Friday, December 21, 2012

0 Holiday Entertaining 101: Easy Ideas to Help You Simplify Your Holiday Food Prep

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I wrote the below excerpt (as a draft post) a while ago with the intention of covering the topic of entertaining in general. However, since it's now the holiday season, now seemed like the perfect time to post it. :)

Whether you’re just having a few friends over to watch the game, throwing a birthday bash, inviting guests over for dinner, or hosting a cocktail party, entertaining doesn’t have to be stressful or scary. There are a few, very easy things you can do to ensure that your event will be a smashing success. For starters, let’s first cover some general entertaining tips, and then we’ll get into some specific, event-related food preparation tips.

First of all, no matter what the event or what happens during the event, hosting is all about putting your guests at ease and making them feel welcome. As guests, we all know which kind of hosts and hostesses we tend to gravitate towards – the ones who are kind, considerate, relaxed, gracious, and confident, and can roll with the punches. And, should things go awry, as they sometimes do, they can still laugh at both the situation and themselves. People can forgive almost any party mishap if it’s accompanied by a good sense of humor.

In general, the keys to successful party planning are simple: (1) prepare well in advance, and (2) keep the party prep as quick and easy as possible.

Unless you’re an advanced level chef with a lifetime of culinary experience, now’s not the time to test out that elaborate recipe you’ve always wanted to try. Save the creative experimentation for another time, i.e., for when you can unhurriedly test out your dishes ahead of time in a relaxed atmosphere. And, be sure that any recipe trial runs (and tastings!) are done well before the day of your event. That way, you can work out the kinks beforehand and serve your guests in a timely fashion. As a result, you’ll feel relaxed and confident about the preparation and presentation of the food you’ll be serving to your guests.

The reality is that you’re not going to have as much time as you think to prepare on the day of the event, because you’ll need to take care of much more than just the cooking and setting the table. You’ll need to take care of your guests as well. So, don’t leave too many general to-do’s, cooking, and kitchen tasks to the last minute. (You’ll probably want to clean or at least tidy up your house before the guests arrive too, so you’ll want to carve out some time for that as well.) Also, during the event itself, you’ll most likely be multitasking and moving around a lot, so anything you can take care of in advance will be one less thing you’ll have to do on the day of the event. Take into account that you’ll want to have enough time to pull yourself together and decompress a bit before your party begins as well. The last thing you’ll want to do is to start frantically running around and freaking out about something that hasn’t been done yet only moments before your guests arrive. Guests can sense the type of energy a host or hostess gives off like a heat-seeking missile, and they typically take their cues from them too. So, if you relax, your guests will relax too. Advanced preparation is not just good for your guests, but it’s good for your blood pressure too.

So, with that in mind, try to get as much of the prep work done in advance. A lot of dishes – like sauces, soups, and casseroles -- can be made well ahead of time and then refrigerated, or in some cases, even frozen up until the day of the party. Again, anything frozen will require thawing time, so remember to plan for that as well.

If you’re pressed for time or just don’t have the wherewithal to make all of the food for a party yourself, keep in mind that it’s perfectly OK to take the easy route: For dips, crudités, and other simple platters, you can often find selections at your local grocery store, or at wholesale stores with deli counters and grocery aisles like Costco, BJ’s, or Sam’s Club. For any unlabelled product from the deli counter, be sure to ask about its ingredients, so you can inform guests, should they have any dietary restrictions. Also, whenever and wherever possible, enlist help, whether it be your family, friends, or a professional. Chances are, the people in your life will be happy that you asked. Or, if it’s a sizeable event and you have the means, hire a caterer and/or events planner. If you have a particular nutritional lifestyle, many caterers will prepare special food (i.e., vegan, gluten-free, kosher, etc.) upon request.

Plan out your menu in advance and figure out how much food to make or supply. To help you out in that regard, consider the following guidelines:

(1) When estimating amounts per person, always round up versus down. If you have a large guest list or will be entertaining for several hours, make sure you make enough food. You can always offer leftovers to the guests as they’re leaving, or just refrigerate or freeze them whenever possible. Homeless shelters and other relief organizations will also typically accept fresh surplus food as well.

(2) It’s easier to offer less courses and provide more food per course than to provide more choices and less servings. For the items you anticipate will be popular, offer them in bulk.

(3) Use these general portion size guidelines for figuring out how much to serve to each guest:
  • Beverages: about 1 - 2 c. (8-16 fl. oz.) per person per hour. (Usually 3 c. total per person will do for most events.)
  • Hors d'oeuvres: about 4-6 servings per person total when followed by a full meal, and about 4-6 servings per person (per hour) when they are the only selections offered at a party.
  • Soup: about 1 c. per person as a first course, and about 1 1/2 - 2 c. per person as a main course. In the latter case, if you are serving a lot of different appetizers, you might want to consider dropping that amount to 1 – 1 1/2 c. per person.
  • Salad: about 1 c. per person for raw salads and about 1/2 c. for cooked. (The standard estimate is 1 oz., but for most people, it’s too much trouble to weigh each portion of salad.)
  • Side dishes: 1/2 c. vegetables or rice per person and 1/4 c. pasta or legumes (as a side dish) per person.
  • Main course: about 4-6 oz. (or about a deck of cards) per person. If there are multiple main courses, about 2-3 oz. (or 1/2 a deck of cards) per person. (Normally, 3-4 oz. per person is the recommended amount for an everyday meal, but with parties, that calculation goes straight out the window. Also, athletes can be some particularly hungry guests, particularly after working out.)
  • Desserts: 1 slice of pie, tart, cake, or other pastry per person. If you’ll be serving multiple desserts, reduce each serving to about 1/3 – 1/2 c. per person. Calculate about 1/2 c. of ice cream, pudding, mousse, or other soft and creamy dessert per person.

The next post will provide a list of healthy gourmet menu ideas, to help you plan your holiday feasts accordingly.

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