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Apr 21, 2008 11:54 AM

Cooking Disorganization - help!

The last three times I cooked for people, the food turned out fine but, I'm ashamed to say, was at least an hour late.

I begin with the best intentions yet something unexpected always happens: I forgot the chicken was forozen so I have to take the time for an emergency defrost; the meat took 20 minutes to brown when the recipe said it would take 2-3 minutes; etc.

Most cooking delays are my fault and due to poor organization. Some delays I can't foresee and they trip me up.

What are ways I can organize my cooking processes, kitchen, recipe reading, prep, whatever, so I don't make my guests wait longer than they ought? (I'm not an organized person at all in my personal life, so late food is a consequence.) Does mise en place really save all that much time?

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  1. My brother is like you and it always amazes me how his dinners are always at least an hour late. Not being a smart ass, but how do you forget that the chicken is frozen? In the days before I cook for people, I go through the kitchen and make a list of what I need, review any recipes I am using or mentally review things I am preparing without a recipe and if necessary make several list, a list of prep time and when something has to go on the stove or in the oven, adding in time for appropriate things to rest, what can sit longer than something else, approximate time for things to come out, if something has to be checked write that down. And I keep my lists and recipes out as I go and mark off accordingly and if possible start about 30 minutes earlier with prep, etc. than the lists call for. Give yourself a lot of extra time, clean as you go, etc.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Janet from Richmond

      "how do you forget that the chicken is frozen"

      Easy. I know I have the chicken but I forget that it's in the freezer and not the fridge. It's also easy for me to get distracted. Did you ever see the Internet funny of the Our Father as done by the various Meyers-Briggs personality types? Mine (ENFP) was, "Our Father who art in heaven--oh look, a chicken."

      However, you bring up some good points. I think if I give myself more time (rather than the 60-90 minutes I end up allowing), life will be better. Thanks for your advice, and thank to everyone eho's contributed so far. If my wife were here, she'd shake each of your hands and look at you with eyes of teary gratitude.

      1. re: KenWritez


        "How do you forget that the chicken is frozen?" Easy - you have ADD! I know because that's me to a T. That Our Father thing - that seals the deal for me. I suggest you read the book "Driven to Distraction" to find out for yourself.

        Best advice, make lists, check your lists to make sure they're comprehensive, follow your lists, and, best of all, keep it simple. Start a week in advance and plan a menu. Then ask your wife if she thinks the menu is too ambitious (our spouses know us only too well). Once you have the menu planned, make an ingredient list. Check the list against what you have in your pantry - and actually pick up each item to make sure you have enough! - then make your grocery list. Make sure you have enough oven space, burners, etc. to make every dish. Make sure you have the right serving dishes, etc., and that they are CLEAN. Make a timeline as others have suggested. Allow extra time in your timeline for the unexpected. Ask your wife to review your lists to see if you're being realistic. Then, as you are shopping, cross off each item with a thick marker; same for the timeline, as you accomplish a task, cross it off very visibly. These are all coping techniques that I have used to great success. The timeline is an absolute must.

        It's a constant challenge, but it's not hopeless. If you start paying attention to what you've done wrong and why, you will remember that next time and (hopefully) not make the same mistake again... and again...

        Good luck, and get the book. It changed my life.

        1. re: lisavf

          This goes under "Communication makes a Marriage Stronger But Not Before it Makes Her Crazy."

          My wife is a special education professional. She diagnosed my ADD a few years ago (surprise!) and has mentioned it many times, but for some reason I never truly believed her. I sort of thought it was just her being...well, her. (She's fun to be around but we have opposite personalities. I call her the Rules Troll. She's very structure- and rules-oriented.)

          So yesterday at lunch I tell her about this thread and innocently say, "Someone on the the thread said I had ADD and I think she might be right" in the same way someone would say, "Hey, is this bear asleep? I'll poke it with a stick and see."

          "You'll believe a stranger on the Internet but not your own *wife*?!" Uh oh. The situation has just gone to DefCon 3. Get the bombers in the air and the president in the bunker.

          "Honey, of course I believed you!" I lied desperately. The only reason she didn't pick up the table and hit me with it was because it still had our food--and my elbows--on it.

          She looked at me and I could hear the missile silo hatches sliding back. DefCon 2!

          "This is only what I do for living!"

          Quick, activate jamming radar!

          "Honey, I know, I know, I'm so sorry! I apologize, For whatever reason I didn't take your opinion seriously and I'm sorry."

          The world holds its breath.

          She shakes her head and laughs. "You are SO weird!" Relief! She's transmitted the standard conflict de-escalation signal! Stand down the bombers!

          Lunch proceeded normally and the world was safe once again on the brink of nuclear extinction.


          The one thing I hear repeatedly in people's excellent suggestions to me here is to make lists. Make lists like a madman. Also, keep the menu simple and get started early. Let the Sturdy Wench (my wife) look over the menu for time sinks and other traps. (She's done this for me occasionally in the past.)

          How many people here find prep times given in recipes are accurate?

          1. re: KenWritez

            I don't even consider the recipe "prep time". I read the recipe several times and then assess it based on my skills, etc. And I believe it is easy to get too fancy with the Dh does this. We had a Masters party a few weekends ago and he wanted to grill lamb chops (easy enough) and make mashed potatoes (I was making creamed spinach). I had to explain to him that he had to make the mashed potatoes before he played golf that morning or let me make them (his are superior to mine) but that to come home from golf where he'd be drinking and drinking more with buddies while watching golf was not conducive to making mashed potatoes <g>, He made them in the am and then I simply reheated them while he was grilling the chops.

            1. re: KenWritez


              Thanks for the laugh! I'm so glad to hear that you received my post well. I almost didn't mention the ADD, but your comments remind me so much of me, and I know for me, learning what was "wrong" with me helped me cope soooo much. The kitchen used to be one of my biggest disaster areas, but not anymore (at least most of the time) now that I understand where I might have problems. And as for my husband, well, he's a lawyer, but I never seem to take his legal advice until somebody else tells me the same thing. So our spouses are not alone either!

              Making lists is great, but for folks like you and me, the real challenge then becomes remembering to take the list with you when you shop, remembering to check that you got everything on the list before you get to the checkout, remembering to start your task list on time, remembering you even have a list!

              As far as your last question about prep times, I take them as a starting point, but only I know how long it is going to take me to chop an onion, mince herbs, peel the potatoes, etc. So when I break down the steps, I think, how long is this going to realistically take ME to do this step? Then I add a little extra time.

              1. re: KenWritez

                Prep times are garbage!! I double the prep time. I figure if I finish ahead of time, I'll have extra time to chill on Chowhound before guests arrive. Hasn't happened yet...

        2. omg mise en place saves SO much time.

          Case in point: i made puff pastry "turnovers" filled with 2 different savory fillings for a bridal shower recently. I decided to do a trial run of them the day before and made 4 total pieces. I was completely disorganized, and ended up extremely frustrated and wondering if I should make them at all for the event.

          The next day, I chopped all my ingreds, got all my stuff ready to go (egg wash, bowl of flour to sprinkle on surface for working pastry, etc.). The second batch turned out beautifully, and I don't think it was because i had "practice" doing it the day before to work out the kinks. It was because I got ready to go before I started the actual cooking process. It seemed to take LESS time to make 36 turnovers, than it did to make just 4 in the trial run. It certainly was waaay less frustrating.

          ETA: A kitchen timer can work miracles for you. Roast goes in for 45, potatoes go in for 30, green beans take 15, salad 10? Use it as a countdown tool. Put roast in for 15, bing, it goes off, put potatoes in. set for 15, bing, it goes off, start green beans...and so on...get it? works like a charm.

          1. I start with what time I want dinner on the table and work backwards. If the green beans need 4 minutes to steam and 10 minutes to prep, I note that on a chart. Do this with each item, and make sure to re-read each recipe at least a day before so you aren't out of milk when mashing potatoes or whatever. Double check the ingredients you assume you have - are there really 3 cups of flour in the tin? As for defrosting, just go through your menu at least a day ahead to ensure that what's frozen will be defrosted and what needs to be chilled will be.

            For a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example, I would have a work chart starting a couple of days before. Tues a.m. take turkey out of freezer. Tues eve do shopping for fresh vegs. Wed am take bread from wrappers to become stale enough for stuffing. Thurs am stuff turkey 5 a.m. have in oven by 5:30 a.m.

            Or whatever. Saves stress to have it all written out ahead of time!

            3 Replies
            1. re: Catskillgirl

              I agree with Catskilletgirl: Pencil out your time table starting backwards. I have used two kitchen timers too, at the same time. Start with a clean kitchen. Anything that you can prep ahead of time will help too.

              Now, I am sure that I run more behind than you - but I drink a glass a wine and sometimes have the TV on too!!! I thnk with the tips here you will come in on schedule or very close to it!

              1. re: Bite Me

                I agree with all the suggestions so far as well, though I'm not v. good about mise en place, as I have a tiny kitchen, and there's often just not room to set everything out. So I get one dish started and in the oven or on the stove, and then move on to the next one. One thing that has really helped me, is to photocopy my recipes and tape them with masking tape to the kitchen cupboards, in the order in which I plan to make them. That way, I'm not constantly flipping through cookbooks. I also tend to be overly ambitious with my menu, and so now always cut something out - usually the fancy dessert, and I end up doing something much more simple, like fruit with ice cream.

                As others have said, reading through the recipes carefully and setting up a time table is a real life saver. My objective is always to have everything pretty much done before my guests arrive, so that I have to do is a little as possible when they do. So, I do try to cook things that can be prepared ahead of time, or that require only minimal hands on work right before serving the meal.

                1. re: MMRuth

                  I'm in the habit of taping recipes to the cupboards too...means the book doesn't get dirty/slide all over the counter/knock over the oil etc... and it's easier to have it at eye level *squint squint* I've gotten in the habit of using glue-tac (the stuff we used in dorms to hold up posters when tape/pins weren't allowed) Glue-tac pushed into the back of a vintage bottlecap looks like a "magnet" and it's reusable and isn't so hard on the paper as masking tape :)

            2. There are some good tips here. Some of my own tricks for cooking for company include the following:

              -When selecting a menu to cook, try choose at least some courses that can be done in advance. For example, a soup as a first course can be made in advance and re-heated for serving. For salad, make your dressing in advance and have all of your salad ingredients (frisee, arugula, etc) washed and ready to go. For mains, you can have your raw ingredients prepped in advance and ready to go when needed. Or make something like a lasagne that can be assembled and then baked just before service. Desserts can usually be done in advance, maybe just requiring heating or putting in the oven to cook through (like pie, for example). You get the idea.

              -I make lists of everything that needs to be done, ingredients I require, what order I should attack everything, etc. It will help keep you organized and will keep you from forgetting something really important.

              -Never, ever make something for the first time for company. Make recipes you are comfortable with so there are no surprises.

              -Keep it simple. Your friends will be more pleased with a simple, delicious meal than a multi-course extravaganza that has you stressed out.

              Good luck!

              2 Replies
              1. re: ms. clicquot

                "-Never, ever make something for the first time for company. Make recipes you are comfortable with so there are no surprises."

                Amen to that.

                Lots of other good suggestions here, including getting the food pretty much done before the guests arrive. I am personally incapable of doing mise en place, but then I've never felt the need, unless I'm doing a rapid-fire stir fry or curry recipe.

                As to lists and timetables, they're great, but it's so important to read the recipe carefully: Lots of times I've scanned a recipe quickly, thought it looked great and doable, and later realized I didn't see the bit where it calls for marinating the meat for 8 hours. Make yourself a timetable, and pad it out with an extra hour if you're unsure!

                And yes, others have said it, but I cannot emphasize enough: make sure you really have all the ingredients you think you have. There's nothing like the feeling of dread when you reach for the eggs that you're sure are there, and suddenly realize that you used them three days ago.

                1. re: Kagey

                  "Never, ever make something for the first time for company. Make recipes you are comfortable with so there are no surprises."

                  Couldn't agree more. I've btdt and tried new recipes on close friends and while the recipe turned out great I found myself stressed most of the evening...not exactly what I had planned. I find the meals that are best received, and the nights I enjoy the most, are recipes that I'm comfortable with, made with the best, freshest, ingredients. K.I.S. Keep It Simple :)

              2. KenWritez, I am so happy you started this thread! I am also battling this particular tendency. I am slowly getting better, and I have a lot of help from my poor hubbie. Hubbie is actually an excellent litmus test for when I bite off more than I can chew. I call it the "Eye-rolling Test". If I suggest a menu item, and he rolls his eyes, I know it's probably too ambitious for the dinner party we're hosting in 2 hours. Sometimes I can send him into conniptions just by touching the Charlie Trotter cookbook....

                All the suggestions so far are excellent. I particularly like Ms. Clicquot's suggestion to choose menu items carefully and keep things simple.

                I don't know what kind of kitchen set up you have. We have a large kitchen and an open -concept kitchen/dining room, so we can continue to cook and chat with guests. This is our preferred way to entertain, and fortunately, our friends seem to enjoy this kind of party as well. Since we are often running late (usually because I have chosen some ridiculous menu item that is fussy and needs to be put together at the last minute and then I have to resuscitate my husband's rolling eyes and boy I guess I shouldn't have gone an that long a bike ride in the afternoon and - hey - is that a chicken?) I have taken to planning a small simple tidbit for guests to munch on while we are talking, something that isn't big, but is tasty and easy to eat standing up. The key is to find something that will occupy them but not fill them up too much so that they won't enjoy the meal. A small bowl of spiced nuts or olives works well. Tapanade is great, small squares of spanikopita, cheese-sticks or bread sticks (pre-bought) is fine. A few thin slices of cured pork product. Whatever I choose, it has to be ready to go 1 hour before guest arrival time, and easy to do (ie. open a container and pour into a bowl.) It should not require any extra plates or cutlery. And I count this in the entire amount of food I will serve as an extra course, for food quantity planning purposes.

                I also have an easy but special beverage planned to hand out as people arrive. Pitcher of sangria in the fridge, some cold beer, lemonade, champagne. People are much more tolerant of the meal running a bit behind when they have a flute of Champagne in their hand! Not that you should use this as an excuse to be late... It is still worth trying to become more organized, and that comes with practice. But I think it helps make the evening more fun.