How to Plan a Menu for a Dinner Party or Event

April 17, 2017 by

Menu planning might possibly be one of my favourite things to do. Sad I know. We all have at least one unusual hobby and menu planning is definitely mine.

I host a lot of events, and never, ever, ever cook the same thing twice. It’s just so much fun to create something new each time, and try new recipes or new cuisines. I have three favourite types of menus: family style (shared platters), buffet (any kind of multi-dish get-up-and-serve spread), and finger food (cocktail style).

Although most of us love getting together just to be with friends and family, you have to admit that the food is always one of the most exciting parts of a get together. It’s just what we do – pretty much every culture gathers together for special occasions over food.

How to Plan a Menu for an Event

The biggest mistake I see people make is that they think only of the food and how many people will be eating it. Everyone loves leftovers, but when you get left with MOST of the food, you’ve majorly miscalculated! Often this is not even the result of the amount of food served, but HOW it’s served – the size of the plates, the ease of access to the food (for seconds!), how much people are drinking and how extensive the nibbles are.

Usually before you even get to deciding the menu, a whole lot of other decisions have already been made – the occasion, the guest list, the time, location, theme, and special features (such as a birthday cake). All of this should be taken into account when deciding what to serve at your event.

1. Know your numbers

You need to know:

  • Number being served (4 kids = 1 adult, or 2 teens = 1 adult)
  • Time of day and length of event (an event at 3pm for 2 hours vs 6pm for 6 hours)
  • Budget (how much you can afford to spend will guide your choices)

2. Understand how people will eat

This is the combination of tables and chairs or lack thereof. We all know how awkward it is to sit on a picnic rug trying to balance a full plate and prop yourself up at the same time, before you even start eating. If the ground isn’t even and you’ve served a saucy dish, you could have food running off the plate and onto your picnic rugs.

If you are intent on serving steak, then your guests have to be able to use a knife and fork. If you want to serve burgers, make sure people will have two hands free and a place to rest their plate. If you are limited by your venue or location, you’ll have to adjust your menu according to the space.

3. Work out what you have to cook with

I’m lucky because I have two ovens and almost every appliance known to man, plus a lot of foodie friends. I know if I need 3 slow cookers, I’ll have them. My husband can even borrow a pie warmer from work, which has helped us out for several parties in the past.

As you design your menu, you have to keep coming back to this point. I highly recommend writing out a running sheet, so you know what has to be cooked and kept warm and when it will all take place. If you intend to slow roast a joint of meat at 150 degrees, but also need to roast potatoes at 200 degrees at the same time, one oven won’t work for you. You either need to increase your cooking equipment, or change your menu. This is why I love slow cookers when you have a crowd. The keep warm function means you can keep vegetables, side dishes, meat, etc warm for hours at a safe temperature. Just don’t do what I did once and forget to top up the side dish on the buffet table. That polenta still haunts me….

4. Think about how you will serve

I have self-diagnosed ‘dinner party OCD’. I go into a panic when I think about people bringing random surprise dishes that they expect to be served but that don’t go with my menu, or different coloured or shaped plates to the ones I’m using. The only time I can cope with randomness is for a pot luck, where the random dishes and plates are deliberate. I just don’t like any odd things out.

So, you may not care as much as I do, but it does add to the overall effect of your event. The effort you put into presentation shows your guests you care and makes the event more special for them. While I’m a big fan of casual dining, if you are hosting a special occasion, I think it’s a necessity to do some things that you might not normally do for every day dining.

Make sure you have enough plates or bowls, cutlery, serving implements (one pair of tongs on a buffet is insufficient), serving platters/dishes (I label them with a slip of paper so I know what is going where when I’m in the panic of dishing it all up), serviettes or napkins, glasses and cups (appropriate for the drinks you’re serving), serving tables, and BINS. I learned my lesson when I hosted a party that included ribs. I didn’t have enough bins in close proximity to people so they threw them all into the lawn. I only realised when I saw my dog chewing on one (very dangerous!) and had to go through my entire lawn trying to pick up every last bone.

5. Plan the Menu

The most important part! Now that you know all the crucial details, you should be able to pick dishes that match your budget, your skill level, your equipment, and your guests.

There is no formula for planning a menu, but you do need to be a bit clever if you’re working to limited time and budget. My top tip is to take food you are comfortable with cooking and serve it in a new or more exciting way, for example, using a spice rub or glaze on a roasted chicken, serving pasta on one big massive platter (size is always impressive!), changing up the flavours of your sausage rolls, adding nuts and herbs to plain rice, or sauteed greens to mashed potato.

Here are some examples of the kind of thing I know works:

  • For finger food, choose items that can be made in advance and reheated well (sausage rolls, meatballs, arancini balls) alongside food that is easy to cook in a large amount and serve in individual portions (topped flatbreads or pizzas, salads in cups, bruschettas, brownies and slices, cupcakes). Finger food should never exceed two bites, both with savoury and sweet food.
  • When serving shared platters, stick to main+side pairings and only serve a number of choices that makes sense to eat on one plate (usually 3-4). This may include chicken pieces on a bed of potatoes and green beans, curry on a bed of rice, cold seafood on a bed of salad or sliced steak on top of grilled vegetables. This style of serving should try to combine the vegetables into one side dish, so they can be served together without the need for ‘auxiliary’ plates.
  • If preparing a buffet, make sure absolutely everything goes together, so any combination works. There is nothing worse than having to try to separate your food on a plate. For example, having Italian food mixed with Indian food won’t work – I don’t want a curry next to my porchetta. Buffets generally work best in cuisine themes, or if you’re choosing something ambiguous (like ‘modern Australian’!) then just ensure the flavours and textures work. I wouldn’t serve cold seafood next to a stew, or bbq ribs with lasagne.
  • Similar to a buffet, the ‘station’ style of serving also works really well, though in my experience can sometimes be a challenge to serve. This includes things like a taco bar, baked potato bar, make your own pizza (if you have an outdoor woodfired oven), sundae station, etc. This style of menu can be scaled up really easily, so it’s great for large crowds.

I’ll be posting some of my menus along with the recipe links soon!

My friends often worry that because they can’t cook, I will judge them if they serve packaged food at their party. This is simply not true, as I like a party pie as much as the next person. What I DO find disappointing, is when no effort is put into the presentation. Never take something out of the oven and just serve it off the oven tray. Don’t serve biscuits in the box they came in. Please don’t put bread rolls on the bbq table in their plastic bag. These little things not only make it seem like you’ve thought “that’ll do” for your guests, but also often make it harder to serve and eat.

6. Stress test it!

I’ve been to a lot of parties where the food is beautiful, but it doesn’t come together well as a meal. Particularly when you choose to serve things buffet style. I have a couple of vegetarian and vegan friends, whereas most others are big meat eaters. I used to cook smaller amounts of the vegetarian dishes and serve these on one end of the buffet table (not actually separately, and not signed either). What I began to notice however was that the ‘meat eaters’ would see these choices, and because they were nice foods to eat, include these on their plate as well. So by the time by vego and vegan friends got there, their main meals were mostly eaten!

This is normal buffet behaviour – unless people CAN’T eat a dish, they will generally try a bit of everything. My brother is notorious for this, and even when he’s at a family gathering he acts like he only has one shot at the buffet and therefore has to cram everything onto one plate. If you’ve provided lots of choice, this often results in very overloaded plates and/or lots of uneaten food (because people can only take a spoonful). This is why all buffet restaurants are all you can eat – can you imagine trying to choose a single plateful at a restaurant buffet?!

Consider how your whole meal will come together. If I serve up a vegetarian plate, or a gluten free plate, do I have enough to eat? Do all the dishes work well together? Have you served three different types of potato? Choice is often the enemy. Even when you serve a buffet or shared platter style meal, you must think about how the dishes combine together and what a serving/plateful will look like. Assume everyone will eat everything. Make sure those who can’t, have enough.

I once had a dinner party with lots of people, and thought I’d just do a simple shared meal, like lasagne. Once I tallied up all my guests food preferences and allergies, I ended up making 4 different lasagnes: traditional beef, vegetarian (again, turned out to be a meat eater favourite), low salicylate and lactose free (no wine, no tomatoes, no black pepper, no herbs, lactose free milk and cheese), and gluten free vegan (the vegetarian one but with egg and gluten free pasta, and almond milk bechamel). Although it was a lot of work, my guests were incredibly appreciative and wholly impressed. It also meant that everyone got to share the same meal, rather than the vegans off in a corner eating the green salad.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas for your next dinner party or event. Come back and take a look at my sample menus!

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