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Party-Planning Tips from the Pros

We asked professional caterers for their best strategies for planning and executing a big party. Here's what they had to say.

Fine Cooking Issue 37

Getting Organized

  • If the party doesn’t already have a theme, give it one. The theme doesn’t need to be obvious to the guests. It can be simply a guiding principle, say, a casual meal to celebrate the arrival of spring. “A theme helps you narrow down,” says New York City caterer Elaine Sterling. “It also sets a tone and helps in everything from creating a menu to setting the table.”
  • Shop ahead as much as possible, both to conserve your energy and to avoid interruptions in your prep time. List all the nonfood items as well as food. Barbara Hom, who owns Night Owl Catering in Sebastopol, California, carries several lists to her jobs: a grill equipment list; a bar list; a buffet table and appetizer list; a list for supplies (like paper towels, aprons, zip-top bags); and a list for service utensils (ladles and ice-cube tongs).
  • Give false deadlines to others. This gives you a built-in window for unexpected delays. If you must have that rented grill by Saturday, tell the company to deliver on Friday. If you plan to pick up the bread from the baker at noon, tell him you need it ready at 9 A.M.
  • Figure a drop-dead time into your schedule. In her book, Comfortable Entertaining, Nathalie Dupree recommends setting a time, usually a few hours before guests arrive, which will be your last chance to change plans. “At drop-dead time, you stop fussing, make a decision, and stick to it,” she writes. “Now is when you say, ‘It’s too late to iron the tablecloth or make a second dip for the vegetables.’”

Creating a Menu

  • Think variety. Choose dishes with different temperatures, textures, flavors, and colors. Besides being boring, a menu composed only of hot dishes will overwhelm your oven. By the same token, all cold dishes means a very full refrigerator. Consider making one hot dish, one cold one, and a selection that can be served at room temperature.
  • Consider how people will pick up the food. Before choosing an entrée that requires a knife and fork to eat, determine whether there will be tables and chairs for people to sit down. If people will be standing while eating, choose finger food, or what Barbara Hom calls “grazing food.” If guests will be balancing plates on their laps, make food that’s fork-friendly and that doesn’t need a knife.
  • Evaluate your kitchen resources. How much can your stove produce? How much can you refrigerate? Paula LeDuc, a caterer in Emeryville, California, figured this out the hard way. In her early catering days, she decided to make sausages in brioche for 500. Her Cuisinart survived batch after batch of brioche dough, but her fridge couldn’t keep pace. Before long, it was so full she had to rope it shut.
  • Choose simple recipes. There’s a limit to your own stamina. “Most people tire after a certain amount of prepping,” warns Carol Durst, who teaches catering courses in New York City. “Just the fatigue factor will make them make mistakes.”
  • Prepare a whole item rather than individual servings. It’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to prepare individual servings. “You don’t want to be boning and stuffing fifty chicken thighs the night before the party,” Elaine Sterling says. “It’s much easier to butterfly a whole beef tenderloin, fill it with herbs, and roll it up into a roulade.” Instead of making fifty individual  tartlets for dessert, make five large tarts that each serve ten.
  • Use high-quality prepared food. It’s okay to buy good puff pastry dough or a demi-glace base for a soup or sauce. If you have a source for superb poached salmon, garnish it to make it your own. Instead of buying several heads of lettuce and washing them yourself, use baby garden lettuces, cleaned and ready to serve.
  • Make dessert a winner. “The last memory of the event is critical,” says Paula LeDuc. She sends her guests home with a gift: perhaps a jar of homemade jam or a bag of cookies. “If baking isn’t your forte or your love,” says Carol Durst, “then get part or all of dessert done by someone else.”

Prepping and Cooking

  • Make “kits” for each recipe. After breaking down her recipes into do-ahead parts, Barbara Hom puts all the components into one box and calls it a kit. “I just did a Thai chicken curry,” Barbara explains. “My ‘kit’ included coconut milk, which was already transferred from the can into a Tupperware container, the chopped galangal, the measured sugar in a zip-top bag, and the chicken and Thai eggplant cut in pieces. So at the party, it took me five minutes to make a curry for sixty people.”
  • Look for overlapping elements in recipes. If you see that three recipes call for chopped onions, do all the chopping at once.
  • Slightly undercook food that will get another reheating. If the previously blanched asparagus will be reheated in broth, for example, it helps to undercook it a bit the first time around.
  • Make a printout of each recipe. Keep the copy in your party folder, mark it up with notes, and post it on the refrigerator or tape it to a cabinet above your prep area for easy reference.

Maximizing Fridge and Kitchen Space

  • Eliminate nonessentials. Many items, like Tabasco, jams, and capers, won’t suffer from a few days at room temperature. Eat or toss out leftovers, and anything else that you won’t be using immediately.
  • Get rid of food bulk and wrappers. Remove packaging from food before storing it, and consider making the food itself into space-saving shapes. Carol Durst halves red peppers and stacks the halves inside each other.
  • Keep things neat. Square off logs of herb butter or cookie dough before freezing them. They’re more space efficient, and they also look neater for serving.
  • Collect plastic containers in advance, or else buy a whole set. If it’s convenient, use same-size containers, like pint-size deli tubs or large yogurt containers, to create a level surface for supporting something else. Also stock up on zip-top bags. They hold solids and liquids, they conform to the shape of the food, and they’re airtight.
  • Cover everything well. Airtight storage extends shelf life. Elaine Sterling takes the extra step of putting plastic wrap underneath container lids as a back-up seal; it also protects from spills if the lid comes off during transport.
  • Create alternative cool spots. Elaine Sterling once turned a small room in her apartment into a walk-in refrigerator by blasting the air conditioning. That wouldn’t do for highly perishable foods like fish, but for produce or a cool pastry, it’s fine. If it’s winter, use the back porch or fire escape.
  • Use disposable containers, such as aluminum lasagne pans, so you don’t tie up every pan in your kitchen. Square or rectangular shapes fit better in the fridge than rounded ones.
  • Use dry ice to keep food like ice cream super cold. For most other food, an ice chest filled with ice or cold packs is enough.
  • For transporting hors d’oeurves, Elaine Sterling uses pizza boxes or takeout containers because they stack so well.
  • Clear out the everyday items. “When I go to people’s homes, the first thing I do is clear up counter space,” says Irene Khin Wong. To make more cooking space, relocate all the stuff of everyday life that tends to hang around the kitchen: notepads, coffeemakers, juicers, pens.”
  • Forget about the kitchen garbage can. It fills up too fast to be practical. Hook a large (30-gallon) plastic trash bag over a drawer instead.
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