If you’re a pretty good cook and know what you want to make, an everyday dinner doesn’t require too much planning. You may be able to organize in your head:
- what time you want dinner on the table
- what you want to serve
- whether you have the ingredients
- whether you know how to cook it or need to look up a recipe
- how long it will take to prepare
- what steps you will follow to get the dishes to the table at the same time
- how the table will be set
- how the cleanup will be accomplished, &
- what plans you have for leftovers.
Yikes. Even for an ordinary meal, that sounds like a lot of organizing.
When it is a bigger/ fancier/ more complicated meal, I use a list. If guests are coming, multiple courses will be served, if I’m cooking something new, or if decorating the table is required, a list will definitely be required.
I start with the number of people, allergies or aversions, and time dinner will be served.
The menu comes next, with everything that will be served, including drinks.
Beside the menu, the shopping list is formed. For every dish, what ingredients are needed, whether they are on hand or need purchasing, and whether they may be purchased in advance (canned goods), must be purchased in advance (frozen turkey that needs thawing), or need to be purchased the same day (buns).
At least 24 hours ahead, I make sure I have the recipes at hand, if necessary, and plan how and when they will be cooked. If there is going to be a turkey in the oven all afternoon, the pies will need to be finished in the morning. How big is the turkey, and how long will it take to cook? How long will it need to thaw? (Hint: longer than you think.) What time will it have to go in the oven? Make sure to leave time for the turkey to sit when it comes out, and time for carving. What can be done well in advance, such as vegetable plates and salads? What will be done at the last minute, such as heated side dishes?
Setting the table is something that can be done in the morning, or even the day before. That’s a good time to use the menu to remind you what serving dishes you need to set out or even pull out of storage (how often do you use the turkey roasting pan?) Running the dishwasher and having it empty will give you a head start at cleanup later.
The last hour of preparation can be the most important for having the list at hand. A quick check will remind you if you’ve forgotten anything. It’s pretty annoying to make all those preparations, and find after everyone has left, that the cranberries, or the ice cream you meant to serve with the pie, are still in the fridge.