I am always thinking about main courses that a variety of folks can eat. Let's say I'm having a holiday gathering. Next, I think do I want it sit down? Do I want a buffet? Will it be grazing food or can folks fill a plate and sit down? In today's day of gluten free and dairy free diets, it can be harder to please everyone, but I usually just focus on the big possible allergies.
As I move on to the invitation - I prefer to make a personal phone call (unless it's the rare written invitation for a big event). I usually do the invite one month ahead and ask about food allergies. In the off case that I've already been inspired by a particular recipe, then I ask if their calendar is free, then I let them know what I'm planning to fix as the main course. I am lucky to have many friends who will eat many things and they will eat whatever I serve.
I love to spend time surrounded by my cookbooks and recipes looking for the recipe that inspires. I never make an entirely new item for company. I find a tried and true favorite.
Let's say I've decided sit down. I think of categories: seafood, poultry, beef, casserole? I also think of budget and what's been on sale lately. Perhaps the main dish is not the best item on the menu. It may very well be that I want everyone to save room for the best thing on the menu that night may be the dessert.
We are still perhaps as far out as 3-4 weeks from the event and I am making decisions about the menu. Perhaps shrimp kabobs, rice, and a veggie. Do I want to serve a salad that night? What will be for dessert? Maybe I just want to make a great big pot of soup and serve that? Sometimes I do a "heavy" appetizer bar.
I'm think a few weeks ahead so I can watch for sale items at the store and if there is anything I can make ahead and freeze to make the few days surrounding the event easier I will do so.
I have the menu written out and posted in the kitchen. Now I make a detailed grocery list. My lists are on an 8/ 1/2 x 11 ruled paper. As I read my recipes, I check my panty for what is already there. I begin my list with staple items on the left. Top right I group all produce. Bottom right I put all dairy. I go ahead and get everything I can. Sure there are a few things I need to pick up at the last minute (meaning the day before) but I want as much done a good 3-days before the event. I get everything home and tucked away and of course, re-read my menu. The day before, I make everything I can like dips, salad dressing, perhaps a dessert.
I like to clean my house the morning of the event. Sometimes I won't have time to do a deep cleaning that day (if my menu is extensive). I may just sweep and give the guest bathroom a once over, but it makes me feel better and it gives me a grateful heart as I run my hand over the things in my home that I surely wouldn't have if it weren't for blessing, hard work and lots of good luck.
I do as much preparation next as I can do - perhaps marinating something or baking a pie - whatever can be done in the am.
Next I pull out the serving dishes I intend to use. I mark with one with a piece of paper in it as to what it will hold. This way when the house is a hubbub of music and conversation later, I don't have to think about what to put where. It's been decided in the quiet time early in the morning.
I get the table set. I love this part of the event. I like cloth napkins with matching table cloth. It dresses the table and sets the mood for the event - casual or formal. My mother loved linens and so do I. Nowadays it's not always linen, it might be plastic, but still it's nice to have the table properly set.
It's time to clean myself up, pick out the music that should play in the background - continue to keep checking the menu and put things in oven or set things out, as we get to the arrival time. I've read before that some hostesses greet their guests with cocktail in hand to set the mood, but I usually just make that my first offer. I let each guest know where to set their sweaters, jackets or purses and remind them what is available at the bar. We always have a full bar, but plenty of non-alcohol treats also - like iced tea and lemonade. I let them know what time dinner will be served so they get a feel for the evening by seeing the table and smelling the aromas.
Now the most important thing: hopefully I have planned everything well enough that I have time to sit with my guests and visit. Sure I'll be in and out of the kitchen with the preparations, but I hope to be able to give them a comfortable place to be and share as well as a delicious meal and as well as spend time with them myself.
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