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6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Planning a Party Menu

Take the guesswork out of entertaining one answer at a time.

Published May 8, 2019.

Sarah Wilson

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Entertaining can be an intimidating task, especially if your celebration centers around the food. (And really, what celebration doesn’t?) Take a page out of our book and ask yourself a few simple questions before you plan your menu. Knowing the particulars like number of people, the time of day guests will arrive, and the length of time the party will last is just the beginning of whittling down to the perfect menu to satisfy every guest. We’ll walk you through each question and how best to determine what works for you. After you answer these questions, you’ll be honing your menu and ready to start cooking!

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1. How many guests are you expecting, and what kind of food are you serving?

The first step in planning a menu is to get the particulars in order. The initial questions you should be asking yourself are what meal are you planning to serve and for how many people? Will it be formal or casual? It could be appetizers-only for a handful of people, a full meal for 25, or anything in between. Once you know the number of people and style of dishes, you’re well on your way to building a menu.

2. Where and how will the food be displayed?

How you plan to feed your guests will depend on where you intend to present the food and what dishes will work for that setting. If a buffet is in order, you need to make sure you have a surface to present platters of food with plenty of room for guests to access it without a traffic jam. You will also need to consider dishes that can be eaten easily with a fork from a plate on your lap. If you’re planning a sit-down meal, ask yourself if you want platters of food to be shared family-style with each guest serving herself, or if you want to plate each dish before bringing it to the table.

3. Is there a theme or are there any dietary restrictions?

With number of people and menu-style settled, it’s time to think about whether or not there are allergies in the group, or if any of your guests have dietary requirements that need to be factored in to the menu. Accommodating a vegan or vegetarian in your group is easier than you think; there are many delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes that everyone will enjoy (see our Vegan Dinners and Vegetarian Dinners classes for some terrific dishes).

4. Are there any seasonal ingredients you can include?

Now the fun begins. As you are deciding on the dishes to be served at your party, be sure to choose recipes that include produce that is in season. You’ve no doubt heard us talk about the importance of good ingredients—and fresh, local, seasonal food is always best. Take a walk through a farmers’ market or your grocery store’s produce department and look through food magazines for seasonal dish inspiration.

5. What beverages pair with your menu?

While you’re thinking about seasonal produce, factor that into a house cocktail to offer your guests when they arrive. Ask yourself where you want to set the bar, or if you plan to serve just wine and beer. Finally, if you’ve been saving a special wine for this occasion, be sure you choose a dish that will highlight that wine, and prepare a few words about the wine to share with your guests.

6. What make-ahead dishes (or dishes with make-ahead components) make sense on your menu?

Maximize your mingling with guests by choosing some dishes that can be made ahead of time, and refer to our course on Make-Ahead Essentials to take the stress out of last-minute cooking.  Consider what equipment and appliances you have in your kitchen to factor into how you can keep dishes hot while attending to last-minute details (if you have a warming oven, use it, or consider these appliances to keep  foods warm).

For more tips on cooking for a crowd and party-planning, check out our Cooking School classes.

What’s your favorite crowd-pleasing party appetizer? Let us know in the comments!

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