How to Reduce Anxiety About The Big Dinner

Nothing gets me more anxious that when I need to serve a big dinner. I know, “big” can mean different things to different people: for some, it is a dinner of four. For others who are used to feed a whole family, it can mean more, but you probably are not worried about presentation for your normal day dinner.

Does your spouse/partner care about this? If they do, get their input early so you don’t have arguments later on (“what’s with those bread sticks? You know my brother is allergic to gluten”).

Way ahead

  1. Plan ahead. Sit down during a quiet time, and visualize the room, the guests and the food.
  2. Start a list on your smartphone a week prior. That way, when you have an idea, you can just jot it down quickly.
  3. Write out your menu, which should also produce a shopping list:
    • Are there “anchor” food items? Build around them, and if something you wanted to fix doesn’t fit in, don’t force it, save it for another time
    • What can be fixed (or partially fixed) ahead? This is probably the most important strategy
    • What can you ask guests to bring? (and what if they forget or it’s not good)
    • It’s okay to fix enough of something that you have leftovers for yourself
    • Do any items to be purchased need to be day-of or day-before? Bread? Fresh fruit?
    • Check with guests to see if anything in their diet has changed that you should know about
  4. Think of a fun (low profile) centerpiece or something event-appropriate at each plate, even if it is just tying a colored ribbon around each napkin (heck, even if they are paper napkins)

Day ahead

  1. Note what’s being held in the fridge
  2. Label your serving platters (or you can do this ahead if you don’t need a table)
  3. Arrange something age-appropriate if kids are coming
  4. Think where to put jackets and handbags
  5. Think about a topic or two for warm up (not politics!)
  6. Staging the service:
    • Buffets are best
    • Know your climate
    • Humid: cover up crispy things or leave them in their package, sitting on the serving plate
    • Dry: put a dampened paper towel over cheeses, salads, bread
    • Depending on your dishes, come up with a plan to help warm stay warm, cold stay cold
    • Think of the flow – main dish first, then sauce/gravy, then side dishes.
    • Okay to have two or more “stations”
  7. Not fond of salt and/or pepper? Have them out anyway – don’t impose your preference on others


  1. Have out wine/beer/whatever glasses, something on the tv or sound system, some kind of nibble
  2. Get a beverage in everyone’s hands immediately
  3. Stop what you’re doing for a few minutes while people are arriving – get them talking to each other, then you can go back to preparing
  4. Someone looking lost and awkward? Ask them to fill water glasses : the best thing to delegate!
  5. Never, never apologize that something that was not homemade – most people don’t expect that any more. Also (ahem) don’t claim credit for it…

You should be good to go! See you soon.


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