Every year, the thunder of hooves and the iconic call of “And, they’re off!” marks the Kentucky Derby, one of the most exciting sporting events in America. But beyond the thrilling race itself, Derby Day is steeped in tradition, from the elaborate hats to the refreshing mint juleps. For many families, like mine, Derby Day holds a special place. My Kentucky-born mother instilled in us a love for the Bluegrass State’s traditions. And, we still celebrate with fanfare, festivities, and of course, delicious food!

The History and Significance of the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby, also known as “The Run for the Roses,” is a prestigious horse racing event held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The Derby has a rich history dating back to 1875, making it one of the oldest sporting events in the United States. But, the Derby is not just about horse racing; it is a cultural phenomenon that embodies the spirit of Southern hospitality and tradition. From the show-stopping hats to the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race, every aspect of the event is steeped in history and significance.

Celebrate Derby Day with a Kentucky Feast

Kentuckians, and honorary Kentuckians during Derby season, traditionally throw festive parties featuring all the hallmarks of the Derby: fancy hats, refreshing mint juleps, and of course, a scrumptious spread. Dishes like Benedictine Cheese and the decadent Derby Pie (a.k.a. Chocolate Pecan Pie) are Derby Day staples. Whether you’re planning a casual get-together or an elegant soirée, we have a menu of authentic Kentucky fare for both settings.

Menu 1: Clayton Family Traditional Kentucky Derby Dinner

Here’s the authentic Kentucky Derby Dinner Menu that my mom served every year. This menu features classic Southern dishes perfect for an elegant soirée:

Mint julep cup holding a single serving with a white napkin underneath

Kentucky Derby Mint Julep

My family’s version of this classic cocktail has the perfect balance of bourbon, sweetness and minty freshness – making it a favorite among both experienced cocktail enthusiasts and those new to the world of mixology. With our tried-and-true recipe, you’ll be able to easily whip up a crowd-pleasing batch of delicious Mint Juleps.

Platter filled with Benedictine Cheese Canapes and wine in the background

Benedictine Cheese Canapés

A 2-bite version of a traditional family recipe, these Benedictine Cheese Canapés are quick and easy to prepare, and vibrant on the plate, too!

White plate holding one grilled ribeye steak, with a bite on a fork

Grilled Ribeye Steak

Fire up your grill and get ready to make our time-tested Grilled Ribeye Steak Recipe! Over the years, my home gourmet mom perfected the “art of the grill” and identified the optimal mix of seasonings and cooking method to deliver tender, juicy, super flavorful grilled steaks.

cooked corn pudding in a glass dish, with a portion removed

Easy Corn Pudding Recipe

Moist, fluffy and soufflé-like, Southern Corn Pudding is perfection in every bite. Easy to prepare, too, with fresh, available ingredients – no canned corn or boxed cornbread mix. Plus, our Corn Pudding recipe dates back generations, so it’s definitely tried and true!

Oval white dish filled with Lemon-Dijon Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots

Lemon Green Beans with Dijon Mustard

Indulge your taste buds with these oven-roasted green beans coated with a luscious blend of tangy olive oil, zesty lemon juice, and bold Dijon mustard. Crispy caramelized shallots sprinkled on top, infusing each bite with a deeply rich sweetness and a bit of crunch.

Wicker basket lined with a green napkin and filled with Easy Drop Biscuits, with more biscuits on a cooling rack in the back

Quick Homemade Drop Biscuits

Craving a warm, buttery biscuit straight from the oven? Our Easy Drop Biscuit Recipe is all you need! Crafted with pantry essentials and ready in less than 25 minutes, you’ll be well on your way to biscuit perfection.

Two slices of Chocolate Pecan Pie topped with whipped cream, with a bowl of whipped cream on the side and a partial view of the whole pie in the background

Chocolate Pecan Pie Recipe

Indulge your taste buds with the irresistible combination of rich chocolate and crunchy pecans in this homemade pie that rivals the famous Cracker Barrel restaurant version. With its flaky crust, luscious, gooey filling, and perfect balance of sweet and nutty flavors, my family’s recipe for Chocolate Pecan Pie is a dessert lover’s dream.

Menu 2: Casual Derby Gathering

Here’s another menu I created that’s ideal for a more relaxed get-together with friends and family, also featuring traditional Derby Day Fare:

Mint julep cup holding a single serving with a white napkin underneath

Kentucky Derby Mint Julep

My family’s version of this classic cocktail has the perfect balance of bourbon, sweetness and minty freshness – making it a favorite among both experienced cocktail enthusiasts and those new to the world of mixology. With our tried-and-true recipe, you’ll be able to easily whip up a crowd-pleasing batch of delicious Mint Juleps.

Pimiento Cheese Spread in a white bowl with celery sticks and crackers

Pimento Cheese Spread or Dip

My mom’s mouth-watering Pimento Cheese Spread recipe is the ultimate in Southern comfort food. A zesty blend of two sharp cheddar cheeses, tangy pimentos, mayo and just the right amount of spice, this dip will elevate your taste buds to the next level.

close up shot of 4 Kentucky Hot Browns on a foil lined pan

Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich

Kentucky Hot Browns are pure comfort food – an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with sliced tomatoes, bubbly cheese sauce and crispy bacon. Mom added unique touches to the original hot brown recipe – yellow Cheddar cheese and sliced ham – making our family’s version unique, and we think even more tasty.

blue plate holding a serving of Easy Spinach Salad with wine glasses, forks and plates in the background

Easy Spinach Salad Recipe with Lemon Pine Nut Dressing

This Spinach Salad with Pine Nut Dressing is an excellent side dish to have in your recipe files. Why? Well, because sometimes you need an uncomplicated dish to pair with a more complex main dish – one that will add color and flavor to the plate, but not compete with the star. This spinach salad does all that, plus it’s quick and easy to prepare.

four pecan chocolate toffee bars stacked with one leaning on the side

Pecan Chocolate Toffee Bars

Full of buttery toffee flavor, Pecan Chocolate Toffee Bars are simply heavenly. A cookie base reminiscent of shortbread is prepared with brown sugar (providing that luscious toffee flavor) and, once baked, is topped with melted chocolate and chopped toasted pecans. Super easy to prepare, these Toffee Bars are true crowd pleasers!

Possible appetizer additions to either menu

If you want to have a bigger spread than one dish for the appetizer portion of the meal, here are a few ideas:

  • deviled eggs,
  • crudité with Arugula Dressing dip, and
  • a charcuterie board that includes Kentucky country ham.

Planning Your Kentucky Derby Dinner

Here are my tips for creating a festive Derby atmosphere, recommendations on managing timing and guest list, and suggestions for a few fun, Derby-related activities:

Round Up Your Thoroughbred Crew: The Guest List

  • Think about space. Make sure you have enough TV viewing space for the number of people you invite. Factor in seating, standing room, and areas for food and drinks.
  • Embrace tradition. Encourage guests to wear their Derby best, including fabulous hats and bow ties.

Whip Up a Southern Spread: Menu Planning and Timing Tips

  • Embrace the make-ahead: You don’t want to be in the kitchen cooking and miss all the pre-festivities or the big race! The recipes in our menus can all be prepared ahead, with last minute reheating and finishing touches.
  • Plan your serving schedule around the race. Factor in the Kentucky Derby race time (typically around 6:30 pm Eastern Standard Time) when planning your food service. Guests will likely arrive earlier, so plan to have appetizers and drinks ready beforehand. You can then serve dinner after the race when everyone has had a chance to unwind and chat.

Setting the Scene: Decorations

  • Embrace the colors. Red roses are the symbol of the Derby – they are presented to the winning horse. Decorate your table with a white (or black) tablecloth, red napkins, and rose centerpieces.
  • Horseshoe power. Hang a horseshoe-shaped wreath, create a horseshoe-shaped centerpiece for the table, and look for horseshoe-themed cocktail napkins.

Gallop into Fun: Activities

  • Best hat competition. Encourage guests to wear their most elaborate or creative hats. Hold a contest for the “Best Hat” with prizes for the most outrageous, most elegant, or funniest hat.
  • Betting on the race. No Derby party is complete without a little friendly wagering. Create unique betting slips – or print out ones from the web with the horses’ names and jockeys. Guests can place small bets for special prizes.

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collage of dishes included in the Kentucky Derby Dinner Menus

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About the author

Hi, I'm Lee.

I am inspired by my mother, Sally’s, love of cooking and entertaining to gather friends and family together over great meals and conversation. In fact, I held my first dinner party at the age of 16. Throughout the years, I’ve provided recipes, menu advice and cooking tips to friends seeking uncomplicated and delicious ideas for home entertaining.

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