5 Choose a Theme
If you’re really stuck, this can often work as a distraction. It won’t make any one dish look more impressive but if you’re consistent with your theme, it still looks like you’ve put thought into what you’re serving. Go all out and use decorations and music to complete the look and keep the food fun and simple. Pick up some fortune cookies and frozen wonton soup and make a simple stir fry for an Asian theme. Or serve tequila and have your guests make their own burritos. If you want to break out of the global food theme, try decorating the table with building blocks and other kid’s toys, get disposable cartoon character tableware and serve spaghetti, chicken fingers and carrot and celery sticks with peanutbutter dip. The cooking may be easy but your dinner guests will love the effort you put in to create some childhood nostalgia.
If you don’t have the time or equipment to make anything brand new and exciting try just making a lot of different versions of similar things. For example, if you’ve been making chocolate chip cookies ever since you were a little kid, try creating a sampler platter, including some with chocolate chips and others with raisins, M&Ms or peanut butter chips. Instead of trying to cook up a fancy appetizer, serve a number of salads. These can be simple canned goods like corn, mushrooms or chickpeas each with different herbs, spices or dressings and you can add easy favorites like tuna salad, egg salad and cheeses and a basic vegetable salad. The result is a very expansive first course (or light meal) with almost no cooking involved.
3 Unusual Flavors
If you aren’t a kitchen guru, let Google help you out with this one. If you want to look like a true gourmand and present your guests with something they’ve never seen before, try combining ingredients in unusual ways. For example, fruit is usually reserved for breakfast or dessert so try searching for recipes that use your favorite fruit in a pasta dish or as a sauce for chicken or meat. One of the most common ways to do this is to include nuts or berries in a leafy vegetable salad. Things like beer and peanut butter that are usually independent of other ingredients can also have a lot to offer and are surprisingly versatile. A combination of ingredients that aren’t usually seen together will look more creative that the same old thing but may not actually require any more kitchen skills. Just remember, the internet is your friend here.
2 Buy Prepared Ingredients
We’re not saying that you should get takeout and then hide the wrappings before your guests come over but you should feel free to use some shortcuts. If you’re making lasagna, for example, don’t feel the need to make your own homemade tomato sauce. Sauce from a jar will work just fine and save you a huge headache. One of the really magical inventions of human history is frozen phyllo dough. The stuff is pretty hard to make if you’re not a qualified Greek grandmother. For the rest of us however, they sell it frozen in rolls in the supermarket. Once you’ve got that, things that sound complicated like spanakopita, bourekas, meat cigars and strudel become very easy. In fact, you can take almost any food and bake it in phyllo dough for a very impressive dish.
To garnish something basically means to decorate it. This usually means sprinkling some food with a complementary flavor over the top of the dish. The most common garnishes are fresh herbs, but nuts, seeds, cheese, spices and slices of fruit often work well too. Even little paper umbrellas can be used, although we suggest you avoid those unless you’re throwing a luau. If you really want to go all out, there are plenty of instructional videos around the internet that can show you how to create pretty shapes out of fruit, vegetables and chocolate, which can then be used to adorn food. However, use these with caution because if your dish is very plain, then a garnish that looks too fancy can just serve to highlight that. Instead, use simple ingredients that may already be incorporated in your dish. A sprinkling of paprika on top of a cheesy casserole, or a sprig of parsley in the middle of bowl of mushroom soup both stand out because of the color but also feel like they are a more natural part of your dish.
Have any other shortcuts to recommend? We’re always happy to get more ideas!