Your Guide to Party Menu Planning

For a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I really love to throw parties. Giving other people a good time (and feeding them fabulous, fun food) is one of the most satisfying experiences in my life. Do you feel that way? Or do you feel intimidated at the thought of feeding a crowd? It’s only natural–I mean, what if it all goes screwy? What if nothing’s ready on time, or you put too much gorgonzola in the cheese dip, or aliens beam down and eat your Christmas turkey like the Bumpus’s dogs in A Christmas Story? I can’t help you with the aliens scenario, but as a veteran party-thrower (and menu planner and cook) I’m happy to offer a step-by-step guide to party menu planning. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Plan Ahead.

Planning a party menu is like planning your wedding. It can be slapped together last-minute, but you’re gonna get a sleazy Vegas chapel with pink plastic flowers and Elvis as the best man…when you might really have wanted a tasteful affair with all your loved ones in attendance. Like anything else worth planning, a great party menu requires a solid stretch of time ahead to prepare. My suggestion is at least one month.

2. Determine your Food Event–and tell your guests what it is in the invitation.

What do you plan to offer your guests, food-wise? A meal? A snack? Dessert? Drinks? If you’re hosting a dinner party, the answer is obvious: dinner. Other events can be less black and white, but typically start time is one key to making this determination. For a bridal shower at 10:00, guests are likely to expect a brunch. Cocktail party at 5:00? Drinks and appetizers. I get frustrated when I go to a party at 7:00, say, without knowing what to expect. Is it dinner? Or do I eat dinner first? Then, if I already ate dinner first, I don’t really want to eat mozzarella sticks and crab dip–I want dessert! (First world problems, I know.) Essentially, you don’t want to mess with people’s whole daily food schedule by giving them food they weren’t prepared to eat.

From a Mad Hatter tea party bridal shower brunch for my sister-in-law

3. Determine a serving style and/or theme.

Okay, so you’ve decided to host a dinner party for ten. Now think about whether you want to plate all ten of those meals yourself in the kitchen, pass dishes at the table, or serve buffet-style. How fancy is the party? (And how fancy are the people coming?) What kind of serve ware do you own?

Secondly, a theme narrows menu planning down considerably, which can be extremely helpful in the overwhelming tide of ideas from Google and Pinterest. Mad Hatter tea party, Asian buffet, and ’80s party are all party menus I’ve had fun planning because they’ve given me parameters to set a scene.

From my ’80s 30th birthday party

4. Variety is the spice life…and of a party menu.

Our annual Christmas party–a buffet of dinner appetizers–is the one party I don’t typically choose a theme for. I guess it’s just too much fun scouring the internet and my cookbooks for a wide range of recipes. Certain guidelines do help me hone down the menu, though. I always try to offer a variety of meat dishes (beef, chicken, bacon, etc.) alongside several vegetarian options. Some are hearty, some are light. Some are carb-laden, others are mostly protein. Some dishes are old standbys, while others pack an element of surprise. A playful menu is a fun menu–and a memorable one, too.

From my son’s Star Wars birthday party–get it? It’s Han Solo in the trash compactor!

5. Don’t do it all yourself.

For any party of more than a handful of guests, it’s dang hard work cooking enough food for all those people all by yourself! This is where your dear friends Costco and Trader Joe’s lend a helping hand. Interspersing ready-made dishes with homemade ones lightens your load and allows you to actually sleep the night before your event. Alternatively, if you feel truly compelled to make everything in your own kitchen, consider hiring a friend or your kids’ babysitter to come over the day of and do your culinary bidding.

6. Consider your budget.

For most of us, budget is always a consideration. While I might like to go crazy for my husband’s birthday and get him a cheesecake flown in from the Carnegie Deli in NYC, that would pretty much shoot my whole budget (plus it wouldn’t get here in time–his birthday is tomorrow). Despite the conventional wisdom that making food yourself ends up being cheaper, my experience has generally proven the opposite. Take spanakopita, for example. You can either purchase the phyllo dough, the spinach, the ricotta, the feta, etc. or you can purchase the frozen pre-made version for $4. Some very simple, minimal-ingredient party foods are the exception.

7. Figure out how much food to serve.

The best way to do this is to get yourself a cheat sheet, like the one here. Thanks, Cooking for Crowds for Dummies! It comes down to simple math: take the number of guests you expect (never hurts to pad this number a little if you don’t know exactly how many people will make it), multiply it by the amount listed on the cheat sheet, and plan to make that much.

FYI: for brain cupcakes, the standard is 1 brain per person. (From our Hitchcock Movie Night.)

8. Get cookin’!

And don’t forget to do whatever you can in advance, using your freezer if necessary. And don’t stress–remember, this is for fun! And even if you burn the rolls (or the brains, as the case may be) your friends will still love you and are sure to have a good time.*

“Boo-nanas” from our preschool Halloween party

*As long as you provide alcohol.

9 Ways to Simplify This Holiday Season

You might already have two questions about this post:

(Read these in your best Jim Gaffigan voice-in-the-audience’s-head tone)


1. Why is she talking about the holidays? It’s only November 3rd. Is this going to be one of those “Christmas Creep” things where we’re supposed to pretend the Christmas season starts the day after Halloween?

2. Does this have to do with food? If not, why is it on this blog? I thought the name was “A Love Letter to Food.” If it doesn’t have to do with eating, I’m going back to Paula Deen’s Miracles of Cool Whip on Food Network.

Well, that was significantly more than two questions, but the short version of the answers goes like this:

1. No, I am not participating in Christmas Creep! I am participating in the opposite! (Which for the sake of this blog, let’s call “Christmas Drag.”)

2. No, it doesn’t particularly have to do with food, but It’s my blog, so I can still write about it. 😉 But I promise this won’t happen too often.

The reason I bring all this up in early November is that this weekend I went clothes shopping at a couple of department stores and was totally overwhelmed with the craziness of Operation Christmas In Your Face. You know about this, right? As soon as the doors close on the trick-or-treaters, stores all around the country haul out their holiday bells and whistles and start trying to brainwash you into believing Christmas is just around the corner. Which, okay, it sort of is–but going into these stores seriously stressed me out. I felt like it was December 23rd, not November 3rd. The lines were long, there was Christmas music playing, Christmas decorations and ads everywhere, AND the lady behind me in line banged her cart into my ankle so hard I almost started crying in line. 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.™

I came home with a resolution to simplify my holiday season this year. No one wants to feel harried, stressed, and bossed around by someone else’s agenda–commercial, familial, or otherwise–at the time of year that’s supposed to be about peace on earth and goodwill toward men. I know this is not a new story. It’s a repeat problem, one we all lament year after year. But my sense is that the lamenting doesn’t get us very far. This thing has to be approached with a PLAN.

So I gave it some thought and here are 9 of things I plan to do to this year to keep the sugar plums dancing in my head from driving me nuts…unless we’re talking about candied almonds. Then I’m on board. 

1. Shop Online (aka Stay Away From Retail Stores in November/December)
No parking, no crowds, no lines, no annoying music, no overtired children (except for my own, but I can just put them to bed since, hey, I’m at home). Buying online, you are less likely to make impulse buys like those Godiva chocolates that seem to be at so many registers. Plus, I’ve learned there is SO much more selection of original gifts available online than at the mall. Etsy.com is one place to start; also check out the personalized gifts at Zazzle.com.

2. Plan Ahead. 
It is only still November! If you get shopping and planning done little by little starting now, you have a guarantee of less stress down the road.

3. Keep an Excel Spreadsheet of Gifts and their Cost, Recipients, and Total Spending.
For me, part of the stress of Christmas gift-giving is the feeling that I’ve spent too much–though I don’t really know how much. Ugh, that’s a bad feeling. So this year I’m keeping tabs with a simple Excel spreadsheet. I enter the above four categories and it not only calculates my total, it helps me track who I’ve purchased for.

4. Buy handmade / local / edible / experiential / second-hand gifts, rather than STUFF.
Another part of negative emotion that can cloud Christmas is the feeling that you’re merely contributing to the overproduction/overconsumption cycle we Americans are so famous for. Buying gifts that don’t come from a department store and won’t clutter up someone else’s home helps you opt out of that. Plus, supporting local businesses, artisans, farmers’ markets, etc. helps your community.

5. Make Your own Simple Gift Wrap.
This may sound like a small thing to stress over, but buying gift wrap is one more expense around the holidays, and using it can be one more waste. This year I plan to follow the example of my inventive neighbors and take apart Trader Joe’s paper bags to use as wrapping paper (blank side out), stamping the front of each gift with an inexpensive but pretty Christmas stamp from Michael’s. The stamp will be reusable in years to come. This may not be practical with gifts for someone you really want to impress, but for any like-minded recipient (like my husband) it should be fine!

6. Pare Down the Decor
As Dr. Suess once said, “If decor is a chore, less can be more.” No, he actually didn’t, but if he ever wrote a children’s book about lowering stress levels at Christmas, this is what he would have said. Pick some of the your beloved decorations to put out and leave the rest in the garage this year.

7. Opt Out.
If your office / play group / 75-person extended family / Lithuanian Kazoo Players’ Guild does an annual gift exchange, would it really be so bad to opt out? Certainly most of us want to give meaningful presents to the people in our lives who mean the most, but if you’ve been invited to do a gift exchange with people you don’t see that often and/or aren’t major players in your life, maybe opting out is the lesser of two evils. 


8. Limit to 2-3 Top Activities for December.
The great thing about Christmas is that it comes around every year. Sometimes we can feel the need to pack every fun Christmas-y experience possible into those three to four weeks leading up to the big day. But at a certain point, it simply becomes busyness. Pre-selecting only a small handful of activities to commit to (a performance of A Christmas Carol, ice skating, and one party, let’s say) adds more breathing room to the season. There’s always next year for the life-size gingerbread house making extravaganza.

9. SERVE!
As you limit your calendar in December, take advantage of the extra time to find a way to serve others in need. There’s nothing like it for putting Christmas craziness in perspective. You can be sure local homeless shelters, St. Vincent de Paul, nursing homes, and those they serve will be thankful for your help–and have lots for you to do. 

On that note, I’ll leave you with a song that captures my point with this post:

Preschool Halloween Party (Games and Recipes!)


The partiers (minus a few who had gone home for naps)

What do you get when you combine Halloween costumes, spooky treats, crazy games, and 20 preschoolers? Chaos! A whole lotta fun! (And one pretty exhausted mama.) This morning was our play group’s annual Halloween party. For the last four years, I’ve been a member of the East Valley Catholic Stay-at-Home Moms’ Group (yeah, we have a long name) and had attended this annual event at my friend Marsha’s a couple of years ago. Her effort and creativity are the envy of everyone in the group…and oh yeah, she’s also an environmental scientist. Did I mention she’s awesome? Last year she made 40 Halloween gingerbread houses for the kids to decorate. Dedication, I tell you! So this year, since she moved into a new house only weeks ago, I volunteered to host the party at my place–with a lot of help from Marsha, thankfully! I have to say I think the event was a success. (And get ready–this is a long post.)

Once the dozen or so moms and their little ones gathered at our place at 10, we started out with a craft. For preschoolers, I’m a believer that simpler is better. This craft was decorating an orange paper plate with stickers to make it look like a jack-o-lantern.

Or at least an approximation of a jack-o-lantern…

Next, we headed to the backyard for some games. The lineup was:

1. Pumpkin Penny Toss

This is basically skee-ball on a much smaller (preschool) scale. Have the kids stand behind a line and do their best to toss pennies into the different point level spaces. Super easy!

2. Pin the Nose on the Pumpkin

It’s not rocket science, but it sure is fun! This game was store-bought, but you could easily DIY with some tagboard, markers, and double-stick tape.

3. Tootsie Ghost Hunt

The Halloween version of an Easter egg hunt! Kids searched for Kleenex-wrapped Tootsie pop ghosts hidden throughout the yard. The good thing about this kind of hunt is that even if you find the missing Tootsie pops 6 months later, they won’t be rotting in a pile of stinky goo like eggs.

4. Mummy Surprise

What, you may ask, is mummy surprise? Good surprise or bad surprise? For this activity, I wrapped prizes (small Halloween foam stamps) in strips of an old white sheet, trying to make the wrapping as convoluted as possible. Kids had to unravel the strips to reveal their prize.

5. Donut Dare


This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the party. I played this game at camp in junior high and have wanted to play it again ever since. Tie a donut on a string, then hang it from the ceiling with a thumbtack. The idea is for the kids to eat it without using their hands–it’s harder than it sounds and hilarious to watch!

After the games were done, everyone headed inside for a lunch of creepy Halloween-themed treats. (I said the donut game was my favorite part…but this might actually be my favorite part.) Dividing the work with Marsha made for a much lighter workload when it came to feeding 20-25 people a themed lunch. So let’s get down to the real business: the food!

The menu:

Main Dish:

Pumpkin-Shaped Cheese Ball with Crackers and Veggies (recipe here)

Spider Deviled Eggs (recipe here)

Pumpkin-Sage Flatbread (recipe here)

(No pics of any of these–sorry! I guess I was busy supervising children eating donuts on strings.)

Boo-nanas

These were adorable…yet tragic. I had pre-made these and frozen them. In getting ready for the party, I unwittingly set them out too early and they got bent and slimy and basically inedible–more like banana worms than banana ghosts. Lesson learned: either eat these fresh or, if you freeze them, eat shortly after taking them out of the freezer.

To make these, slice a banana in half and insert a popsicle stick. Press two chocolate chips in the top for eyes. For presentation, I wrapped blocks of flower foam with patterned scrapbook paper and stuck the boo-nanas into them.

Eyeball Grape Salad

Cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, grapes–that’s all it takes to make Eyeball Grape Salad. (Adapted from allrecipes.com)

Ham and Cheese Pumpkin Pockets

I got several recipe requests for these, so I’ve posted the recipe here. They were a hit!

Desserts:

Desserts! The best part of every holiday!

Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes (pictured on the left)

Apple Cake

I baked this delicious recipe in a pumpkin-shaped cake tin. Yeah, it was apple in the shape of a pumpkin. You got a problem with that?

Witch Hat Cookies

Super cute and super easy: take an upside-down Keebler chocolate shortbread cookie, frost with a little bit of peanut butter or orange frosting, top with a Hershey’s kiss.

Chocolate Pretzel Fingers

For this one, you need a mold to get the bony finger effect (pictured above on the right). Experience has taught me that any time you use a mold, SPRAY the dickens out of it with cooking spray before filling. I used chocolate with a little vegetable oil to fill the mold, then added a pretzel rod and coated with the chocolate mixture.

Whew! You still with me? Hopefully this crazy-long post provides some inspiration if you’re looking for Halloween treats and activities. Our little party was some good, wholesome fun for some adventurous preschoolers. And if you ask me, that’s way more enjoyable than the give-you-nightmares-for-a-week variety of Halloween. I’m for it. 🙂