Planning 101: The Power of the List

Planning 101: The Power of the List

Note: This article is a companion to our Gilded Fork: Entertaining at Home cookbook. With 13 dinner party menus, and the tips you’ll find in this and our other entertaining articles, we’ve done a lot of the work for you. Sally forth!

Once you have made the decision to be the host with the most, it is time to begin crafting your game plan. Some very basic questions apply at this initial stage:

• What type of event fits within the parameters of your
schedule, lifestyle, budget, and capabilities?
• Do you want to throw a cocktail party or sit-down dinner
• What is the level of your cooking skill — can you handle
preparing a multi-course meal, or might it be better to serve
• How many people can your living space accommodate?
• Who is available to help you?

These will get you thinking in the right direction. A word of advice: A sit-down dinner party with your boss in attendance may not be the best time to develop your cooking skills. Don’t set yourself up for potential disaster — take on what is manageable.

Now, let’s go task by task:

Making a List, Checking it Thrice

We realize that this will be the most arduous part of the process, but we cannot stress enough how important it is to make lists for your party planning. In order to save yourself loads of agony and distress in the days before the party, take the time to think it through and plan out all the steps, and make lists of the necessary tasks and timing involved. It may take a couple of hours, but you will be grateful for the effort when your party is running smoothly and you have time to enjoy your guests. We have created templates for household lists, prep lists, shopping lists and the calendar for your use, so take advantage of them.

The uber-document that will become the nerve center of all this planning is:

The Master Calendar

All of the tasks associated with your party should be incorporated into a Master Calendar, which you can use as your guideline (tome, manual, handbook, lifesaver) for the entire process.

Once everything is on paper, you will be able to see areas in which you can organize your schedule efficiently. Perhaps the kitchen gadget store is on your way to the supermarket — Shazam! — two tasks can be completed in one trip.

For the tech-savvy, you can obviously move all of these details into an electronic organizer with little bells and reminders to keep you on track. We do love technology, but there is also something very satisfying about taking a pen and crossing out an item from the to-do list. (Sometimes Jennifer uses colored pens to coordinate her tasks, but she’s a complete freak.)

Once you’ve set up your master schedule, stick to it unless you absolutely need to make changes; otherwise that little monster called procrastination will creep up and bite you, and the wound is a nasty one.

The Lay of the Land

It is time for a reconnaissance mission. Get a pen and notepad ready (or a gadget if you are a techie), because it is time to plan. First, take a quick inventory of your dinnerware, glassware, linens, decorative accessories, and kitchen equipment. Having a good sense of what’s in the closet may help to define the parameters of your party. Do you need to purchase additional dinnerware or glasses? Do the linens need a quick cleaning? Use our Household List template to start making a list of the “haves,” “needs,” and “to-dos.” You will add to these in more detail once the planning starts coming together, but get a general sense of your capabilities for now — consider it due diligence.

Choose Your Party Format

Before choosing the actual dishes for your menu, it’s important to know at what level you are comfortable cooking for a crowd.

Cocktail Party

We do love cocktail parties for their ease and convenience, as you can serve anything from elegant hors d’oeuvres to casual tapas. Best of all, this type of gathering leaves you more time to socialize with your guests; most of the time you need only replenish the platters and keep the necessary items hot. For menu ideas, see our recipes for Appetizers & Hors d’Oeuvres.

Dinner Party

If you are really comfortable in the kitchen, or if you are using our Mise en Place menus to get comfortable, then enter the realm of the hard-core entertainer: The Dinner Party.

For low-key gatherings with close friends and family, you may opt for a buffet- or family-style meal, where platters and side dishes are presented and people serve themselves. You can sit and enjoy yourself with minimal running back and forth to the kitchen.

If you wish to present a more elegant, plated meal, we encourage and applaud you, with a gentle reminder that you will spend a lot of the evening in the kitchen, so prepare yourself mentally (and physically) for that. If you have an open kitchen, this can actually be a fun way to interact with your guests, provided they stay on the other side of the island (or assist in the preparation if they are so inclined and able).

For a plated meal with several courses, such as in our Mise en Place menus, we suggest keeping the group small (6 to 8 people), as cooking at that level requires quite a bit of concentration, so you should keep the production quantities to a manageable size. You can find more recipe ideas in our full list of recipes, organized by category.

We created a template for your Food Shopping list, which should help for smooth sailing because the more that is on paper, the less your head has to store, and you can stay calm and organized. Get it on paper and out of your head. This way you will know at a glance where you are in the process, and what else needs to be done.

Household Lists, Part II

Now that you have chosen the format for your party, go ahead and add to your list of household-related tasks. Don’t forget important errands like having your table linens dry-cleaned, running your dinnerware through the dishwasher if it’s been in a storage cabinet, etc.

You will finalize the list of the necessary serving items needed when your menu is finished, but you should now be aware, if you are giving a dinner party, that you need/do not need dinnerware, or, if throwing a cocktail party, whether you have lots of platters for serving.

If you do need to purchase serving platters or sets of flatware, you can save yourself time by shopping online, as you will often find items on sale or with free shipping. If you are on a tight budget and online is not your cup of tea, a great solution is to search the aisles of housewares outlet stores (where you can often buy individual glasses, plates, etc.). Many times they will also have unusual platters and serving items that are perfect for a party occasion. (And don’t discount the power of the dollar store for tabletop doo-dads.)

If you are receiving overnight guests, make a list of what needs to be prepared for their arrival, as well as ideas for some things to do while they are visiting.

All of these elements will be added to the Master Calendar when your lists are finished.


We’ve addressed the basics of crafting a guest list in The Good Host. However, we’ve also included some tips below for overnight guests:

Overnight Guests

Receiving overnight guests can be one of the most daunting tasks of entertaining. You don’t want a guest to be bored, but there is a great deal for you to accomplish before the big night. From a guest’s perspective (at least we hope so), the idea of being completely dependent on a host for all of his needs can add a sense of discomfort, as he knows how busy you are (at least we hope so).

In order to save your sanity — and that of your guests — we recommend creating a little amenity kit that will enable them to be completely self-sufficient. Travel-sized items are ideal for this, and they can fit into a little basket that can be left in the room along with towels, bottles of water, a bowl of fruit, or any other items you wish to include. Here is what we recommend:

• Bath Towels/Hand Towels/Washcloth (at least 2 of each)
• Soaps/Shampoo
• Scented Candle (Vanilla is most universal)
• Mints/Candy
• Fresh Fruit
• Water
• Liqueur/Port for a Nightcap
• Glasses

You may also wish to lay out some magazines, newspapers, or books. Now your guests have everything they need to feel comfortable and relaxed. If you want to present these amenities as a type of “guest bar,” create a vignette on a side table with everything laid out.

We prefer to use a “help yourself” method of welcoming guests, so be sure to stock the fridge and pantry with breakfast essentials and snacks, and make it clear that it’s OK for them to help themselves. If they tend to be shy about such things, be sure to put enough snacks in their rooms — there is nothing so awkward as being hungry in someone else’s home without a clue how to resolve it.

If guests are in town for the first time, you might also wish to have some activities ready for them. There is no blanket statement for the ideal in this case, as people have very different travel habits; some like to dive into activities as soon as they arrive, while others want to relax for a bit and catch up over a glass of wine. Whatever the personalities of your guests, make sure there is a way for them to entertain themselves if need be, particularly if they are arriving the day of the party (which we really do not recommend unless absolutely necessary). If they are the less independent type, you can always recruit them into the kitchen; that will either make them find something to do, or you’ll have an extra set of hands to help you.


Décor, table settings, lighting, and music play an important role in setting the tone for your event. Do you want a calm atmosphere, something more festive, or a little bit of both? Are out-of-town guests spending the night? Brainstorm a little bit to get a sense of the type of vibe you want to create, as that will have an impact on your planning. We address these elements in more detail in The Magic of Ambience.

Got all that? Promise? Good. Now hop to it and start planning. We’re watching you.