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Small kitchen dinner party logistics

After yet another dinner party where we spent most of the time in the kitchen, we need to find new tactics to deal with our small condo galley kitchen ( living in a city where real estate is extremely expensive --- a bigger kitchen is not an option).

Our present tactics are:
Have empty dishwasher at beginning of evening and have sink and dish rack empty for items such as side plates and glasses that may need to be handwashed and reused in evening
Set dinner table and have appies set out before guests arrive
Have a make ahead dessert and as many make ahead sides as possible without compromising quality
Have mise en place ready for items being assembled or cooked at the moment.
Continuously clean ( put items in dishwasher or handwash/ put in cupboards) as cooking and changing courses

Short of making a one pot dish which is not always compatible with our foodie reputations, I don't know what else we can do.

What we find is that once the finishing and serving of the dishes begin/ dishes come back it all goes to hell. We either spend too much time in the kitchen to keep ahead of the space limitations or build huge piles of dishes which slows down the process of items coming out anyways.

Further tactics/ideas?

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  1. We too have a very small kitchen and very small room for entertaining. I have found when we have people over, we have to cut some corners and compromise on some things to make it work. Like we'll buy disposable plates, or a few "cheater" heat and eat foods and focus on a few really good homemade things to compromise. Nobody seems to mind and everyone is gracious and glad to get together, and we never have regrets about it, only good times. We did buy a set of plastic plates for "summer" that we never seem to use, so we break those out and use those to supplement. Forget about sizing or things agreeing in style and just give people what you have. People will drink wine out of a coffee cup and won't think twice about it, and will eat a locally raised, artisnal ham next to stouffers's broccoli au gratin without blinking an eye.

    1. I have a friend with a tiny kitchen and I keep encouraging her to make fewer complicated, last minute dishes because, frankly, she ends up coming to the table tired out and we end up feeling bad because she worked so hard. One pot meals, especially in cool weather, can make your reputation as a great cook so consider those.

      As to too many dishes etc, here's a couple things that make our lives easier during a dinner party. 1. Whenever possible, we use the same plate for 2 courses in a row such as appetizer and salad. As long as the two are compatible everyone seems to thinks it's fine. 2. If your oven is not being used, stash dinner pans etc in there. 3. if you're going to have a last minute dish, make it an early one so the kitchen is not yet full of dishes etc

      Your guests will have a great time when things are made ahead and you're a little less focused on the state of the kitchen--and you'll have more time to enjoy your guests and your meal.

      1. Simplify. Your "foodie reps" mean squat if you aren't enjoying yourself which means your guests aren't enjoying themselves. Pare down the guest list or the menu. If you have to re-wash dishes in the middle of a dinner party to use later, you are over-complicating your life.

        1 Reply
        1. re: lbs

          x2 on the simplify. with similar space issues, we always prepare plated appies that are served cold or at room temp (a favorite classic is smoked salmon and caviar on endives, hot baguettes for the table) and then mains that are served from the oven, nothing "a la minute" So a roast that has been resting during apps and sliced and plated as hubby plates the sides. Generally roasted veggies or a potato gratin or simple roasted potatoes. When serving fish, I have several salmon recipes that can be served at room temp. I bought "special plates and forks" for dessert so that I don't have to wash between courses. Keeps me sane and with my guests.

        2. do you live in a COLD climate? ---- the balcony area is valuable as extra fridge if you can be sure of the temps and security from wildlife etc. When i say "fridge" i mean things like punch (drinks) etc. not meats for days on end.

          it sounds from your post like you have organized and taken care of many details. I'd like to be your guest ; )

          perhaps your vision is not congruous (spell?) with your capacity? I say that with respect. Perhaps revisit your event goals and scale accordingly.

          it sounds like you are making a beautiful party for your guests --- what is their feedback?

          i became a young adult host during the early days of Martha Stewart (1980's early - her first books) so i have evolved toward practicality these days (40 guests outdoors in a foot of snow at my cabin? ... and we had to hand-carry everything in about half mile) I can do it with certain shortcuts (Cupcake cake from supermarket enhanced w/ fresh strawberries and sprinkles - works wonders) - even the weather worked in my favour)...

          tho some basic principals still apply and always have. Don't be in a frenzy in front of your guests, make sure your co-host (spouse) is on board *(define your roles ahead of time - s/he meets and greets -- you deal with kitchen), and make sure you spend time with the guests and honor your co-host/spouse for their contribution ... ... the guests have taken their time to be part of your home and vice versa i am sure.

          my experience says that dinner parties are not for MY fun as host - it's kind of like producing an event. But I have satisfaction in knowing i did it well.

          one of the best hosts i know uses fantastic paper plates and matching napkins. Target. Combined with grandparent's fabulous candelabras and a vintage linen table cloth (easy to have it cleaned and "mangled" at your local dry cleaner, i'm sure) .... every guest at her dinners is thrilled. If you shy from paper for dinner - then consider using for the snack / appy course. It's a leap of faith but .... there is only so much we can do and still be pleasant company.

          again, it sounds from your initial post that you are doing a lot of things graciously. That is the key point.

          ps - do you have a gorgeous view? make the most of it. === it's a rare guest who does not enjoy a beautiful view. If they don't notice - then maybe they are no longer on your A list.

          1. I am the queen of small kitchens!! Here are a couple of ideas that will help you ALOT! If you don't want to use paper plates and plastic utensils (I hate them), buy a couple of really big plastic totes. After each course stow the dirty dishes inside the totes to wash later when your guests go home. These can be put on the top of your washer or dryer, or in the bathtub, or in the bedroom, or on the patio, until you're ready to clear them! Also, if you have a laundry closet, I have been known to set up a bar or drink station on the washer and dryer to remove congestion from the kitchen area!

            1. Unless it is some kind of picnic, I'm just not comfortable with serving guests on paper plates. That's not a criticism of those who do, just one of my quirks. I feel like I used to be the OP, but have found ways to slow it down and make it easier in my "mature" years. Can't move as fast either!

              1. I've also got a galley kitchen, plus no dishwasher and a table that only seats four! But that hasn't stopped me from having people over for dinner. I leave the multi-course meals for 4 or 5 people, as I only have service for 5. When more people come over, I do appetizers (pate and cheeses with a nice baguette, typically) and have people eat a single buffet style main course around the coffee table in the living room (more seating). This way, I can put all the food on the table in the dining room, and people can serve themselves. It's not elegant, but with good company and enough wine, no one complains.

                I always have the food finished before people arrive (sometimes a pie will be baking, but no more than that). I've found that cooking with guests over can be a nightmare.

                I usually start stacking and soaking the dishes immediately, and make sure that all the cooking dishes are clean by the time dinner is served. I am not above using solo cups, paper plates, and plastic utensils.

                Do you have a light in your kitchen? This might make me look like a lazy slob, but I just turn off the light and join my guests in the living room. It does take a bit more work after guests leave, but I have a lot more fun.

                Another option (which works far better in summer) is to organize an outside picnic or barbecue at a local park. If you're planning it, you can still take charge of the main course, but no one will see your kitchen, and paper plates feel less out of place.

                1. We were just discussing Laurie Colwin's books on another thread. She writes a lot about cooking in a small kitchen. You might enjoy her advice!

                  1. Reevaluate menu options, based on feedback from your partner and your guests.
                    When planning the menu, balance the items needing last minute attention with some which can be completely prepared ahead of time.
                    I like to keep several smaller tubs for used dishes rather than one huge basin or tote; easier to move out of sight!
                    Rent or borrow enough dishes, so that washing up between courses is unnecessary; stow the used items in crates in the bathtub (or outside).

                    1. I find this thread interesting as my condo kitchen is big enough to open carryout and mix a drink and not much more, but I have fed up to a dozen people. I agree with much that has been said here and would add, don't forget the KISS rule, "Keep It Simple, Stupid". I have the dishwasher empty and the kitchen immaculate before guests arrive. NOTHING is cooked while they are here unless it is already in the oven, slow-cooker, rice cooker etc. Salad is made, wine is open, bread is cut and under plastic wrap. Even the after-dinner coffee is set up in the pot, ready to go---this is the time to give full play to your most obsessional self, and do it in advance. If I have more guests than I can accommodate at the table, I serve buffet and we eat wherever we can perch. As used dishes are removed, they are emptied into the trash, quickly rinsed, and put in the dishwasher as conversation continues---pour some more wine. Put your sterling silver in a dishpan with hot water and detergent. After dinner, quickly put any leftover food away then turn out the light and go enjoy your guests who, if they wanted Martha Stewart, should have gone to her house. As for "it all goes to hell", bear in mind that the "foodie reputation" of some foodies depends on their behind-the-scenes staff being hard at work. Are your guests going to give you a grade on the meal? Be realistic. There is a lot of possible territory between Tuna Casserole and Crepes Suzette.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Querencia

                        + a million. I don't have a small kitchen, but I absolutely refuse to let my obsessions about food and entertaining effect my own enjoyment of my GUESTS. I don't think it is just a small kitchen issue- I think we all face this at some time. It is easy to get lost in "the work" -when you don't have things set up in advance or you decided to do "courses" and your butler has the day off :)

                        Seriously, I only do apps, dinner and desert anymore unless it is a real special occasion and I have hired help. Otherwise, stress yourself out over the planning and shopping- and enjoy the evening. This is timely, I have 8 people coming tomorrow for dinner. I have to work all day tomorrow until about 2 hours before they arrive. Everything needs to be done tonight. I am almost finished. Here is what I do:

                        Buy separate app or desert "ware" if you don't have enough in your set. Set it all up the night before. dEcide on serving bowls, utensils, etc at this time, set them out.

                        Set the table (don't forget the water and wine ware) in advance.

                        Set up a station of wine/ cocktails/ apps....... away from everything else (out of the kitchen area) with cocktail naps, serving utensils, etc. I bought a really cool ornate wooden table that works well just for this purpose. Looks fabulous in the living room with wine, finger foods and candles/flowers on it! A stack of paper cocktail napkins can double for apps and desert too if you use plain white.

                        Set up desert area in advance or "ready it" on the counter to take the place of the apps. Just have the guests stack the used app dishes on the serving table and you can exchange the plates -from apps to desert-in one easy "swoop".

                        No last minute things unless it is a dollop of whipped cream/ice cream or a garnish...generally things that will wilt or melt if done in advance. Otherwise, save those kinds of meal plans for easy family get togethers where everyone pitches in and helps with clearing,dishes, prep, etc.

                        My personal rule is that ONLY when folk are on their second coffee and desert is completely finished - do I place anything in the dishwasher. Sometimes I don't place anything in the dishwasher while my guests are still here. I just neatly stack the used app and dinner ware in the sink. There is something about loading the dishwasher that seems to signal to my guests to either ask if I need help (NO!) or that maybe it is time to go home (NO!). Small plates take up very little room :)

                        1. re: sedimental

                          The very worst is when people come in between courses to help because they hear cleaning up activity in the kitchen. I really, really don't want guests doing any clean up so I touch nothing while they are in the house. I have been trying to find the quote from I don't know who so will paraphrase it: If you spend many hours creating a meal that your guests devour in a few, there is no way they can thank you enough for the time and effort you put into the meal, so pare down the time you spend that is visible to your guests and only spend the other preparation time because you enjoy it, not so it will impress your guests.

                      2. Thank you for the tips. I guess the main theme is to simplify some more; be willing to reheat foods rather than do everything a la minute; and to buy and make more room for some more small plates (i am on the no paper side of the fence). We love cooking and our ultimate pleasure is getting the oohs and ahs from our guests but we would not be good hosts if we ignored the fact that we needed to spend time with our guests hence the reason for this post.

                        1. I have a small kitchen, plus it's the only proper dining area. Here is what I do to keep it simple:

                          I don't worry about all the place settings matching (we have several from mixing households).
                          Nothing fancy for apps - spiced nuts, olives, cheese, purchased spreads/dips and crackers.
                          I only make 1 involved dish (usually the entree).
                          If people are eating on the couch I make food that doesn't need a knife.
                          Dessert is alway done ahead (almond cake is my favorite) or else it's ice cream or fruit and fancy cookies.
                          Buy extra wine - all will be forgiven (at least with my friends).

                          1. I have the same issue but we make it work. The thing is, each of us has dwellings that have one great thing. My one friend has a fabulous deck and her place is great in the summer for grilling. Another friend has a fab city location. As for me, my condo may not be huge but I have a fireplace so I tend to entertain in the winter when one pot hearty amazing dishes and a crackling fire are a hit. I beg to differ on the one pot dish not being compatible. I do braised lamb shanks with caramelized shallots and onions and a braised Moroccan beef stew that both impress. I guess the thing is is that growing up I saw my mom SWEAT BULLETS over dinner parties yet she never truly enjoyed herself I think. I look at them not as social payback business must dos but as getting together with fabulous people over good conversation and good food. You miss out if you sweat it all out. IMHO.

                            1. Fondue.
                              Times 2.
                              One for the cheese. One for the chocolate later.

                              1. I've had some small kitchens - even lived in an Airstream travel trailer for many years. The saving grace for me were serving trays set up in advance and a dozen dish pans.

                                With limited serving space serving trays can be pre-set and switched out quickly when the course changes. Dirty dishes get quickly scraped and stacked in dishpans which are whisked away to wherever you can stash them and then dealt with later.

                                Plan the menu - you can still have an amazing meal with most of the dishes made ahead of time.

                                When all is said and done it is the good company and warmth that people remember most fondly.