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.

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