The Dinner Party: 10 Tips to Make Cooking for Company Fun and Easy

My goal for today’s post is to help you with cooking for company, and to share tips and advice that I've picked up over a couple of decades of hosting home-cooked dinners for groups large and small.

Maybe you'd like to invite a few friends over for a casual dinner at home. Or perhaps you need to scale up a huge meal for a large family reunion. Either way, preparing food for company can be one of the most satisfying things about learning how to cook. It's where you take everything you've learned about cooking and put it all together.

Best of all, throwing a dinner party is a heck of a lot easier on the wallet than eating out, especially in a major metro area like New York where we live. If you do things right, you can cook an entire multi-course dinner for four to six people for less than your portion of the check if you went out to eat.

That’s the good part about cooking for company. The bad part is that cooking for guests can be surprisingly stressful. Not only does the food have to come out right--you have to get the timing and rhythm of the entire meal right as well. If you choose a too-ambitious menu or have a logistical snafu with your preparations, you can really ruin the experience.

One of the primary goals I set when I started Casual Kitchen was to share ideas on how to make cooking less intimidating, less stressful and more fun. So with that goal firmly in mind, I'll share with you some advice that has worked for me over the years on how to make it fun and easy to cook for company:

1) Do Almost Everything Ahead of Time:
One of the best things you can do to make throwing a big dinner an easy job is to do as much of the work ahead of time as is reasonable. Certainly you can do basic, but time-consuming jobs like setting the table long before dinner time. You can make a big salad earlier in the day and have it sitting in the fridge, ready to go.

But let’s think a little bigger here: Can you actually make your main course a day or two ahead of time too?

You certainly can. Certain dinners, like chili, Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce or my own Chicken Mole sauce actually taste better the next day, leaving you only with the staggering responsibility of firing up your rice cooker when the guests arrive. Pasta sauces, like my Pasta Puttanesca, can also be made a day or two ahead of time, and then only the pasta has to be cooked fresh for the guests.

Obviously this logic breaks down at certain points. For example, nobody should serve their friends two-day-old pasta. Or a wilted salad made yesterday. Or guacamole made six hours ago that's turning a distinctly unappetizing brownish color. Some dishes simply must be made fresh. Just don't center your meal around too many of them.

2) Cook Scalable Meals:
We've talked about this concept ad nauseum in this blog, but it remains one of the most time-saving cooking techniques I've found: If you’ve ever made a double batch of anything, you’ll find that for many dishes it does not take twice as much work to make twice as much food. Instead, it's more like 1.2 times as much work to make twice as much food. That’s a huge incremental benefit in terms of food made per unit of work, and this can save you tons of time if you are making a meal for a large group of guests.

Don't make dinner a nightmare of painstaking prep work. Try and find recipes that can be doubled (or even tripled) easily so that you can capitalize on this scale benefit.

3) Write down a Schedule:
If you’re a beginner at hosting dinners, a written schedule is a must. It simply makes the whole event less complicated and less stressful.

Here's what works for me: a day or two before the dinner, I'll write down on a piece of paper a detailed schedule of the logistics of the evening. I'll list when I expect to start the prep work for each dish, when they go into the oven, and even who does which job. This helps me work out all the details of the evening ahead of time, so I can be confident that all the food can be ready at the right time.

When you work out your own schedule, be as detailed as you think you need to be to help you stay organized and on time. When the guests arrive you won't be scrambling.

And don't think that this is a procedure only for beginners. Even though I have years of experience serving dinners to groups of all sizes, I still write down a basic schedule and keep it nearby on the counter for reference. I’m sure this single step has saved me from plenty of dinner party disasters.

4) Bake In Some Margin of Error:
It’s rare that any dinner party comes out perfectly. You’ll inevitably have some problems that come up: a main course that takes longer to make than expected, a side dish that comes out poorly and isn’t fit for guests, a shortage of beer or wine (tragedy!), etc.

So don’t plan on perfection when you map out your dinner. Instead, leave some margin of error for things to go wrong.

Here are a few examples: First, when you’re making up your schedule of events, add a few 10-15 minute blocks of extra time here and there, sprinkled throughout the schedule. This way, even if you get behind in your preparation, you know you’ll never run out of time before the guests show up. Also, be sure to make extremely generous assumptions about how much your guests will eat and drink. If you guess too low and run out of food or booze, the results are catastrophic. But if you overestimate massively and there’s too much food, well, then you have leftovers and you don’t have to cook (or buy beer) for a few days.

Finally, if you're a serious pessimist and you really want to protect yourself from a worst-case scenario, consider making a back up side-dish and have it sitting in reserve, just in case you have some colossal food failure and you need a last minute substitution.

5) Ply Your Guests with Alcohol and Easy-to-Make Starters:
The minute your guests arrive, instantly begin plying them with alcohol, and set out some easy-to-make appetizers for them to nibble on. A simple cheese tray with a few varieties of cheese and an assortment of crackers would be perfect here.

This “plying method” serves a few useful purposes. First, everybody will have more fun. Second, if dinner runs a bit behind schedule, nobody will ever notice. And having some finger foods and various lubricating beverages available for your guests will make them all the more comfortable.

6) Delegate:
In our home, I typically do most of the cooking. But I’m not above outsourcing some responsibilities to Laura, such as making a salad, setting the table, or making a side dish. Another one of her jobs is also to "run interference” for me and protect me from distraction by chatting up our guests and refilling their wine glasses while I do a few finishing tasks in the kitchen.

Think about ways that you might team up with your spouse, kids, or significant other to put dinner on the table.

However, if you live alone, not to worry: you can always…

7) …Exploit Your Friends!
If you didn’t have any friends, you wouldn’t be hosting a dinner party in the first place. So ask one or two if they’d like to come a bit early to pitch in on the cooking. If your friends enjoy cooking or want to learn more about cooking, they’ll probably be pleased to be asked. Of course, be sure to offer sufficient rewards so that it’s worth it to them (free beer always works with me), and don’t give them only the crappy prep work jobs to do. Remember, you want to keep these people as friends, so don’t take me too literally when I say to “exploit” them.

Also, be sure to put some thought into the best ways to allocate jobs and cooking tasks--it can be quite challenging to figure out how to divvy up cooking jobs without turning your cooking space into a complete free-for-all. If you want more advice on this subject, take a look at my series on How to Team Up in the Kitchen.

8) Never Cook a Dish for the First Time for Company:
If there is one rule in this list that you must follow, it is this one. Trying a brand new recipe out on company is a rookie error. There's no other way to say it.

Whenever you try a new recipe, there’s always something unpredictable that happens. The dish takes longer to make than you expected, or there are extra steps that aren’t clearly described in the recipe. And of course, imagine the worst case: what if you make a mistake and the dish comes out totally wrong--or even worse, what if the recipe simply tastes terrible even when made correctly?

Do not do this. There is no greater source of dinner party stress. There are enough things that can already go wrong with a dinner party--don’t add the risk of a failed main course to the list of potential catastrophes.

9) Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew:
Hosting a dinner party is an art that can be done at many levels, ranging from the “Casual Kitchen level” where you concentrate on preparing scalable, straightforward and relatively easy meals, all the way up to the “Martha Stewart level” where you can greet your guests with hand-made party favors, blow your friends away with a flawless meal (set under diffuse lighting of course), and then send everyone home with a hand-crafted wicker basket.

But if you are relatively new to hosting dinner parties, consider leaving the pressed-flower party favors and hand-crafted wicker baskets aside for now. Remember, Martha has a huge staff of people who can do these things for her. You don’t want to put a 20-hour workday in just to nosh with some friends. And if you try for that much overkill in your first attempt, you might be burned out from ever hosting a dinner party the rest of your life.

Instead, concentrate on the important stuff. Will people have enough to eat and drink? Will dinner be ready on time? Should I cook one or two things? No need to wow people with six different appetizers and a seven-course meal. What’s important is the quality time you spend with your friends.

10) Practice:
Our final tip is probably the most obvious one: Practice.

Practice on a sympathetic audience, like your best friends or a few close family members. And start with small groups, maybe dinner for two or three guests to start.

As you grow in cooking experience, you can take on new challenges, like cooking more complex meals with more courses, or hosting larger groups. And that's the fun part about cooking--at every level there are always new things to try, new dishes to cook and new challenges to take on.

This is why one of the best ways to get better at hosting dinner parties is to, well, host dinner parties. Invite a few friends over for dinner, plan a menu, and see how it goes. It’s a great example of outflow, where you give your time and energy to your guests and enjoy their company in return.

Good luck with your future dinner parties! And please feel free to share your experiences (or war stories...) in the comments section below.

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Cookbook Exploitation: How to Get More Mileage Out of Your Cookbooks

Ever since I first addressed "cookbook exploitation" in my How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Cooking article, and then polled some of my favorite bloggers for their favorite cookbook titles, I've been thinking of ways to get more mileage out of my own stash of cookbooks.

For example, has anybody out there actually made every single recipe in one of their cookbooks--or even come close?

Even in my few most favorite "critical few" cookbooks, like Jay Solomon's Vegetarian Soup Cuisine, or my tattered old Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (a sentimental favorite which was a gift from my Mom when I moved out), I've cooked maybe at most 25% of the recipes.

The math is even more discouraging when I think about the cookbooks that aren't in my heavy rotation. We have several cookbooks that we use for just a few recipes each, and there are four or five cookbooks sitting on our shelves that we haven't even delved into at all. They're just sitting there, collecting dust.

This means that across my entire cookbook collection, I'm probably ignoring at least 95% of the recipes available to me.

What a waste!

Ergo, I can get a LOT more mileage out of my existing cookbooks just by stepping out of my comfort zone and making a habit of trying some new recipes here and there.

In that spirit, I hereby declare the month of April to be Cookbook Exploitation Month, where I will try to cook at least one totally new recipe per week from my collection of cookbooks. I'll blog about the new recipes as I go. Join me and exploit your cookbooks, and feel free to leave me a comment on how your new recipes came out.

No more cookbooks collecting dust around here!

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Crockpot Beef Stew

While we're on our crockpot kick, I'd like to share with you a typical, heavy-rotation recipe we make about once a month in our home.

It's nothing spectacular or exotic--it's just a simple, hearty beef stew recipe. We've modified the original recipe by doubling the veggies and slightly reducing the amount of meat in order to make the dish more healthy and lower in fat. You might want to tweak things one way or another depending on your own preferences.

Like most crockpot recipes, it's easy, inexpensive, and guaranteed to satisfy.

Crockpot Beef Stew
(modified from the little recipe book that came with our crockpot)

1 to 2 lbs stew beef, cut into cubes

2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1/8 cup flour

Place the beef in the bottom of the crockpot (try to pick marbled meat with a decent amount of fat content; you can also coat the beef with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil if it’s lean meat). Then, drizzle the Worcestershire sauce on the beef, and then add the black pepper and paprika. Then shake in the 1/8 cup flour. Stir well.

Then, add to the crockpot:
1 1/2 cups of boiling water and 1 beef bouillon cube

1/2 cup red wine
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 bay leaf

Stir well, turn crockpot to the “high” setting, and cover.

Then add:
4-6 potatoes, cut into medium-to-large chunks
6-8 carrots, chopped coarsely
1-2 onions, chopped coarsely
2-3 celery stalks, chopped

Note: Be sure to place most of the carrots and potatoes in the crockpot first (on top of the meat) so that they're in or close to the broth. The onions and celery can cook just fine by steaming on top.

Set crockpot on high for 1 hour, then set to low for 4-5 hours, OR set crockpot on low for 9 hours. Serve with optional rice (or brown rice) if desired.
Note that crockpot recipes typically give you two temperature settings to choose from: One setting will take a really long time to cook, the other setting will take an exorbitantly long time to cook. The shorter setting is perfect for weekends, when you're likely to want to get up late and laze around, and maybe get around to chucking everything in the pot by around noon or 1pm. This way dinner is ready by 5-6pm.

The longer setting is perfect for weekdays, especially if you have a job with long hours or if you have a tough commute. Chuck everything in the crockpot, drag yourself off to that job you can’t wait to retire from, and when you get home nine or ten hours later, dinner is ready and waiting for you!

* All photos courtesy of Laura L. Perrin.

The Crockpot: A Siren Call for Single People

This post was inspired by a good friend of ours who is single and wants to cook more food at home, but he finds himself worn down by the combination of long hours at a Wall Street job and a brutal commute to and from the office. As a result, he tends to find himself stuck picking up take-out dinners most nights each week.

But he bought a crockpot recently--and he's actually happily using it. Happily, because it solves one of the pernicious problems of being a single professional: it pretty much sucks to cook just for yourself.

Think about it: you just finished a long day at the office, then finished a long commute home. And now you have to make dinner from scratch? If you keep a sleep/wake schedule like many of my colleagues, you'll be sitting down for your homemade meal, oh, about fifteen minutes after it's time to go to bed.

Worse, the food preparation time is borne 100% by you. Sure, it’s great to be king when you have somebody to delegate prep work to. But what fun is it to delegate work to yourself?

No wonder take-out can seem so tantalizing when you’re a bachelor or bachelorette.

Which brings me back to the core concept that a crockpot is one of those rare cooking tools that is spectacularly worth owning, especially when you're cooking for one. Think of the cooking logistical problems that are solved by the crockpot:

1) It's easy to make meals in bulk that can be eaten all week long.

2) Sure there's some prep work, but it's usually pretty simple: cut a bunch of stuff up and chuck it in the pot. Set the dial and forget about it for the rest of the day.

3) Instead of having to cook after you get home from work, you can put the food in the crockpot in the morning before you leave. Set the dial on low. When you get home ten or eleven hours later, a healthy and inexpensive dinner is ready and waiting for you.

3) You can be a total novice cook and still make great meals. Crockpot recipes are generally easy and foolproof. And if you have a knack for cooking (but you just don't know it yet) this can be your entry point into more serious cooking down the road.

4) Finally, how much time does it take to microwave a dinner you've already cooked the other day? Sure, you might have to invest a bit of extra time making the recipe initially. But if you can microwave the leftovers a couple of more times that week, the aggregate time (and money for that matter) you've spent feeding yourself over three or four meals will be much less than making three or four separate daily trips to pick up take-out on your way home from work.

The crockpot isn't just for June Cleaver any more. It's the perfect tool for anybody--especially single people--who would like to look forward to a delicious, hot, home-cooked meal after a long day at the office.

I've put below a few helpful links, including a link to the exact crockpot model we have at home (at Also see below for a post I wrote a few months ago that contains an extended list of crockpot recipe resources.

Related Posts:
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How to Be a Satisficer

Have you ever spent a lot of time agonizing over a restaurant menu, hoping to choose something truly exceptional--but when the food comes, you look over at your friend's entree with envy?

Or have you been in the grocery store looking indecisively at twenty-five different brands of sugary boxed cereal, wondering which one will lacerate the roof of your mouth the least?

Have you perused your favorite cookbooks, hoping to try a new dish, and had trouble deciding because too many things sound good to you?

One of the strangely counterintuitive truths of modern life is this: Having a lot of choices actually makes you less happy. Having a few choices is fine--but having forty choices is pure decision-making hell.

And this can be especially true with food. If you're looking at a menu with three or four choices on it, no problema. But take that menu up to 15 or 20 choices and let the agony set in.

With this issue in mind, I'd like to share with you a word first coined by Herbert Simon (the American political scientist and economist), and then popularized by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice.


This word is a somewhat ungrammatical combination of the words "satisfy" and "suffice." And the concept, when I've applied it to decision-making and choosing from a menu of options, has made me a far less miserable person.

If you're haven't heard of satisficing before, let's spend a brief moment defining it. Satisficing can be applied in almost any area of life, but today I want to talk about it mainly in the context of food.

Consider two people, The Maximizer and The Satisficer, going out with a group of friends for dinner. They sit down and begin to peruse the menu.

The Maximizer wants to order the very best thing on the menu.

The Satisficer will order the first sufficiently satisfying thing he sees on the menu.

Let's think through what happens next:

The Satisficer quickly picks something, and ends his internal mental discussion about what to order almost instantly. He can now join the conversation and have a relaxing, enjoyable evening. Because the Satisficer didn't try to order the best thing on the menu, he is unlikely to be disappointed no matter what happens. He has no attachment to the outcome of what he chose; in fact he might be in for a pleasant surprise at how good his entree is.

Not so for the Maximizer. Because he wants to get the best thing on the menu, he has to consider practically every dish. His decision-making takes significantly more time and effort. Worse, after he's made his agonizing decision, he's likely to waste energy worrying that he actually didn't order the best thing on the menu. He might even look over at the Satisficer's entree and think to himself, "dammit, his looks better than mine!"

After all of this extra effort, he unfortunately suffers the worst irony of all: he will likely end up less happy with his choice.

When I finished reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, I remember thinking how much time I wasted over the past 30-plus years just trying to make up my mind. And it's only brought me more misery.

So consider applying a little satisficing the next time you're out in a restaurant. Think of it as the Eleventh Rule for the Modern Restaurant-Goer.

And then consider other ways to apply it in cooking. It should make menu preparation and recipe selection at home far easier and far less time-consuming. And certainly when you're choosing between brands or categories of food ("Hmmm... which of these 35 kinds of cheese/ice cream/chocolate/etc., should we have with dinner tonight?"), using the satisficing approach should save you a lot of stress and decision-making time.

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