10 Tips To Plan The Perfect Menu for Any Gathering

You set your intention. You made your guest list and budget. Now it’s time to plan the menu. The menu is a vital part for any party. Food connects people in a way that few things do. You don’t need to be an Iron Chef to pull off a delicious, beautiful, and enjoyable menu. But the options are endless. Here are a few tips to help you plan your menu and actually enjoy the feast that you prepared.

1 Match Your Tone

In my last post, Back to Basics: How to Start Planning Your Next Party, we started the planning process with setting an intention. This intention is the theme and tone that you want your gathering to have. Here is a perfect place it will help you to make decisions about your party. Is this casual or formal? Is this elegant or laid-back? Is this for Bastille Day or Cinco De Mayo? Using your intention will help you to narrow your focus.

2 Consider your guest list

First, consider how many guest you are having. For a dinner party for four you can plan for a more elaborate sit down meal. Whereas if you are hosting a party for 20 people you may want to do a simpler menu. Also keep in mind any dietary restrictions your guest might have. There are ways to work around every need and request.

3 Budget

Budget plays a major role. Your budget combine with amount of guest you are hosting will help you to determine what you serve. If your budget is limited, you will have to stick with more affordable ingredients. $100 for four people is much different than $100 for 20 people.

4 How will you serve

Start by thinking about your space. Are guests sitting around a table or are they mingling? Will you set up a buffet or will dishes be passed around the table? A rule of thumb, if people are not sitting at a table, do not serve food that requires utensils.

5 Timing is everything

Think about timing. If you are hosting a dinner after work, you’re going to want something very fast and simple to make. Or you may choose a menu that can be made completely in advance. When I am planning my menu for a major gathering like Thanksgiving, I break up the cooking between two days.

6 Find a balance

We use all our senses when we eat. Planning a menu is finding a balance between colors, textures, temperatures and flavors. Here’s how:

  • Color: When thinking about dishes, think about eating the rainbow. You want to include as many colors onto your guest plate.
  • Texture: Layer with different textures. The way I best understood this was thinking of a great salad. When making a great salad you layer together different textures together. You begin with lettuce and layer it with juicy protein, crispy vegetables, crunchy nuts, creamy cheese, and velvety dressing.
  • Temperature: I always like to have something that can be served at room temperature. Think salad, charcuteries and cheese board, along with the hot items.
  • Flavors: Entice your guest with the different smell of spices and hit all their taste buds. There are certain spices that complement each other better than others do. Here is a guide.

7 What’s in season

Think about what fruits and vegetables that are in season. In the fall and winter, people carve more hearty warm food, and lighter dishes in the spring and summer. Also when you choose foods that are in their prime, they actually taste better.

8 Decide on your dishes

Start by picking a main dish and go from there. Picking the main dish first with allow you to choose sides that compliment it and make it the star of the show.

  • Appetizers: I usually like to do one hot and one cold. I love making a charcuterie board with a mixture of meats, cheese, fruit and nuts. This has a little something for everyone. But you also can never go wrong with chips and dip and pigs in a blanket.
  • Main dish: This is the star of your meal. For large parties you may want 2-3 options for your main dish. The more people you are hosting the more dietary restrictions you will need to cater to.
  • Side dishes: Two side dishes is usually the magic number. Again if you are hosting a large event (over 20 people) you may want to double on the options. For side dishes, stick with one vegetable and one starch (potato/rice/grain). Two vegetable side dishes is fine too.
  • Dessert: End with something sweet. Dessert bars have been all the craze, but unnecessary. Keep it simple and remember to add balance to this course as well.

9 Make clean up easier

Cleaning up afterward is the most daunting task for me. There are a couple of tips that I have learned that have made it less overwhelming. First, clean as you go. This will help you not have a kitchen full of dishes a the end of the night. The other is using pyrex for your food. I started doing this especially when I prepare food in advance. They are oven and microwave safe, your left overs are ready for the fridge and they are nice enough to serve in.

10 Give yourself a break

You don’t have to make everything from scratch! Nor does need to look like a Pinterest board. Give yourself a break and keep it simple. If you are relaxed and enjoying your event, your guest will actually enjoy it more. This is suppose to be fun not stressful.

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