The holidays are a prime time for entertaining and whipping up impressive eats to share with friends and family. But if you live in a petite apartment, with kitchen counters that are best measured in square centimeters rather than square feet, hosting your crew for a festive meal can feel like a terrifying challenge.
Fear not, though: With a bit of organization, some strategic menu planning and a determined attitude, you can turn your cozy flat into the perfect setting for a fun, satisfying and relatively low-stress feast. Read on for small-space holiday entertaining tips from pro chefs and event planners with plenty of firsthand experience where tiny apartment kitchens are concerned.
Above all, keep it simple.
When you have limited space in your kitchen and your home in general, an uncomplicated approach to party hosting is in your best interest as well as your guests’. When putting together your menu, “don’t overcomplicate it,” advises chef Dan Churchill of Charley St. in New York City.
“Using fewer ingredients can actually mean a better (and less stressful to prepare) dish,” Churchill says. “I would concentrate on roasting and creating dishes that require one pan; that way, you can build flavors together and load up your oven and leave the rest of your kitchen for putting together sauces, sides, and so forth.” And speaking of which...
One-pan (or one-pot) dishes both save space and make for a satisfying meal.
Recipe developer and food blogger Jason Goldstein of Chop Happy insists that the best move for a holiday dinner in a small space is “an all-in-one dish. For example, I would make a slow cooker dish like brisket with potatoes or rib roast with seasonal vegetables. This allows you to save room and have both a main dish and a side handled.” Check out some of our favorite one-pot recipes.
Spread your prep schedule out over a few days.
If you leave all your party cooking until the day of the event, it virtually guarantees a stressful situation. Instead, “Top Chef” alum and chef/restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn urges you to “make sure you’ve prepped everything the day before so you’re not doing everything at the last minute.”
“Try to spread out the preparation of your meals,” says chef and recipe developer Laura Ritterman of Recipe Fairy. “Baking your desserts and freezing them, and then making your sides a couple days before, can help you avoid having to cook everything on the same day. Then you simply need to reheat the food on the day of!”
While cooking, take on one challenge at a time.
Even if you get a great head start on your prep work by cooking several dishes ahead of time, there will inevitably still be kitchen work to do on the day of the party. To accomplish those tasks as cleanly and quickly as possible, follow the advice of Portland, Oregon, chef (and “Top Chef” vet) Sara Hauman and “pull ingredients out of the cabinet or fridge and group them together depending on the recipe, then do one or two recipes at a time.”
Hauman says that “trying to tackle it all at once generally leaves me feeling overwhelmed and way more likely to forget an important step” ― but breaking up the workload makes the to-do list feel far more manageable.
Consider setting up extra surfaces in both the kitchen and your entertaining space.
A lack of counter space may be the single biggest obstacle to cooking for a party in an apartment kitchen. Luckily, it’s a problem that’s easy to fix with a bit of imagination (and a few temporary structures).
“When you don’t have a ton of countertop space, it’s time to start thinking about other flat surfaces for things like chopping and ingredient storage,” says New York-based chef and nutrition consultant Julia Chebotar. “If you have the space and extra money, invest in a rolling foldable kitchen island or cart. If you’re running short on either, take a look around your apartment for a quick fix. Do you have a coffee table you could clear off? Or maybe a slim television console or desk that’s light enough to drag closer to the kitchen? These make great temporary solutions.”
If the idea of rearranging furniture or household items feels daunting, start your repurposing adventure with something small and simple, like this suggestion from personal chef Robbie Held of Health Held in Hand: “[Try] sliding a cutting board across the sink for instant counter space.”
Be selective about your appliances.
Cooking a big meal in a small space might seem like an all-appliances-on-deck endeavor, where you’ll need pots on the stove, pans in the oven, containers in the microwave, sauces in the blender, veggies and proteins in the slow cooker... and a chaotic mess all over your counters (and in your head).
However, chef and cookbook author Priyanka Naik assures us the cooking process doesn’t have to go down like that. “My recommendation is to build a menu where the majority of the dishes can be made on either the stovetop or in the oven, [which lets you] avoid opening and closing the oven door while cooking on the stovetop and to avoid excess heat from the oven,” she says. “I know this from experience ― trust me!”
“If I have to make a dish that requires ‘roasted stuffed peppers’ but every other dish is made on the stovetop, I’ll just half and sear the peppers in a non-stick skillet on the stovetop and cover it with a lid to help the peppers cook through and get charred,” Naik notes. “This works [just as well as] turning on the oven, preheating it, greasing a baking sheet and opening and closing oven doors.”
Explore creative alternatives to typical holiday entrees.
Many traditional holiday meals (like roast turkey) are large-format dishes that require a great deal of oven and counter space to properly cook and serve. When hosting in a less-than-spacious home, it’s smart to consider alternatives to the typical festive fare that don’t take up quite as much kitchen real estate. For instance, event producer and entertaining expert Amber Mayfield of To Be Hosted in New York likes to swap out a big roast for a hearty and flavorful pasta dish, like “a short rib lasagna (or eggplant lasagna if you want to go meatless) or a bountiful seafood pasta. Some easy side dishes: roasted vegetables, garlic mashed potatoes, a beautiful salad, dinner rolls, or cornbread.”
If you’re dead-set on making a turkey in an apartment kitchen, avoid the full bird in favor of smaller pieces. Detroit-based chef and restaurateur Max Hardy suggests “options like turkey breast or turkey chops as an alternative.”
Set up a self-serve drink station.
The point of hosting a holiday party, in theory, is to spend time with loved ones. However, when said loved ones are milling in your small kitchen to chat and grab drinks and tie up the traffic flow through your workspace, you might find yourself wishing they’d spend time somewhere else. Luckily, recipe developer Ashley Schuering of The Grocery Addict knows an easy way to relieve this kitchen congestion: “Offer an apps-and-drink station to keep people out of the kitchen. I don’t know what it is, but people always seem to want to congregate in there, even if it’s tiny and hectic. Giving them something to eat and drink and ― most importantly ― the agency to serve themselves is the primary goal here.”
Heather Ramsdell, senior editorial director of The Spruce Eats, also views redirection as essential, encouraging us to “draw the crowd away from your kitchen. Put all beverages somewhere else. A big batch cocktail is super festive.” She notes that you can “lure [people] out by placing essentials outside of your kitchen. Have places for coats and bags. Have plenty of water, all of the ice, all of the drinks, and all of the snacks located outside of the kitchen. Borrow a cooler if you can.”
Clean as you go.
In spite of the challenges of entertaining in a small space, one advantage is that there’s “less space to clean up when it’s all said and done,” Hardy suggests. That said, waiting until the party ends to do all the dishes, wipe down every surface and deal with empty glasses and bottles can prove overwhelming, even in a little apartment.
Executive chef Nick Ritchie of Signature Kitchen Suite in Napa Valley, California, advises: “If you stick to keeping your process organized and cleaning as you go, your holiday cooking will be a lot less stressful, and you’ll be able to relax at the end knowing you don’t have a mountain of dishes waiting for you to complete. I use the same rule of thumb when preparing food in commercial kitchens as well.”