Timing a Multi-Course Meal Like a Pro

One of the biggest challenges for a novice chef is preparing a set of dishes for a party, especially if there are multiple courses of food involved.

Things need to come out to the table at the right time, you can’t run out of burners or your own ability to pay attention, and ultimately, the food needs to be good and served at the right temperature.

Creating a Plan

Coming up with a workable plan to serve everything at the right time is actually fairly simple, if you sit down and take the time to do it. They key is using a global view–taking everything possible into consideration before it blows up in your face during service.

To do this, let’s look at some of the things that need considering:

Prep Time

How long does your entire meal take to prepare, course by course? Cookbook estimates are a good start, but also consider:

  • Do ingredients overlap between dishes? This will cut down prep time.
  • Are you familiar with the ingredients being used? New ingredients may have a learning curve.
  • How much time do you need to clean prep tools (bowls, knives, etc.) during and between preparing the various ingredients?
  • Can you prep certain courses while others cook? This will cut down the overall preparation time.
  • How much of each ingredient do you need to prep and what’s your threshold of quality? (A dozen tomatoes might take me an hour to seed and dice, but only 15 minutes for someone looking for a quick meal or more experienced in doing it).
  • Can you prepare some ingredients (and even dishes!) ahead of time, or is everything on the spot?

Tools and Space

It’s really easy to run out of space when making a big meal, and even easier to run out of the tools to do it. Consider:

  • How much counter space do I have? Can I use other areas of my house for preparing the meal?
  • Where will I serve my dishes?
  • Will I need to clean tools during prep (highly recommended) or can I let them pile up in a staging area somewhere?

Cooking Time

It’s easier to estimate cooking time than prep time, because recipe directions are often very accurate about this number. However, it’s also important to remember:

  • Will various courses be cooking at the same time or sequentially?
  • When does cooking of various course components need to start to be ready at the same time?
  • Do I want everything to finish cooking simultaneously or slightly apart?
  • Is cooking time hands-on (e.g. stir-fry) or hands-off (e.g. baking in oven, stew, etc.)? In other words, can you multi-task?

Serving Sequence

Although you may be cooking multiple dishes, serving has its own set of considerations:

  • Will I serve family-style all at once, or space out courses over a period of time?
  • Will I be able to sit down to eat with my guests during early courses, or be stuck in the kitchen? (I call this the “missing chef” syndrome.)
  • How and where will I plate my dishes? Will they be served on platters or individual plates?
  • Do I have someone to help me move food out of the kitchen?

Other Things

Finally, consider some of these odds and ends of a complete meal:

  • What’s the optimal serving temperature of each of your meals? Do things need sitting/cooling time, and if so–how long? Do some things need to be served immediately, and are you planning around them?
  • Who will set the table if you’re in the kitchen cooking?
  • Will you be serving drinks to your guests, and if so–are you the one responsible for getting them?

Practice makes perfect. Start small–two or three courses and four or so people for a nice, relaxing evening, and build up from there. Eventually, you’ll feed a crowd of 30 hungry birthday guests with ease (and very often, compliments). Good luck!