So, you’ve decided who, what, and when. Now you’re ready to start thinking about what you are going to serve.
Virtually every kind of gathering you might plan involves food. If you feed people, they are happy. It’s a fundamental law of nature.
I love to cook, so I always plan my menus around things I like to make. But if you aren’t a cook, that’s no reason to avoid entertaining. Most grocery stores nowadays have a prepared foods section and many restaurants and delis are happy to cater. If you hate to cook and have a favorite restaurant, ask them if they can arrange take-out for you. Then, all you have to do is heat things up and put them in nice serving dishes.
If you are going to cook, a party is not the time to break out a ton of new recipes. In my experience, there are always little problems with any recipe you try. Sometimes, they don’t turn out at all. It’s just asking for stress to have an entire menu of recipes that may fail. I try to mix some new things with old standbys (or purchased prepared food) so that I know I’m covered. I also keep in mind that I am likely to have leftovers from the party, so I plan things that I know I’ll like to eat later or things that morph into something else easily.
Your menu should be based on the type of event, the season, and the food you have on hand. Grilled bratwurst probably won’t work for a garden tea, but then cucumber sandwiches and scones don’t really work for Oktoberfest. If people will be standing and walking while they eat, you need foods that aren’t sloppy, like canapes, bruschetta, shrimp, or mini quiche. Spaghetti is not a great choice in that setting. Think about where people will be when they are eating and how they’ll handle their plates and their utensils. Make sure folks can eat what you plan to prepare without wearing or juggling it. If the party is at a typical meal time, you need to serve heartier food than you would need to serve at tea time or for a happy hour or for a late evening party.
When planning a menu, I also think about the foods that are in season. First, those foods are freshest and at their peak flavor. If foods are at their peak flavor, you need do very little to make them delicious — the simpler the preparation, the better. Second, foods that are in season tend to be less expensive. It’s that whole supply and demand thing. (See, you should have paid attention in college economics class instead of drooling over the cute teaching assistant. Oh, wait. That was me. Never mind.) Most holiday menus are, in fact, built around the food that is seasonal. Pumpkins ripen near Halloween and Thanksgiving. Lamb is most available near Easter. Corn on the cob starts coming available around July 4th.
Before I plan a menu, I look through my cabinets to see what’s there. If I can build on ingredients already on hand, I have less shopping to do and I am making better use of my resources. Especially when I’ve overbought something because of a sale, a party is a good chance to use up the extra. A corollary to this point is to check out the grocery store ads. If there is an especially good deal on something, you can build your menu around it.
There are three more things to think about when planning a menu. First, check to see if any of your guests have food restrictions. You’ll want to make sure that everyone has options. Second, make sure that not everything on the menu has to be prepared at the last minute or that five things will need the oven at the same time. A few things that can be prepared ahead of time and a few last-minute things make the experience far less stressful. Third, think about how foods will fit together. Will the flavors complement each other or will they do battle? I like to have a few flavors that appear in several dishes so that the menu seems unified.