Your guide to menu planning for parties

What's a party without food? While the type of party you're planning will lay the foundation for what kind of food you'll serve, here are some guidelines will help you craft a menu that will have your guests raving!

Think about the theme

Themes aren't necessary for a party, but if your party does have one, that will help you refine the menu more quickly. Planning a Lunar New Year dinner party? Go for foods that are meaningful like noodles, dumplings and fish. We recommend doing your research, especially if it's a cultural holiday. Or if you're planning a French-themed menu, then wine and cheese are musts, and consider serving roast chicken as a main and crème brûlée for dessert.

Keep the setting in mind

The tone of your event is important. Will it be a formal sit-down dinner or will this be a casual gathering? If the former, serving steaks will probably work. But if your guests are perched on couches, cutting a steak while balancing a plate in their laps isn't ideal. Think how many people will be there, and how much food is feasible for you to prepare. If it's a large party, ordering foods can help lighten your load.

Consider the seasons

Produce that's in season won't just be fresher and more delicious, it's also a great way to get inspired when menu planning! If you have time, go to your grocery store or local farmer's market to see what's in season. Plus, it makes life much easier for you to shop for your ingredients when they're abundantly available.

Balance flavors, textures and colors

The whole of your menu is greater than the sum of its parts, so be intentional about how your dishes and drinks complement each other. For instance, if you're serving a richer, heavier dish like risotto, having a fresh salad dressed with bright, citrusy vinaigrette will cut through the creamy risotto. The same goes for dessert—if you're serving cheesecake, a denser dessert, then an airy chocolate mousse can provide contrast. Or if your main meal is quite heavy, serving sliced fresh fruit and truffles might be the right note to end on. Presentation is also everything! Lay out your spread so colors balance each other and group dishes together that make sense. Another tip: if your party will be a serve-yourself affair and the food will be laid out throughout the party, think of dishes that sit well.

Keep it simple

This one is key, but so many people forget it! Delicious almost always beats impressive, especially if you're adding to your stress by creating a complicated dish. Beef Wellington, for instance, is a wonderful but labor-intensive dish that might not be suited for a casual, buffet-style party. On another note: we don't recommend trying a new-for-you recipe unless you have time to test it beforehand.

Divide and conquer

Executing the menu does not have to be your sole responsibility! If you're a seasoned cook and insist on doing everything from scratch, then by all means, make the boeuf bourguignon with pureed cauliflower and roasted green beans on the side. Otherwise, recruit help! Cater side dishes from your favorite restaurant, ask your baker friend to whip up a dessert, or buy frozen appetizers so you can focus on the main dish.

Prep, prep, prep

Cooking almost always takes longer than you expect, to say nothing of the pile of dishes you're left with. Professional kitchens are able to whip out dish after dish because all their ingredients are prepped and ready to go. Whether it's cutting all your crudités the day before, making the pie dough for dessert a week beforehand and freezing it, or mixing the iced tea you're serving the evening beforehand...your future self will thank you.

Tips & ideas for different types of parties

  • Brunch: Many brunch dishes are great for preparing ahead of time and baking/reheating the day of. Quiches and frittatas are a great example. Cooking bacon in the oven is also a great set-it-and-forget method instead of standing over your pan when you could be doing other things. One of our favorite dishes to serve at brunch is bread pudding—it shines as your sweet dish, and you can let the bread soak in the custard the night before and pop it in the oven to cook before your guests arrive. Mimosas are a classic drink and setting up a mimosa bar with different juice selections beyond OJ (grapefruit juice, guava juice) would be fun, in addition to having coffee and tea available.
  • Lunch: Consider serving lighter fare or small bites at a lunch party. We love build-your-own meals, which allow your guests to customize as they please. A Mediterranean-themed lunch with a selection of meats for guests to create their own wraps means you can have a wealth of sides. From multiple kinds of hummus to roast veggies to tabbouleh, you'll have a spread to remember. We recommend sparkling water, fresh juices and lemonade to pair with lunch.
  • Dinner: A charcuterie board and wine is a great start for guests, especially if it isn't a sit-down party. We always love the mingling that happens around a charcuterie board, which can also be prepared beforehand and is easy for you to replenish. For your main dish, a protein, veggie and carb are the winning combo so go for whatever your guests will love. If it's spring, salmon with asparagus would be fresh and tasty. Dessert can be simple: buy ice cream and serve it with fresh fruit. If it's fall, a hearty stew with roasted veggies and an apple crumble for dessert would really hit the spot.

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