Cooking Disorganization - help!
- KenWritez Apr 21, 2008 11:54 AM
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?
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 lists....grocery 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.
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.
"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.
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?
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 menu....my 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 :)
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.
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.
"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 :)
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.
I, too, am an avid list maker. And each of those lists is in painstaking detail. The fancier, more complicated the party, the more detailed the lists.
I start with the menu list, which includes exactly where to find the recipe: which page of which cookbook, an Epicurious link, personal database, etc.
The shopping list includes every single ingredient needed, including drinks and garnishes, whether I think I have it or not. First, I check cupboards and mark off ingredients on hand. Then I cross off each ingredient as purchased.
A game plan list, Day of Party, Day Before Party, Two Days Before Party, etc., notes everything that can be done ahead of time and how many days before it can be done. This could include transferring something from the freezer to the fridge, making a braise so it can sit for a day or two before being defatted, marinating or brining whatever may need it, making dessert, prepping vegetables and garnishes.
And I also have a minute-by-minute outline of what needs to be done the day of the party that gets taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet. I cross off tasks as completed so all I need to know is what time I next have to do something rather than trying to keep in mind all the things I have to do. That list includes such details as what time to preheat the oven and to what temp, what time to remove something from the oven and whether or not I need to reduce the oven temp to another temp, what time to take something out of the fridge to bring it to room temp. I also note on that list what needs to be garnished with what before serving, since I’m likely to forget the croutons or the sprinkling of fresh dill or whatever once the guests have arrived.
I started doing this millennia ago when as a young pup I was likely to become somewhat “impaired” once my friends showed up. It worked so well that I’ve just continued the practice, although these days the impairment is more likely to be caused by short-term memory loss than any social indulgences.
I have learned that dinner should essentially be DONE by the time the guests arrive. This means starting early, and I avoid anything that requires last minute cooking unless what I am doing is part of the show (example, cherries jubilee). It is so much easier to have the food finished and held, wrapped tightly, in a 200 degree oven than to be worrying about how the turkey still needs twenty more minutes plus standing time before carving. Yes, I know you can't really do this with some dishes, (shrimp comes to mind), but if I am feeding a crowd, I plan dishes that can be completed in waves, and then held in warming trays, ovens or whatever for a short time without harm. Roasts and things with sauce fit this category. I can handle one or two last minute things -- such as the steamed veggies or the seafood scampi out of the broiler, but that's about it. You'll be a lot calmer and will enjoy your guests more if you do things ahead. Also -- and this is something I strongly advise -- never cook something for guests that you haven't tried before. You can cheat a bit on this once you get a lot of cooking experience, but trying a new recipe for a crowd can be a disaster -- not only because it can take too much time (like the time I baked a whole 15 lb. ham rather than the usual 7 lb. half ham), but because it may not turn out as well as it could.
KenWritez, ADD or not, having lists, timing and mise en place takes some of the easy-to-forget details out of the way when your mind is on chatting with your guests, pouring drinks, etc. More fun for you and more fun for them.
Until this gets easier, it is also important to be kind to yourself - have first and last courses safely tucked away, already prepared. The first can be a forgiving soup that's ready to re-heat or served cold (don't forget garnish), an already-plated appetizer but not a fussy, last-minute souffle that mandates precise timing. Dessert can be safely tucked away in the refrigerator - cheesecake - or in the freezer - homemade sorbet - ready when you are. Now you have only a main course to make. If you want to make it extra easy on the cook, choose something that is a time-elastic dish like an oven braise. You're set!
When you get comfortable with this scenario, branch out a bit and make one a la minute dish to accompany. Add last-minute, time-consuming items as you get this well in hand and have some more experience.
Printing a timeline sounds anal-retentive AND will save your neck, mental health and the meal. For a real easy solution, have the 81/2 X 11 sheet blown up to 11 X 17 at an instant print shop like Kinko's. Tack this up on a cabinet or refrigerator door (you can see it from across the room) and relax, enjoy your own party. Be realistic, use the amount of time it takes you to do something, not the time it takes a seasoned pro.
Of course the timeline will be useless unless it is well-constructed. It must deal with ALL prep and cooking chores and be very specific. "Plate anti-pasto platter" doesn't help at all -- what needs to be done (meats & cheeses sliced?) and how long will it really take you?
As a former caterer, I know that there's no such thing as too much planning. Identifying serving bowls, dishes, platters, including serving utensils, with a post-it note is a great idea. This way you're never scrounging around for the cake plate and you know where the forks and plates are when it's time for dessert and you already know where you'll put lamb shanks, serving utensils, etc.
Making it easy on yourself makes for a relaxed evening and more fun for everyone. When the occasional glitch happens, it is helpful to have an alternate idea (Plan B) ready to go. Think of a solution ahead of time if the dish is too salty or something scorches. A well-stocked pantry is your best friend here.
Keep a recipe or menu file so that you know what to expect. ".....the meat took 20 minutes to brown when the recipe said it would take 2-3 minutes; etc. " is the best reason I can give. As you get more experience, you'll know that what you were reading was a poorly-written recipe and you'll adjust accordingly. Make your timeline according to what it takes you to do the job (she says yet again).
Mise en place sounds like a needlessly fussy waste of time until you're in the middle of something time-critical and realize that you're in the weeds because you lack a key ingredient or haven't prepped the minced vegetables! Not having to make individual runs for the flour, then salt, then oil, then balsamic, where are the pepper corns - the grinder needs to be refilled, then garlic - whoops, I need to mince this, then onions that need chopping, a run to the refrigerator for butter, where is the @#$%&*$@ Marsala? OMG the chicken is frozen! etc. The mise removes all this needless running and results in a more enjoyable experience for the cook as well as a more timely meal for guests.
Edit: both my late husband and my eldest son had/have ADD with dsylexia so I've lived with the wonderfully creative and disorganized results. There's never a dull moment!
Thanks for the advice! Yes, dinner at my house is many things: Often late, frequently with last-minute substitutions, but never boring. I've found roping the guests in helps. I've learned to hand the wine bottle and corkscrew to the wine guy: "Do your duty, sir!" Another friend always wanders in and asks if he can help, so, while listening to my mom hit 400 RPM in her grave, I hand him the flat-bottomed wooden cooking spoon and push him at the chili pot: "Keep stirring and don't let it burn."
The wives are always great about helping. One of them gets the "clearing off the table" gig ("Just stack the books and those papers on the piano.") altho I try to save them for after dinner help if the Sturdy Wench is busy or had to leave early.
Looking back on everything I've said about my domestic life, I feel as I do in my dream of walking around my high school naked or only in my underwear, and someone's just raised their arm to point and laugh aloud....
In spite of my dinners often being planning disasters, my friends tell me how much they enjoy my cooking and they continue to return. Quite a compliment, it shows their love and affection for me. I want to honor them in my house by serving food on time, without stress, and creating as relaxed and inviting an atmosphere as I can.
Everyone, please keep your advice coming in. I need all the help I can get.
I think the most important thing is knowing your ingredients and being honest about how good you are at preparing them.
it's always useful to know the cooking times for each dish, as well. Always start with the big things first if you can - if something takes an hour to cook and everything else takes a half hour, do all the prep for the big thing and throw it in the oven first, and then start the smaller dishes. Chances are that big thing can spend some time resting covered in foil if nothing else. ;)
Or, if all of your dishes cook for the same amount of time, do the prep work for everything and then multitask your way through them.
And always, always remember to preheat the oven and start water boiling before you start your prep!
I never write out a program or time things to a T. I do use a digital timer, but that's about it. I find that overplanning can actually lead to more stress. :P
Oh, one more tip - try to limit the number of dishes with multiple steps - don't make a ton of overly complicated dishes. Try to stick to things that can be thrown together in a roasting pan, or roast vegetables in the oven and pan-fry some fish, meat, etc. while that's happening. Don't think you can braise, roast, fry, and saute ten dishes all at once without any help.
Just keep practicing! It'll come to you. :D
I think it's about planning a 3 or 4 course meal so that some courses are pre-prepared such as desserts or apps. If all courses are served hot from the oven you are going to get yourself into a mess.
soup is easy cos it can made early on or the day before, other cold apps ditto. I always make cold desserts or something like pies or flans that are pre-made earlier and then re-heated once the mains come out of the oven. I would never try something like a soufle for an app or dessert for a large party.
new recipes can be made prior as a test.
Or make dishes that you know you can do easily and know your timings, that way you can really enjoy the dinner party.
I started drinking 2 hours before the meal instead of 4 hours before the meal, made a world of difference!
I make timelines on graph paper. And then I mark them as to what really happened. And then I save them so if I do a similar meal again, I have a starting point. And I keep them in a file folder marked Dinner Parties, Thanksgiving, etc. And I put photocopies of the recipes attached.
I've scanned the list and have a few things I find helpful.
1. if i'ts a big dinner, say Thanksgiving or Christams meals for the whole family for a 1week, then I start menu planning months in advance.
2. your best friend is a Binder with plastic page protectors. Front page is the menu, reverse page is the shopping list. This is a great place to put yout timeline or chart. Also if there is a clear front pocket, that's a good place to put it too. Very visible and portable.
3. Print out or copy your recipes and put each in a protector. I like one on each page. make sure you have already scaled them up. Allrecipes.com has a great scaling tool that is very handy.
4. Put the recipes in order of when you need to start them; Turkey comes before salad, it would be first since it's what you need to look at.
5. The plastic sheet protectors keep the recipes from getting grubby, you can use erasable transparency markers on them as you work, they can be taped up and have the tape removed easily.
6. The recipes come out of my "master" recipe binder as I assemble the menu. Then they can go right back into the regular rotation tab when I'm done.
2. Start the prep as early as possible. It's amazing what you can prep, chop and freeze ahead of time so all you have to do is pull it out. Onions, celery and breadcrumbs for stuffing, I'm talking to you! I freeze them seperately of course but, I've already got a stuffing breadcrumbs bag in the freezer and I keep adding to it as I have crusts and the few odd pieces of bread that get torn up. Label the bags well!! you will forget what is actually for the meal and and what is trimmings for the stock pot.
6. Pre-prep as much as is humanly possilbe: for example, you can have the dry and wet ingredients for the pancake breakfast made up the night before, with the wet in the fridge, and just bring them together at the last munite before you start pouring the batter. Search out all these pre-prep opportunities you can.
7. And as everyone has said but it bears repeating - simple is better!
This is going to sound totally crazy, but especially for new cooks, it works. I suggest that people doing large meals for the first time to do this- printing out the recipe, oganizing all the ingrediants, measure them out into ziplocs, then load all of the smaller ziplocs in to a large one, along with the recipe, label with what it is, put in fridge. What is good is that if you are crazed, you can say so someone, can you grab the baggie for the mashed potatoes and get that started? In the bag is the recipe, the incrediants included butter etc, all measured out. so someone can help.
Absolutely great idea Cassoulady! Without fail My husband, or one of my SIL will come in and volunteer to help but if I don't have things all ready and prepped in bags in the fridge and freezer, and the recipes organized somehow, It would take waaay too long to explain and I am guarranteed to leave out a critical step.
Ziplocs in the fridge, freezer and, where ever possible, make the whole mise en place concept doable when you have minimal space. Don't forget to press a cooler or two into service. Even if you've only got a patio or deck or corner of the bedroom to plonk it in, a well packed and iced cooler can double as a fridge expander for a few days. It's perfect for storing the stuff you want to thaw slowly, and as long as you keep it all cold enough by replacing the ice and draining the water, the food should be fine. If you're contstantly in and out of your main fridge it might actually be safer and keep your food at a more ocnstant temp. Get a thermometer to stash in the cooler to keep an eye on things.
You have to think through what can be stored short term in the coler and what really needs to stay in the fridge or freezer. Example: The slowly thawing turkey is perfect for the cooler, as long as it is double bagged and in a leak-proof container. Well, it would have to have that no matter where I thaw it. In the cooler with the turkey are the pre-chopped onions, celery, bread cubes I've saved for dressing and now thanks to Cassoulady, I've put the whole shebang into a bigger bag and tucked the recipe in as well. or what is more likely, I've already made it up the day before and if I wasn't worried about it getting squished, it could go in a bag too. Also, the frozen previously made chicken stock for the gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc. works like giant ice cubes helping to keep the whole thing quite cold but slowly thawing. The buttermilk biscuits I'm serving can be completely mixed up, rolled, cut out and frozen on cookie sheets up to a month ahead. But, they have to be kept rock hard right up until I'm ready to bake them the day of. So they go in the freezer, tightly packed to take up as little space as possible. On the day of the big bake, while the turkey is resting, the finished sides are either on a warming tray or cleverly disguised heating pads :), in go the biscuits for 20 minutes to bake up. While they bake, I make the gravy and have any of the last minute finishing, warming, browning touches getting done. Don't forget to allow for more time when your oven is full.
Finally, practice all your recipes ahead of time and test to see what can be held over warming and how long will it hold, as well as seeing how it does if you chill it in the fridge and then reheat it. For example, a flour based gravy can usually take chilling, saving and reheating very well but on the stove and you often need to add additional liquid. A cornstarch based gravy often won't because it's too easy to get it too hot and the starch falls apart. Both can usually be held over for a good while on a hot plate or warming dish, and even delicate sauces like Hollandaise can be kept without breaking in a large warmed vacuum thermos (thanks for that one go to Alton Brown,)
Another good example is the turkey. You really want it to be done and ready to go at a specific time so you build in an extra half hour of cooking time in case you need it, then pull the bird when it gets to temperature. Even if it finished eariler than you expect, it's got to rest for 20 minutes before you carve anyway, and tented with heavy foil, it will stay plenty hot and you get the oven back to finish up sides or bread. So you've got at least an hour from the time you pull the turkey out until you put it on the table in a Norman Rockwell moment of glory.
You don't have to shoot for perfect timing for each and every part of the meal, you just want to figure out which one's have critical timing and build your schedule around those. Speaking of timers, have at least 2. They don't have to be expensive, but more timers really help if you've got multiple dishes going in and coming out. I know others have advised a building time schedule but, invariably I get my math messed up and have at least one disaster. I don't worry about the meat as I always use a proble thermometer with an external gauge and beeper when it hits the set temp. This has totally has taken the stress out of coking ANYTHING. Then 2 other el cheapo timers can usually handle the other parts of the meal and the microwave and over have timers that get pressed into service as well. That means 4 timers and the thermometer/timer, which pretty much is the maximum number of cooked things I would ever consider for a big dinner party. One is actually likely to be the reminder to get the wine open, or out of the fridge, or whatever.
Sorry for the long post, but I'm also looking spark discussion and to refine my methods. This year I'm going to be cooking for 5-12 in an extended stay hotel room for 4 days. I refuse to eat out every meal, so I need to plan ahead, and use every trick tool and make ahead recipe I can so that I can function without taking my whole entire kitchen with me.