In a previous life, I was a chef at a catering company. Needless to say, the holidays were always busy with parties for a variety of organizations. My favorite parties were, hands down, the ones that focused on appetizers.
Appetizer parties allow variety that is nearly impossible to achieve with a traditional meal. They don’t require a set meal time, which accommodates hectic and sometimes overbooked holiday schedules. And they are just plain fun. When your job day in and day out is preparing food for parties, you learn how to streamline and be efficient. With a few party planning tips from professionals, your next holiday appetizer party can be big on flavor and low on stress.
Step One: The Invite List
Before you can plan the food for a party, you really need to know how many people will be attending. You’ll also need to know if your guests are vegetarian or if there will be a lot of kids. Then you can adjust your menu. I usually figure about 1.5 of each appetizer per person. This number can vary a little, depending on number of total appetizers and time of the party. If the party is scheduled over the dinner hour, figure more pieces per person or add an additional appetizer to the menu.
Step Two: The Menu
A carefully selected menu can minimize stress in the days leading up to the party. Selecting items you can make ahead of time, such as Sweet and Salty Holiday Snack Mix or Cheese, Beef and Spinach Pinwheels, will help simplify your work on the day of the party. Depending on your guests, you will also want to determine the balance of vegetarian and meat items.
If you want to serve hot food, think about how you will keep that food hot. Slow cookers, chafing dishes (sometime called buffet servers), and warming trays are readily available at big box retailers now.
For cold items, consider your storage space. Do you have room to store large platters in your refrigerator or do you need to keep appetizers such as Bacon-Topped Deviled Eggs in smaller, stackable containers until serving?
Step Three: The Setup
Think of having a space designated as a staging area. This is where you will restock trays, store extra supplies and bus dishes as they are used. Ideally this space would be off limits to party guests.
Step Four: The Crew
Depending on the size of your party or the complexity of the food you want to serve, you may need extra help. Delegate tasks like making sure the trays are stocked or there is enough ice at the beverage table to family members or friends. Perhaps a trusted high school or college student can be enlisted to help with some cleanup like busing used dishes or glasses from the party room back to the staging area.
Step Five: The Production Sheet
This is really the backbone for organization and efficiency in the days leading up to your party. About a week before your party, write out your menu, including quantity, serving dishes and the utensils required for each item. In a professional kitchen, this is often referred to as the production sheet. Keep this on a clipboard with any recipes you will be using.
A production sheet allows you to see the whole party on a single page. From it you can prioritize, deciding what can be made ahead of time, oven temperatures and baking times to create your “fire” list. “Firing” is the restaurant term for starting the cooking process in order to have all the components ready for meal service (aka the time you are going to eat). I recommend highlighting items as you make them to help keep track. This also allows you to delegate tasks to others, and everyone can clearly see what has been done and what still needs to be started. The production sheet is a great start to writing your shopping list, too.
Step Six: The Prep
Look at your production sheet and determine what items can be made ahead of time. Things such as Deviled Nuts can be made up to a week before the party. Some bread items, like Pepper Cheese and Chive Gougeres, can be made ahead, cooled and frozen in airtight containers until the morning of the party.
Two days before the party is a great time to make dips or spreads like Blue Cheese and Roasted Red Pepper Spread, or sauces that might accompany menu items, like Chipotle Sauce for Crab Cakes.
Cheese for a cheese tray or meat for an antipasto platter can also be sliced and cut on this day. If you have enough cold storage, go ahead and lay out your platters, just be sure to wrap them tightly. Save placing any fruit or vegetable garnish on the platter until the day of the party.
The day before the party is also a good day to gather all the serving dishes – try setting them out on the table to make sure you have room for everything. Take stock of your plates and serving utensils.
Step Seven: The Day of the Party
Once again review your Production Sheet. Double-check your bake times and temperatures to know what time to start firing the hot menu items so they are ready when your guests arrive. Depending on your capacity to hot hold items, you could consider firing the first half to be ready when guests arrive. Fire the second half after guests have started nibbling, but before trays are empty. This is a great task to delegate to one of your crew.
If you didn’t have enough storage space for trays of cold appetizers, start assembling those about a half hour before you expect guests. For food safety and freshness, you don’t want anything sitting out more than two hours. If your party will last longer than that, use smaller trays that you can swap out more often. If you are serving a cheese platter, remember that cheese tastes best closer to room temperature, so take those trays out of the refrigerator a good 20 minutes before guests arrive.
Planning ahead saves you from being stuck in the kitchen during the party. At this point, you should be ready to greet your guests and enjoy all the delicious appetizers.