Last Minute Entertaining

tips for last minute entertaining

The other day, I received a panicked email from my girlfriend, Hollye:

Hi Val,

So, I invited a couple of people from out  of town for a BBQ tomorrow and it has turned into 13 people. I have no help. UGH!!!!!!!! … & I am coming down with a cold. Yuck!

You are so amazingly talented and do this type of thing all the time … do you have any ideas about what I could cook? Also, do you know any helpers who might be available?


My reply:


We can totally do this!


Are there any food allergies or known dislikes? Do you want to do a buffet or sit-down dinner? Are kids invited? What are their ages? What time does it start?

If you’d like, I can come over in the morning and we can do some prep together (flowers, food prep, table, etc.). I have a date with AJ and the girls at the beach so I’m all yours until 12:30.

I do have great helpers; call Amy and Katie at 6TwisTs (805-570-2632).


tips for last minute entertaining

The truth is, sometimes entertaining sneaks up on you. I am sure that we would all love our gatherings to be super organized and planned way in advance with every detail thoughtfully mulled over and refined. However, way more often than not, we think of great ideas but never put them on paper, or the stuff of life (kids, husband, work, exercising, Mad Men — do you think my husband will get upset that he got second bill over the kids?) causes us to be last minute entertainers.  But with a little practice, some helpful tips, and one or two good friends, last minute entertaining can be simple, and even fun.  So when the thought of 15 hungry people showing up at your door feels too overwhelming, just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you really can do this.

When I received Hollye’s email, I was actually really excited to help her out. I have been in Hollye’s shoes so many times, and through a lot (and I mean a lot) of trial and error, I feel like I have developed a pretty decent system for taking the stress out of last minute entertaining.  It always feels good to know that you can truly help a friend, and I was eager to dive into party planning with Hollye.

For me, it’s the “nuts and bolts” that often escape my notice — wipe down the table, light the candles (and make sure there are fresh bars of soap in the bathrooms), set the table without forgetting the salt and pepper, etc. To combat my forgetfulness, I have created a party-planning checklist that I can consult to ward off last minute brain lapses. I print out the recipes I am going to use that day, and attach them to my checklist so that I have everything in one place.  This way, things don’t get lost in the pre-party shuffle. Also, I always make sure to have a notebook to scribble down incidentals, last minute ideas, or any other to-do list item, big or small.

Val’s Last Minute Entertaining Check List | 68kb Acrobat PDF

tips for last minute entertaining

When I arrived at Hollye’s on Saturday morning, we made a game plan based on the menu we had created the night before over email. One thing to remember when planning a party menu is you don’t have to go crazy with a ton of food. Just make good choices based on what’s fresh, what you can prepare easily in advance, and always try to cover your basic food groups, keeping in mind a sense of the season (as in, don’t serve a heavy steak and potatoes dish when it is hotter than Hades). When writing out the menu I always note the number of guests and a breakdown of kids and adults. I list drink ideas for both kids and adults, followed by the menu and the arrival time of the guests. I try to do as much prep work ahead of time as possible in order to make the actual cooking less stressful.

Following our plan, we took out all of the serving dishes we planned to use that day and arranged them on the kitchen counter.  To remind myself of what goes where, one entertaining “tip” is to label each platter and serving utensil with its corresponding dish.  This ensures that nothing gets forgotten.

I arrived at Hollye’s beautiful home at 10:30 a.m. and was there until about 12:15 p.m. We had so much fun prepping food, chatting and setting the table that the time just seemed to fly by. Helping friends like this is a great way to visit while accomplishing something constructive too. While Hollye arranged the tables (one for the kids and two placed together for the adults), I got to have some fun in her gorgeous garden by cutting sweet, simple white daisies for the beautiful antique vases she laid out for the table.

So, what menu did we eventually devise? Hollye was with me at Maili’s cooking class a few weeks back, and she knew she wanted to make Maili’s Orzo Salad, so we used that dish as a starting point for our menu. To accompany the salad, we slow roasted salmon, a great dish (stay tuned) to make in advance, and we also did mini buffalo burgers for big and little kids, alike — Trader Joe’s has adorable mini buns, which are fun for this type of thing.

For the adults, we added a simple green salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes. Then for the kids, we chopped some extra veggies and arranged some carrots on a platter with a tasty dip — an appealing veggie option. My final task before heading off to the beach with my family was to mix up the flat bread recipe and get it rising on the counter (I just use my pizza dough recipe for this). When it was time to start cooking, all Hollye had to do was roll out the dough and grill it on her outdoor BBQ with a little EVOO and a sprinkling of Zaatar*.


Flatbread with Zaatar

Slow Cooked Salmon with Herbs

Mini Buffalo Cheeseburgers

Maili’s Orzo Salad

Mac and Cheese

Salad with Garden Veggies (two ways)

Finely’s Flaugnarde


*Zaatar is a Middle Eastern blend of sumac, sesame seeds, and dried herbs. While the sumac adds salty tanginess, the toasted sesame seeds add a yummy nuttiness. I buy it at our local European Market, but if you’re in Santa Barbara, you can buy it at the International Deli & Market on 4422 Hollister Ave, or on Amazon.