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.

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.)


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

Ham and Cheese Pumpkin Pockets

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


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. 🙂