Make-ahead Party Food

Unless you are a master entertainer (like say, Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse or Ina Garten) planning a party can be stressful to say the least. And if you are a guest, nothing is worse than going to a party where the host or hostess is frazzled or stressed out, holed up in the kitchen and cooking the whole time.

One way to alleviate these problems is to plan your party menu with make- ahead dishes– food that can be prepared a day ahead of time, or at the very least, the morning of the party. Here are some tips for preparing make-ahead party fare that will leave you available to mingle with your guests:

Make ahead Thanksgiving

— Okay, you can’t make the turkey in advance, but it certainly can (and should) be stuffed and in the oven when your guests arrive. Also, there are many things you can do ahead– you can chop the celery, onions and other vegetables for your stuffing and salads the day before. Some other make-ahead Thanksgiving foods include:

— Potatoes. Who says your have to make mashed potatoes? Search online for make-ahead potato casserole recipes. One of my favorites is a Cheesy Potato Casserole made with frozen hash browns mixed with chopped onions, cream of chicken soup, sour cream and cheddar cheese. It can be made a day ahead of time and then put in the oven to bake one hour before you plan to eat.

— Candied Yams. Peel and cook some yams or sweet potatoes and then mash them just as you would regular potatoes. Add some milk, butter, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. I also add a few tablespoons of orange juice. Cover and store in your refrigerator overnight. The next morning, top with marshmallows and bake for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are heated through and the marshmallows are melted (check often to make sure they don’t burn).

— Desserts. Just about any dessert can be made ahead of time. Some of the best choices include cheesecakes, which actually taste better after a day in the refrigerator. Brownies, cookies and cakes can be made the day before– just be sure to cover them tightly with plastic wrap (or better yet, store them in an airtight container such as Tupperware).

Other Types of Party Food:

If you are planning a birthday party or some other type of get together, don’t let your self be bogged down in the kitchen all day. Consider serving these types of foods:

— Meatballs. Mix some ground beef or turkey with an egg, some breadcrumbs, milk and any other seasonings you like (I add chopped garlic, oregano, basil, parsley and grated parmesan cheese to mine). Cook them in a small amount of olive oil until browned. Cover the meatballs with jarred or homemade spaghetti sauce and store in the refrigerator. Transfer the meatballs and sauce to a crock pot the morning of your party– they will be hot and ready to eat by the time your guests arrive.

— Sweet and sour meatballs. Follow the meatball recipe above (you may want to make slightly smaller meatballs) but add equal parts of bottled chili sauce and grape jam in lieu of the spaghetti sauce (I usually use two 15 ounce jars of each). These are delicious served as an appetizer.

— Homemade Deli Platter. Supermarket deli platters can get pricey, but you can make your own the morning of your party. Order sliced ham, turkey, hard salami, roast beef, and an assortment of cheeses from your favorite deli. Roll the cold cuts up and display on a large platter.

— Hot Roast beef. Use your crock pot again tom make this easy dish: heat deli-sliced roast beef in a crock pot of beef gravy or au jus. Serve with sliced kaiser rolls.

— Casseroles. Lasagna, baked ziti, stuffed shells, chicken divan– these can all be made a day ahead and reheated. Do a search to find recipes for these dishes (I like or search through your favorite cookbooks for casserole dishes.

— Appetizers. Many people make too much food when they have a party. It’s true that too much is better than not enough, but if you’re planning to serve a full course meal or a buffet dinner, don’t over do the appetizers– your guests will only end up overeating and won’t have room for the main course. Make a fruit and cheese platter by cutting up blocks of cheese (Cracker Barrel has pre-cut cheese blocks, available in your supermarket dairy aisle). Arrange bite-sized pieces of fruits such as strawberries and grapes on a platter with the cheese. Serve with crackers.

Other tips for a stress-free party:

Do what you can ahead of time. Set the table the night before. Chop vegetables and store them in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. Set out candles and vases of flowers the night before. Set up your bar area and have plenty of ice available. The next day, all you should have to worry about are a few finishing touches before your guests start to arrive.

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