Planning Ahead: How a little prep work before a big event can make it run more smoothly

My mom is a list-maker. She doesn't have any special paper that she uses, although more often than not her lists could be found on the backs of used envelopes. She makes lists for everything from a quick trip to the grocery store, to a 3-week cross-country vacation. Clothing to take, food to prepare, things to do before she leaves... These lists don't have any special place they live, either, we'd just find them lying around randomly and have no idea whether they were being used currently or not. But she always knew.

So when I say I'm a list-maker, you know I come by it honestly. I have gone through two notebooks that were specifically set aside for packing lists, and countless memo pads, blank sheets out of college notebooks, and yes even the backs of used envelopes. I definitely prefer the method I've perfected, using memo pads for grocery lists and a notebook in my planner for prepping for trips, everything from an overnight out of town to the three-week bender I've got planned over Christmas.

As a chef and a party planner, I learned that communication with other people on your team is crucial, and even just taking the time to organize your thoughts before a big event can make everything run more smoothly. With how quickly my physical condition can oscillate between Type-A-Rarin'-To-Go to Stuck On The Couch Don't Talk Too Loud, planning ahead and communication becomes even more crucial.

Thanksgiving is a great example of how I plan for a party:

  • The week before, we set the menu and figured quantities based on the number of people we'd be having for dinner. 
  • I made a shopping list with ALL ingredients, and over the course of the week we gathered the ones we had already into one place, so we could find them later and so they didn't get accidentally used for something else. 
  • Once our weekly shopping trip came around, I added the remaining items from that list onto my shopping list at the appropriate stores. 
  • Three days before, I made a prep list with what we needed to do for every item from the menu, and even printed off the menu to ensure that every item made it to the table. That prep list included everything we could do the day before, and everything that needed to be done the day of, including all times and temperatures. See here:
  • Once I had figured out the timing of everything (which I couldn't do until I figured out what time we wanted dinner and how big my roast was), I wrote those times into those blank lines. Voila! Now Mr. Moon could pick up wherever I left off with very few questions needing asked, and we could work through an easy division of labor. 
When I was working as a chef with staff, I would have something similar printed off complete with recipes for each menu item, available for all staff members ahead of time. But even working as the only staff for a home-catered party, this is pretty much the same format I used to make sure that everything my client and I had agreed to was covered and done right on time. This also meant that everything hit the Thanksgiving table this year, hot and ready to go. 

The only thing missing from this list is the serving dishes. As an in-home caterer, I never knew what to expect for dishes ahead of time, and usually had a small stash with me in case there wasn't anything perfectly suitable for a particular dish, like not enough platters or bowls. For parties in my own home, I usually take the time during that day-before prepping food to figure out what I'm putting everything on or into, and stack them together with sticky notes on each of them to say what goes where. It's also very helpful to grab all the serving utensils, especially in the event that some of your cooking utensils typically do double-duty--this Thanksgiving I stalled on pulling the utensils, and some of my favorite tongs for serving had been used in cooking and were not available when dinner hit the table. 

Planning the menu, making a shopping list, and even typing up that prep list only took me an grand total of about 30 minutes, though I'm fairly practiced at it. Give yourself an hour, but you don't need to worry about it all at once. A few minutes here or there on the back of an envelope will do you just fine. 

Speaking of which, I have a trip coming up soon, and it's time to start planning packing lists to make sure everything in clean before I start packing. But first, tonight is date night and I'm going to enjoy some dinner and movie night with my mister!
What do you do to plan for big gatherings and trips? Do you have special paper you enjoy using to organize your thoughts, or do you prefer to recycle the backs of other items? 


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