Planning a menu can be stressful…especially when it’s for a large party or celebration. Planning party menus is something I happen to really enjoy, but based on the number of questions I receive on this topic during my Connecticut cooking classes, I’m well aware that it isn’t exactly fun for most people. How to begin, what to make, how much is enough, and what can be done in advance?
I have a few rules of thumb for party planning, designed to simplify the process and allow you as the host to actually enjoy your gathering:
Start planning well in advance of your party. Depending on the size of the party, I start at least a week ahead of time. I take this time to come up with menu ideas, make grocery lists, and make a timeline of what can be prepared in advance and what needs to be done the day of the event.
Come up with a menu. The key to a good party menu is that you choose items that are not last-minute-labor-intensive, meaning you can do most of the work before anyone even walks in the door. This way when everyone arrives you can have a glass of wine and enjoy your party!
I think of the menu in four parts: hors d’oeuvre, main meal, dessert, and drinks. For hors d’oeuvre, I try to keep it simple by having mostly, if not all, cold items (cheese and crackers, chips and dip, etc). I might make one hot item only if it doesn’t interfere with my oven schedule. For my main entrée, I don’t go overboard with too many side dishes. For a smaller dinner party (10 people and under) I’ll choose some sort of protein (meat or fish), a green salad, and one to two side dishes (one vegetable, one starch). If I’m having a larger, buffet-style party, I’ll usually have two entrée options (maybe a pasta as the first and a meat dish as the second), the same green salad, and one to two sides. I also always get a good loaf of bread from my favorite local bakery to have sliced up in a basket. I almost always purchase my desserts because baking is time-consuming and not my forté, so I leave that to the professionals. And last but not least, beverages. To alleviate having to set out a full bar of various bottles and mixers, I usually have wine/beer/seltzer on hand, and then I’ll mix up a big pitcher drink that goes along with the theme of my meal—Sangria for a Paella party, Vodka Lemonade for my cookout menu.
Come up with a theme. I like to theme my menus based on the season. No mid-winter barbeques or July chili parties. I also like to give them some other sort of theme, whether it be ethnic/regional (southwestern food; Thai food), surrounding an event (Independence Day; football season), or even around a particular food (I once did an entire menu based around lemons). Of course this part isn’t necessary, but it makes it fun and also gives you some direction when planning the menu.
Practice makes perfect. It’s best to make recipes with which you are comfortable, preferably, ones you’ve made before. Unless you’re extremely comfortable in the kitchen, don’t make something for the very first time when 25 people are on their way over to your house! Even the most experienced cooks can have this backfire. So, stick with what you know, or if you do want to try something new, it’s probably not a bad idea to do a ‘trial run’ before your party! To make things even lower stress, when I find a menu I really like, I write it down in a little notebook I keep on the shelf with my cookbooks for future use. I also write who I made the menu for so I don’t do the same one for the same group of people twice!
Make lists. I’m a bit of a list-freak, but I usually have no fewer than three for any given party. First my menu. Second, my shopping list. And third, my timeline of what needs to be done when. This helps me get as much done ahead of time as is possible, plus it keeps me from forgetting anything the day of the party!
Have fun! So many people tell me how they never get to enjoy their party because they are so busy working at it! As I mentioned, do-ahead items are key. I also think keeping the sheer number of items to a reasonable number is important (do you really need seven different hot hors d’oeuvre and five side dishes?). Also, there is absolutely no shame in purchasing prepared foods! The truth is that most people are just happy to be out, happy that someone else is cooking, and especially happy not to have to clean up afterward! It doesn’t matter if everything isn’t perfect or restaurant-quality. What matters is that everyone has a good time. And that includes YOU. So enjoy!