepare Sautéed Broccoli and Mushrooms and Chicken Breasts with Gorgonzola-Tomato Salsa on two burners, for instance.

Details Make the Difference
Armed with our detailed prep list for the Casual Supper Menu, Milham says the meal came together "faster and better" than her previous hosting efforts. She was pleased to find time to sit for about 20 minutes and chat with guests while the last of the dishes cooked. "The plan and time line really helped." Milham admits that in the past, she hadn't considered the logistics and careful timing involved with cooking multiple dishes. "I learned I really should."

Milham says the menu was "elegant, but not complicated. It was a perfect family dinner. And the broccoli was amazing. It was even easier than steaming broccoli, yet so flavorful." The many vegetables also saved her from making another dish. "I often feel I need to have a salad, but there were plenty of vegetables without one."