People often tell me they think the most difficult part of entertaining is determining what to serve. Growing up in a household with dinner parties once a week – sometimes even more often! – I learned a lot from my mom, the consummate hostess. Over the years, I’ve honed my techniques, learned from others, and also learned from my own mistakes. I often get asked to provide guidance for putting together a dinner party menu – what dishes to pare together. Here are my top 10 tips:
- First and foremost . . . don’t stretch yourself. Delicious over impressive works every time.
- Determine the theme (if any) and tone of the party – casual, elegant, French, Mexican, etc. Use that as a guide to put together your menu.
- Think about the setting – buffet or plated? Will guests sitting around a table or on chairs and couches – or standing? If at a table, will platters/bowls of dishes be passed at the table? Don’t serve a dish that’s complicated to eat based on the setting. Nobody likes to cut a big steak with a plate balanced on his/her lap. My rule is if people are not sitting at a table, I serve food that doesn’t require a knife, just a fork.
- Politely ask in advance if guests have any dietary restrictions. There are ways to work around every need and request.
- In general, a dinner party menu should include:
- Appetizers – I usually keep them on the lighter side – one hot, one cold at most; sometimes just one and a bowl of nuts or chips
- Main dish
- Two side dishes (one vegetable, one potato/rice/grain, or sometimes two vegetables)
- Depending on the tone of your party and/or the richness of the main dish, I often add a first course of a light soup or salad. Salad can also be a side dish, just make sure you have enough room on the table for salad plates/bowls along side your dinner plate if serving it that way
- Vary your food colors. We eat with our eyes first.
- Take texture into account – make sure to have something crunchy, even a chopped nut garnish on one dish.
- Variety in flavors is good, but don’t overdo it! And, pair flavors that work well together – if one dish has very bold flavors, make sure the other dishes don’t fight with it. Conversely, Don’t overdo an ingredient. Three dishes featuring goat cheese is two too many.
- Do, do, do strive for a menu that you can make ahead. My cookbook A Well-Seasoned Kitchen® is predicated on the concept that nearly everything can be made ahead. This allows you to prepare, clean up, get ready and enjoy! There’s no reason to have a party if you can’t enjoy your guests, too.
- Think about how often you are duplicating the same menu with the same people. Your friends may love your lamb dish, but don’t want to eat it every time they come to your house! I keep an entertaining diary logging who came, what I served, where I found the recipes and how I set the table, buffet, etc. I keep track of guests’ likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions in the back.
You will find more entertaining inspiration in our Menus section. Here is an example of one of my favorite menus to serve (all the recipes are in our cookbook, A Well-Seasoned Kitchen®):
- Appetizer – Camembert Sauté
- First course – Chilled Tomato Dill Soup
- Main dish – Salmon with Crumb Topping and Herb Mayonnaise
- Side dishes – Lemon Rice, Green Beans with Cashew Gremolata
- Dessert – Fast Fruit Cobbler