Prepare food in advance
Save time and reduce stress. Take a cue from your favourite cooking show by pre-chopping and pre-measuring ingredients. A stash of glass or plastic bowls can hold everything from chopped nuts to shredded cheese, and sliced onions, all ready to go. You'll be amazed at how quickly a dish can come together when you aren't washing, chopping, and grating at the last minute.
Skip individual salad plates in favour of a communal salad bowl, and you'll save more prep time. (Plus, your guests can select their own portions.) Any refrigerator with deep, wide shelving will allow you to store the assembled dish for straight-to-table service. Don't add croutons or salad dressing until you're just about to serve, however—or you're in for a soggy salad.
Consider a cold, make-ahead dessert, such as a bowl of fresh berries topped with honey-laced ricotta cheese, or homemade ice cream sandwiches. That way you'll be part of the after-dinner conversation instead of rushing to prepare dessert in the kitchen.
Divide and conquer
Become a multitasking machine. Plan a menu that makes use of all your kitchen appliances: keep a casserole warm on the stovetop with a double-sized, oval-shaped cooking zone; use your microwave's "crusty plate" to make food oven-crisp in just minutes; cook two dishes at different temperatures in a single oven with dual heating zones.
Take advantage of quick-cooking methods, such as your oven's convection and microwave settings to prepare food in less time, and free up oven space for the next course.
Keep cleanup quick
Start the evening with an empty dishwasher and a sink full of warm, soapy water. Stay ahead of dirty dishes by loading prep bowls into the machine as you finish using them, and loading pots and pans to soak (once they've cooled).
Wipe up spills and splatters on easy-cleaning ceramic cooktops and ceramic enamel-lined microwaves while the mess is still fresh—but always be careful with hot surfaces.
Get a helping hand from your appliances' built-in cleaning features, such as oven steam-clean or ongoing catalytic clean.
It's great to dazzle your guests with an unforgettable meal, but keep in mind that above all, they'd love the pleasure of your company. With some smart planning and clever organisation, you'll get to serve your cake and eat it too.