Meatballs with toothpicks and sauce

Photo: Thinkstock

Impress with Appetizers
It seems counterintuitive to go big on appetizers when you could just open a bag of chips, but starting off with a wow-worthy hors d'oeuvre is easier than you think. Make mini meatballs the week (or even month) before, throw them in the freezer, and thaw them in the fridge the day before your party. An hour before guests arrive, transfer the meatballs to a slow cooker and let them simmer away on low. (It's worth borrowing a friend's if you don't have one, since the cooker doesn't throw off any heat and will keep food warm for hours without burning.) Set out toothpicks and cocktail napkins, and trust us, no one will be asking where the cheese and crackers are.

Get the recipes: Chicken Meatballs and Spicy Pork Meatballs
The Tastiest Roast Chicken Known to Man

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

Keep the Kitchen (and the Host) Cool
There's a direct correlation between kitchen temperature and the host's composure (see overheated party thrower syndrome), so it's a big help if you can avoid turning on the oven when your house is packed with guests. Plus, serving room-temperature dishes means you can put the food out whenever you want (not just when it's hot) and not worry about whether everyone is making their way to the buffet table in a timely manner. Your best bet is roast chicken or pork tenderloin, both of which you can cook in the morning and let sit under tented aluminum foil for a few hours. Slice the meat just before serving so it stays juicy. A good vegetarian option is quiche or frittata.

Get the recipes: The Tastiest Roast Chicken Recipe Known to Man, Kitchen Workhorse Pork Tenderloin with Asian Glaze, and Zucchini Frittata
Grilled Squash and Orzo Salad with Pine Nuts and Mint

Photo: Erin Kunkel

Make Your Sides Work
Grain-based salads such as couscous, farro, lentils and wheat berries are side-dish multitaskers, combining starches and vegetables (and sometimes fruit too). Make them the night before; just hold off on adding garnishes such as basil, mint or parsley until dinnertime—those ingredients will get soggy if they sit for more than 40 minutes or so. Wedges of pita or thick slices of baguette help sop up any extra dressing and round out the meal.

Get the recipes: Grilled Squash and Orzo Salad with Pine Nuts and Mint, Farro Salad with Creamy Artichoke Dressing, and Moroccan-Spiced Roasted Cauliflower and Carrot Salad with Chickpeas and Couscous
Lemon and Almond Streamliner Cake

Photo: Erin Kunkel

Serve Cake That Gets Better with Age
Some foods actually improve after a few days in the fridge. When it comes to desserts, fruit-based cakes tend to age particularly nicely (perhaps lemon and apple flavors just need a few days to fully blossom). The trick to keeping a cake tasting fresh is to let it cool completely after it comes out of the oven. Then wrap it tightly in plastic and refrigerate. Let the dessert come to room temperature for about an hour before serving.

Get the recipes: Lemon and Almond Streamliner Cake and Spiced Apple Cake
Cupcake liners

Photo: Thinkstock

Make the Easiest Dessert Even Easier
Ice cream is a no-brainer way to end a meal, but you can make it even easier by measuring out servings ahead of time. Before your party, cover a tray or jelly roll pan with cupcake liners and fill each with a scoop of ice cream. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until it's time for dessert. Guests can pick up as many scoops as they like, place them on small plates and help themselves to toppings. No drippy mess as you scoop to order, and a novel presentation to boot.

Next: 6 easy ways to get ready for guests when you're exhausted