Cooking for a crowd can be one of the most stressful tasks you've ever tackled.
Not only do you have to worry about the food tasting good, you have to manage your time, make sure the dishes come out when they're supposed to, all within the limitations of your kitchen size, how many ovens and stovetop burners you have, even how many plates, bowls, and cutting boards you have on hand.
Whether it's a holiday, a birthday party, or some other occasion, the fact that you're hosting a crowd of friends and loved ones means it's important that it come off smoothly, so the emotional stakes are high.
Not to mention the fact that ingredients cost money, which means the prospect of ruining the meal has an economic dimension as well as an emotional one.
Make a Menu Checklist
Planning, it should go without saying, is the key to cooking for a crowd. How long will it take to execute each recipe? Can any of the work be done in advance? Is there room in your fridge? Do you have the ingredients?
Not just the obvious "buy chicken" if you're serving chicken. But what about Kosher salt, pepper, or olive oil? Ingredients you use so frequently that you take them for granted are the very ones you're liable to be out of when the big day comes. A checklist of the ingredients you'll need for each recipe definitely helps.
Manage Your Stovetop
Even the best home kitchen still only has one stove, right? Sure, maybe it has six burners, but for a moderately elaborate dish, when you take into account the various components that go into it, you might have three or more pans on the stove at any given time, just for one dish.
Manage Your Oven
Similarly, if you've only got one oven, it's critical to ensure that it doesn't need to be at 500 F for the rack of lamb at the same time it needs to be at 400 F for the onion tart.
Ideally, you want to evenly distribute the cooking for the various courses across all your available heat sources.
It's tempting to try to do some of the cooking on the grill outside, while doing the rest inside, but unless you can be in two places at once, you might want to think twice about this plan.
Manage Your Plates
Then there's the plating issue. Let's say you're doing three courses for 12 guests. That's 36 plates! Do you have 36 plates? If not, the plates from one course need to be washed and dried so you can use them for a later course. That makes for one busy kitchen.
Manage Your Counterspace
Assuming you've secured an adequate supply of plates, then what? Look around your kitchen. Do you have room for 12 plates? Seriously, a dinner plate might be 10 or 12 inches across—maybe more. Thus, plating a single course for 12 people could require up to 12 feet of counter space.
At this very moment, though, you've got several other dishes cooking, you've got used plates pouring back into the kitchen, and pretty much every pot or pan you own is being used for something. You'll be lucky to find 12 inches of counter space, let alone 12 feet.
Consider using disposable plates, and/or serving the meal family-style.
This allows for less cleanup, with only one round of plates being washed, and more time for you to spend with your guests.
Manage Your Labor
Plan your menu in terms of levels of difficulty. Consider one item that might be highly labor-intensive, one that might be medium, and a third that's either easy, made in advance, or store-bought. While it might not always be possible, it can be helpful if the most difficult or labor-intensive parts of the meal are done early, so that things get easier as you go.
Stick With Familiar Recipes
As a corollary to this, this might not be the time to try out recipes you've never prepared before. Assuming you're preparing three dishes, make it easy on yourself by ensuring that at least two of them are ones you're familiar and comfortable with. Preferably all three.
Some items, like roasted meats, might be labor-intensive at the beginning, but once they start cooking, they require very little effort, which frees you up to focus on sauces, side dishes, or dessert.
Another part of planning is figuring out what you won't be making. If that means asking one or two guests to bring something, by all means do so. But make sure they're not bringing something that is going to monopolize the kitchen at the last minute.
Manage Your Expectations
If this is your first time cooking for a crowd, don't jump straight into a multi-course plated service situation. There's a reason family-style service is called family-style. There's also a reason the supermarket has a whole aisle filled with disposable plates and cutlery. They're not all being used for picnics and crafts projects.
Consider outsourcing some of the dishes to your trusted guests, or make the whole thing a pot luck.
This might be the most important tip of all. After all, if you're cooking for friends and family, you're going to want to spend some time with them, rather than toiling over a hot stove the whole time. Enjoy yourself. Take breaks. Have a glass of wine. And when it's time to eat, sit down and enjoy your handiwork.