It’s no secret that I love to entertain, but what many of you may not know is that I have a secret ingredient in my kitchen that enables me to invite friends over at a moment’s notice without breaking a sweat: my husband, Adam. Not only does Adam share my love for hosting a dinner party—but he also happens to be an excellent grill-master, playlist-maker, and candle-lighter… all qualities that are clutch for pre-party setup. However, there is one thing that we sometimes disagree on, and that is how to plan a dinner party menu.
I started my career as an event planner for a catering company, and the experience was basically “menu planning boot camp.” I learned to calculate the perfect food and drink amounts that would serve all our guests without having too much leftover. I often had to get creative to stay within a client’s budget, and I worked with the chef to plan a menu that would be satisfying but not heavy, crowd-pleasing but not predictable, and could be adapted for a range of dietary needs. Most of all, I learned to be strategic in planning a menu that the kitchen crew could execute for a lot of people within a limited time span.
In catering, you’re often working in people’s garages or home kitchens, so you have to make do without the amenities of a commercial kitchen. Planning a menu to meet all these objectives—and that would delight and nourish my guests—was truly my favorite part of the job. And now, it’s knowledge that I bring into every gathering I host, even if it’s just for a few friends.
Like many people, Adam used to be nervous that we’d run out of food when we were hosting a party (so he’d buy way more than we actually needed), or he’d think we needed way too many dishes (which would result in chaos trying to get it all on the table.) Over the years, I’ve taught him my tricks of the trade to keep a menu simple but satisfying, while factoring just enough quantities to feel abundant without having tons of leftovers. And now, I’m finally pulling them all together to share with you! When you get the hang of it, planning a dinner party doesn’t have to be complicate—in fact, in can be incredibly fun.
Whenever I feel that pre-party pressure coming on, I remind myself that it’s not about impressing my guests, it’s about creating an atmosphere that makes them feel connected and cared for.
Read on for my step-by-step guide for how to plan a dinner party menu, and I’d love to hear any rules of thumb you rely on in the comments.
First, decide on your main course.
My process is simple: decide on a main course that feels right for the gathering, and the rest of the menu will flow from there. A few questions to ask yourself when considering what to make:
- What’s in season? A menu that’s centered around seasonal produce will not only create the right vibe, it’ll also taste better, too. And the best thing about using high-quality seasonal ingredients is that you don’t have to do much to make them taste great. Here are our guides to spring and summer… fall and winter are coming soon!
- How many people am I serving? In this post, I break down main courses that are best for a smaller group, and ones that work well for a large group. For lots of people, you may want to choose something based on more cost-effective ingredients and that’s easy to make in large quantities.
- Do my guests have dietary restrictions? Many people these days are gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian, or have a food allergy. When in doubt, just ask them! I always send my guests a text asking about dietary restrictions beforehand, and often find out about things I didn’t even know they were dealing with. It’s a small way that you can make them feel cared for. Then, you can plan your menu to either omit that item or you can decide on something that’s easily adaptable to fit their needs.
Once you’ve taken these factors into consideration, you’re ready to hop over to my favorite dinner party main courses of all time, and start the fun process of actually choosing what you’re going to make!
Plated Dinner, Family Style, or Buffet?
Gone are the days when the words “dinner party” are synonymous with a multi-course, plated and served dinner featuring a protein, vegetable, and starch. Hosting has gotten way more casual, and I am wholeheartedly here for it. Not only does serving food family style (that is, on shareable platters and bowls in the middle of the table) lighten the load on the host, it also creates a relaxed vibe where guests are interacting, passing platters around, and serving themselves and others. I would say that 90% of the dinners I host are served family-style.
That said, there are occasions when you might want to serve a plated meal, such as when you’re serving a main course out of a very hot or heavy serving dish (like a slow cooker or stockpot) that would be difficult to pass. Or perhaps it is more of a special occasion, and you want to introduce a level of formality into the meal. Just keep in mind that if you’re serving more than six guests, you’ll probably want to call in backup to help you plate, so that everyone is served at relatively the same time.
And although the word “buffet,” might call to mind an outdated all-you-can-eat situation, there are moments that certainly call for setting out everything on a counter or bar and letting people help themselves. For a more casual gathering where people are lounging around with food instead of sitting at a table, buffet is definitely the way to go. And one other time I always set up food buffet-style? Thanksgiving. There are simply too many dishes to fit onto the center of the table without things feeling crowded.
Choose simple sides that can be prepped in advance.
In an effort to not spend the entire day prepping in the kitchen, I stick to a few parameters when deciding on my side dishes:
- They can be prepped before guests arrive. What do roasted veggies, room-temperature grains, and heartier salads all have in common? They can all be prepped completely in advance and can easily hang out in the fridge or covered on the counter before guests even arrive. Having a few of these dishes in my arsenal is one of my biggest takeaways from my catering days, and it turns out, most side dishes don’t actually need to be served piping hot. They’re just as delicious at room temp.
- Usually, two to three is all you need. Many people (like Adam) are tempted to make an entire smorgasbord of sides, only to realize that they may have bitten off more than they could chew. In general, something starchy (pasta, grains, sweet potatoes) plus a cooked vegetable (brussels sprouts, crispy cauliflower, roasted mushrooms) is all you need—add a leafy salad if you’re feeling ambitious. I like a menu with a point-of-view, and sometimes adding too many things to the lineup just waters it down (and makes for a lot of unnecessary work.)
- Ask for help. Side dishes are the perfect thing for those guests who ask “What can I bring?” Take them up on it! Most people love to feel like they’re contributing to a meal, and having one less thing to check off your list can make a world of difference.
Give them something to snack on.
I’m a big fan of having something delicious for guests to nibble on right when they walk in the door—it’s that little something extra that shows you put some effort in, and it encourages a slow, lingering evening since there’s something to take the edge off people’s hunger upon arrival. Stretching out the eating over a longish timeframe is just more fun. However, since you’re already dealing with a main course, sides, and potentially cocktails, appetizers must be extremely easy.
Pick an appetizer that goes with the cuisine that you’re serving the rest of the evening (ie. I probably wouldn’t serve a cheese board to kickoff taco night), then keep it simple and don’t overthink it.
Basically, anything you serve pre-dinner will make you look like an awesome host. Here are a few of my go-to’s…
- Spanish tapas-inspired. Olives, marcona almonds, marinated peppers… it can all be picked up the deli and served in pretty bowls.
- Cheese and charcuterie. It’s a classic for a reason, and it somehow always still feels like a treat. Here’s how an Italian Chef makes his.
- Seasonal veggie crudité with a couple interesting dips. It’s all in the presentation.
- Burrata with figs and pesto. It’s a four-ingredient wonder.
- Toasts with pretty toppings. A touch more effort, but I love the challenge of putting together the perfect bite.
End the meal with a little something sweet.
Do: satisfy your guests’ sweet tooth (sweet teeth? haha) with something delicious and indulgent to cap off the meal.
Don’t: serve a massive dessert at the end of a dinner party. The goal is to offer something delightful, not to make guests feel so weighed down they need to immediately leave and go to bed.
Do: consider picking up a cake or tart from a great local bakery, making something super easy with assembled store-bought ingredients (think sorbet with berries), or even asking a guest who loves to bake to bring dessert.
Don’t: feel like you need to make a complicated dessert from scratch (unless you really want to.) You’ve got enough to handle with the rest of the meal.
Make it a feast for the senses.
This is a dinner party after all, so presentation is key! But instead of thinking about how to impress your guests with fancy garnishes, approach your dishes with creativity, more like an abstract artist. And just because food styling is an art form doesn’t mean it has to be difficult—there are no hard and fast rules. I love to scroll through Pinterest for unique presentation ideas—maybe it’s an herb or edible flower garnish, or perhaps it’s a serving idea I hadn’t considered.
For example, instead of pouring a sauce over the top of a dish, perhaps it would be more aesthetically pleasing to serve it alongside in a little bowl. Or maybe that massive Thanksgiving turkey would be more appealing surrounded by tons of rosemary sprigs and orange slices. It’s about gathering inspiration, thinking outside the box, and having fun with colors, textures, and garnishes.
The simplest dish feels dinner party-worthy when plated with thoughtfulness.
How to estimate food amounts for a party.
In my experience, it’s this final step that makes people most nervous when they’re learning how to plan a dinner party menu. But determining food quantities doesn’t need to induce panic when you have a few simple calculations to help you estimate. One thing to consider is that the more choices you offer, the smaller quantities you’ll need for each dish. Based on my recommendation above to serve one main course plus two to three sides, you’ll want to make abundant quantities of each since they make up the entire meal. If you decide to make lots of sides, you can get away with smaller amounts of each.
Here are the calculations I generally rely on:
- Appetizers: 6 bites, or 1 ounce of cheese per person.
- Meat or fish: 6 ounces per person
- Starch or potatoes: 1 cup per person (this is usually more than is eaten, but it’s a good “bulk” item to fill in the menu if people are super hungry.)
- Vegetables: 1 cup per person
- Salad: 2 cups per person
- Dessert: small slice or scoop per person. See point above re “sweets.”
These are the rules-of-thumb I usually go by, and know that if you don’t get them exactly right, everything will be fine! Guests naturally calibrate how much they eat based on what’s there, so I promise it’ll all turn out okay. When in doubt, round up—and have a couple pints of ice cream in the fridge to make sure everyone ends the meal feeling satisfied.
I hope this was helpful for the next time you’re wondering how to plan a dinner party menu. Remember these are all suggestions only, and especially when it comes to parties, rules are meant to be broken! Take what serves you and leave the rest, and I’d love to hear in the comments if you have any menu-planning tips that help you host with ease.
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