How to Cook a Fantastic Holiday Dinner (there’s no wrong time to celebrate)

In spirit of Chinese New Year coming up–at least for those of you who celebrate–it’s time to anticipate large family gatherings. LARGE ones. Specifically, events where food will serve as a major centerpiece of pleasure (or disorder). Obviously with masks, social distancing, and lots of hand sanitizer. However, if you don’t plan to physically attend a party with a group of people for New Year, then this post will apply the next time you do so!

As someone who has worked in foodservice operations and has allocated several hours in meal budgeting, menu planning, food preparation, assembly, cleaning, cooking, and serving, I have a tremendous amount of experience creating meals for a party’s worth. I’m talking a crowd that exceeded a hundred people (did NOT expect that one, though! Hey, Impossible Foods was the guest speaker. Who could blame them?).

While this task can be exhausting, nothing is more gratifying (selfishly in one way, but also altruistic in another aspect) than receiving positive feedback on your cooking AND ensuring that everyone can eat an equal amount of food. Like everyone says, food indeed brings a crowd together. That’s why Americans love potlucks and Asians spread love by feeding each other. It was a very prominent aspect of my culture growing up. My Filipino friend in high school had a mother who cooked us a Thanksgiving feast of traditional vegan food–I don’t think I’ve eaten more chicken adobo skewers in my LIFE–every time we came to visit. In Vietnam, my relatives prepared a massive spread of Vietnamese dishes (many time consuming and reliant on stovetop cooking methods instead of microwaves and ovens). Finally, my mother would spend every single night preparing fish and an array of side vegetables with rice or quinoa. It was imperative that we leave with our bellies full every time the meal was over. Essentially, my heritage prides itself on consuming a celebration’s worth of food every night.

Before you get started, you need to remember these key factors:

  • It is ALWAYS better to end the feast or the event with leftovers. If everything is finished, there is an implication that you did not cook enough.
  • Calculations for a scaled recipe generally results in a less flavorful product. More often than not, be generous with flavoring.
  • Figures, but cooking for more requires cooking for longer.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of visual presentation.
  • If necessary, disclose allergens and potential cross-contact allergens.
  • Lastly, have enough serving utensils! And extras. TRUST ME.

Here’s how you can do so without wanting to pass out from exhaustion every night!

  • Plan, plan, plan. Truth hurts, but winging an entire menu is one of the most inevitable steps to failure. You’ll generally find that a certain recipe you wanted to prepare takes more time and energy than you wish, and before you know it, guests will arrive to an empty table and a full oven. Formulate a menu at least three days in advance, look at ads for different grocery stores if desired/necessary, and be realistic with the types of dishes you decide to serve. Grocery shop ahead of time and leave time in between the main trip and the event in case if you need anything else.
    • Be ambitious, but practical. If you want to try something new, by all means, go for it! Just make sure it doesn’t require too many risky steps such as proofing or fermentation, which mandate a lot of practice, precision, and patience (sorry, homemade sourdough). Lastly, refrain from serving dishes that you personally will dread cooking. You want the process itself to be enjoyable for you–time is a valuable currency that doesn’t flow and generate back like money, so make the most out of your preparation.
    • Take note of potential allergens and the guests that you’ll have over. At Cal Poly SLO, there was a strict “no nuts” policy, so we couldn’t prepare anything with tree nuts (except coconut) and peanuts. This was pretty difficult for vegan recipes because a LOT of dairy alternatives we wanted to use contained almonds or cashews.
    • If you like, take a day or two a week in advance or so to practice a new recipe. There are some extremely neat dishes that are just too irresistible to not try like oil free corn dogs and Portuguese custard tarts, but it’s best to conduct a practice trial to ensure that not only are the results fire, but you yourself enjoy the process. It may take more than one demo to ace the recipe, so plan wisely.
    • Prepare the menu based on these parameters:
      • Who will be coming?
      • What kind of food do they like?
      • What theme/flavor aesthetics do you want to articulate at this event?
      • Are you cooking to impress, to gather, or to provide?
        • Will all the guests eat at the same time?
      • How many dietary restrictions do you need to consider?
  • Take advantage of recipes and ingredients that do not go rancid too quickly. If you can, focalize more on dishes composed of ingredients that do not expire within days. This is not due to the fear that they will go bad before you cook, but that leftovers may be inevitable and tossing an already cooked dish with short lifespan foods is no fun. Even though it is better to have leftovers, nobody wants a stinky fridge.
  • Emphasize on the flavors that the ingredients themselves have to offer. If there is anything that’s morally okay to capitalize from, it is the natural flavors from the ingredients you cook with. One example: onions are unpleasantly pungent and sharp when raw, but sweet and mild when cooked. It really depends on what you like! Sometimes the best dishes are the most simple: have you ever tried sauteing tomatoes with sweet onions? To die for–it’s an incredible topper for anything savory!
    • But still, for the love of all that is good in this world, DO NOT skip on the seasoning! Nothing ruins the palette than a sad bowl of blanched broccoli with no salt and pepper or straight-up boiled potatoes, UNLESS you are 1000% certain that your guests will enjoy it. I’ve had to serve for both types. With menus for the general public such as the Food Science Club at my university, I needed to err on the side of caution and add extra seasonings to my recipes. However, for potlucks hosted by many health-conscious friends and mutuals with dietary restrictions–gluten free, grain free, SOS, raw vegan–I could easily wow some people with a platter of plain roasted sweet potatoes. Again, you have to know your guest list.
  • Be generous with the time you allocate for cooking. Remember that there is always a possibility for something to go awry. An appliance malfunction, running out of a certain ingredient, or a baking incident can eat up more time than anticipated, even if you feel 100% prepared beforehand. If you happen to finish early, that’s amazing! Just make sure you seal them entirely so that they are well-preserved.
    • If necessary, pick only one or two recipes to reserve for preparation and cooking when guests arrive. For every holiday dinner, my mom would wait until the last minute to grill Beyond Meat patties and steaks because they would taste the best fresh from heat. Seriously, there is a stark difference between leftover Beyond Meat and freshly cooked Beyond Meat! I like to do this with desserts such as cookies and freshly cooked protein.
  • Do NOT cook under stress. The S-word…it ruins everything. When you are highly worried and stressed while cooking, you’re more likely to forget a step or two or procrastinate from over-thinking. Drink some water, play your favorite music, and begin at the designated time frame you’ve scheduled and plow through each step, checking each off if that helps. Remember, you’ve tackled on a lot and that is more than enough to deserve praise.
  • Ask for help if you need it. This is something we needed to do once in a while during my experience at the Food Science Club. Our fellow officers would come into the kitchens to aid in preparation and serving so that the members can eat sooner and we could all leave earlier, hence making everyone happy! In general, you’ll most likely need one extra person max, unless you’re cooking for over a hundred people or if your recipes are not very foolproof. Keep in mind that it would be particularly useful to ask for help when cleaning everything.
  • Set the scene based on aesthetic and mood. Depending on the event, you’ll have to structure the environment to match what you want to execute. Is the event fancy, casual, professional, lax and chill, or as hyped-up as possible? Certain meals will call for name tags and plates with napkins folded triangle-style, some with extravagant centerpieces and flowers, while others…well, just need a table! Again, it depends on where and when everyone will arrive, serve themselves or be served, and eat. For instance, I hate serving plastic disposable plates and utensils, but for large casual or chaotic parties, sometimes it’s the best route to go. Less time to clean, of course! Make sure the rest of the house matches the kitchen and dining table scene enough to ensure guests don’t feel like they’re walking into a different house!
  • You don’t always have to serve everything at the same time. It makes sense to share the appetizers, mains, and desserts in chronological order with drinks meal-round. However, if this is a potluck type of event or any gathering where people will arrive fashionably late, then it’s a good idea to plate everything all at once since some people need to eat something sweet and salty back and forth.
    • For the most part, cover all your meals with a lid or in aluminum foil to ensure air does not impede quality and/or heat does not leave the food. This would not apply to meals that won’t be adversely impacted when contacting external air.
  • As a general rule of thumb, use different serving utensils for each dish. Providing different serving utensils is necessary for several reasons: it minimizes cross contact or even cross contamination of allergenic ingredients, different food ingredients with different flavors, it saves time and potential disarray, and it looks better. Nobody wants to walk to a dish without corresponding serving utensils to use (seriously, I’d rather not utilize the meat tongs to scoop my salad!).
    • Once more, ensure there are enough napkins, utensils, and plates for everyone. Some people will want to use a new plate and set of silverware for their second round, so once more, over-prepare in this case.
  • Prepare for the following inevitable criteria:
    • Some dishes will do better than others.
    • People will make a mess…or two, or three, or many, many more throughout the event.
    • You will have leftovers.
    • Certain meals will get cold and less palatable (unless you use a microwave or viable heating tool).
    • In some circumstances, you’ll have to keep all the leftovers.
    • Food will be thrown out and left around all over the place (more messes!).
  • Plan for what to do with leftovers. When food is leftover, there are three options: give the food away to your guests, keep the food, or throw leftovers away. In a perfect situation, you wouldn’t waste anything, which may be the case! However, there are times where etiquette does not permit people to take anything home. That leaves you to have to discard something because you don’t want the rest, the food will not taste good the next day, there’s no way to freeze the dish without impeding quality, or, God forbid, the dish is not safe to eat. Try to find some viable solutions to use leftovers or rid of them from your house without contributing to waste (i.e. composting).
  • Lastly, enjoy yourself! Bravo! You’ve worked so hard to ensure this fantastic event comes together and that everyone has a wonderful, memorable time. Don’t sweat too much and have a blast. After all, you’re the one that prepared the food, executed the presentation, and will clean everything (hopefully, you won’t be alone in that!) afterwards.

Time to eat!


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