Making components ahead of time and dividing cooking duties can reduce the stress of cooking for a large group.
Credit: Randy Mayor

Problem: A Maine reader frets about preparing supper for a large group.

Strategy: Save time and reduce stress with uncomplicated dishes that feature make-ahead components.

When Bob and Cindy Gurry left their fast-paced, 70-hour-a-week city jobs in Massachusetts a year ago and moved their family of four to the small seaside town of Scarborough, Maine, it meant they'd finally have time for entertaining. Bob, 40, says he envisioned hosting dinner parties and inviting eight or 10 of his new neighbors. But there's one hurdle. "Cooking for a big crowd is a little intimidating," he admits. Cindy, 35, is willing to share cooking duties, but the couple needs advice about how to manage meals for large groups.

To ensure the Gurrys' success, we offer a few key strategies: Choose straightforward recipes, prep the ingredients in advance, and divide cooking duties. This efficient, no-fuss approach allows the couple to throw dinner parties they'll be sure to enjoy as much as their guests.

Crowd control

Keep it simple. Elaborate dishes are impressive, but they often require lots of prep time, particularly when you're cooking for 10 or more. Stick to recipes with relatively few components or streamlined preparations you can handle easily.

Opt for one-dish meals like casseroles, stews, or main-dish salads. Eliminating side dishes wherever possible reduces your workload.

Showcase a few high-quality ingredients. You don't need to spend lavishly or prepare fancy recipes to impress guests if your components are stellar. Buy fresh wild salmon for plank-grilled fillets, for instance, or ripe farmers' market produce for a simple mixed vegetable salad.

Work in advance, preparing a salad, dessert, or components of the main course. The goal is to minimize active cooking time after guests arrive. In colder months, offer braised dishes and slow-roasted meats, which you can put in the oven earlier in the day, then simply serve when ready.

Divvy up the duties. When some foods are grilled and others are cooked on the stovetop, a couple can share the cooking responsibilities. This way, food prep is faster and neither partner is overwhelmed.

Let guests help. Consider compose-it-yourself dishes like tostadas or chili with various toppings so guests serve themselves.