8 Genius Meal-Prep Tips to Steal from Professional Caterers

Save time, money and sanity with these handy entertaining tips straight from the caterers' playbooks.

By: Amy Preiser

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Prep Like a Pro

Who doesn't dream of having a personal home chef? Do you long for one person to prep family dinner every night so it's a stunning, delicious and stress-free affair? Or maybe you need someone who can turn dinner parties into delectable occasions that impress your guests and leave you able to enjoy the food and company. We can't help you finance that kind of lifestyle, but we can deliver the next best thing. We interviewed top caterers from around the country on what kind of brilliant, timesaving shortcuts you can steal right from their playbooks. From prep tips that free up your afternoon to mini recipes that look far more involved than they are, these tips are all you need to cook like a pro.

Get Your Ratios Right

Struggling with how to meal plan for a family dinner that often ranges from two to seven? Are you organizing a dinner party with more than your average amount of guests? Althea Potter, executive chef of Southeast Wine Collective in Portland, Oregon, and co-founder of Cuisinières Catering & Events, has some advice. "For a dinner, I recommend 1 pound of meat per person if the meat has a significant amount of bone (like a roast chicken), or half a pound per person if it is boneless (like pork tenderloin)," she explains. "Once you've decided on a protein, choose two or three sides, about a third to half a pound per person each." Hear that? That's the sound of our anxiety simmering down as we plan our next party.

Believe in the Sear

Looking for a way to save time and lessen any opportunities for cooking disasters? Andrew Dunlop, executive chef at Chicago's LM Catering & Events, recommends searing your meat ahead of time. Once you've seared it, pop it into the refrigerator for up to a day. And when it's game time? "Don't take it straight out of the refrigerator to cook — you have to temper your meat, leaving it out for half an hour or so to take away the chill," he explains. Then it's as simple as warming it up in the oven, knowing that the heavy sear is packing a more delicious punch than your average roasted meat. For an even tastier result, set the oven to a low temperature and let the meat cook longer — perfect for tossing in a few hours before dinner while you prep the rest of the meal (or just sit down with a glass of wine).

Watch the Salt!

"Never use salted butter in cooking. Use unsalted butter and be in control of your own salt content," says Liz Sfeir, the owner of Well Done Catering out of Cleveland. "Nothing is worse than making a beautiful sauce, but then tasting it to find out it's too salty, because of the salt in the butter." Those are wise words we'll be taking to heart. Who knew a simple grocery list swap could decrease the chances of having to start over after finishing up a lovingly prepared dish?

Buy Yourself Time

And by that we mean in the form of premade foods. "Buying some prepared products to help cut down on the cooking you need to do is fine, but choose wisely," says Potter. "Order meat from a local BBQ place, but make your own fresh sides," she suggests. "Or buy store-bought hummus, but do not buy precut and assembled vegetable platters." The reasoning? "They look cheap, and they are actually much more expensive than buying and prepping the vegetables yourself." 

Invest in a New Toy

Several chefs we spoke with started our chat by hailing the power of sous vide. (You can now find sous-vide precision cookers on sale for about $200.) Dunlop praises sous-vide tools for helping you keep foods delicious and at the perfect temperature when you're not able to be fussing over a stove or pan for hours, checking in. He recommends filling a vacuum-packed bag with seared meat, a little stock or jus, and a bit of olive oil and spices. "Use the sous vide to warm it up slowly to 165 degrees for chicken or 128 for a steak, and then it can hold for hours without damaging the taste at all." If caterers are keen on these tools for protecting food against an extra-long bridesmaid's toast, you know they're perfect for keeping things in order on the road to family dinner.

Know Your Guests

"Planning a menu to accommodate dietary restrictions can be difficult," Potter notes. But that doesn't mean you have to go all out and create an entirely vegan or gluten-free menu. Instead, carefully curate your dishes. For a dinner party where you'll be hosting a guest with a gluten-free diet, Potter recommends you "provide a protein, a vegetable and a starch that are gluten-free, but still serve bread and possibly another side that contains gluten to the rest of the guests." She advises letting your guest with dietary restrictions know (discreetly!) which dishes are tailored to them. "They will be grateful that you made the effort."

For Dessert, Go Trendy

"It's very fashionable to serve a compote for dessert," says Alejandro Muguerza of South Florida catering and event production company, Le Basque. Also, it's an easy make-ahead dish. "Buy prunes, dried figs, apricots and pineapples, and cover them in boiling water," Muguerza advises. "Let it simmer for an hour with a pinch of cinnamon, peel of whole lemon and a star anise, then let it rest at room temperature overnight." Serve your creation from a soup bowl, preferably accented with some cheese ice cream, which you can source from select ice cream shops or make in an ice cream maker. And, if you're making it ahead of time, it can chill for two to three days in the refrigerator.

Remember: Presentation Is Key

If you're serving guests a buffet-style meal, with the dishes lined up on your kitchen counter, take a money-saving tip from the pros. "Place the less expensive menu item first and work your way down to the most expensive item, usually the meat entree," advises Sfeir. "Guests will fill their plates as they go and have less room for the more expensive items." Also, take her lead when it comes to presentation, and offer up 9-inch plates rather than 10-inchers so guests don't pile up more than they'll actually want to eat.