A few key steps for how to plan a menu for a party:
1. Before planning your menu, you must have decided on your plans for your space, ambience and guests. The menu needs to reflect these decisions.
a. Space Considerations – if you do not intend on your guests having a place to sit down, then serving food that requires a knife and fork is impractical. Serve finger foods in bite size portions for standing guests.
b. Atmosphere/Theme Considerations – if you have a theme, your food should reflect that as well. A football party should be football type food. A formal dinner party should have more formal food. However, if you don’t have a real ‘theme’ of any sort, you will want to decide on your main course. Sometimes, that will help dictate a theme. For example, if my main course if Chicken Parmigiana, you might want to go with an Italian theme in the food and beverage. With chicken parm, you might have a fresh vegetable, a side of pasta, a salad with Italian fixings, an cheese and charcuterie platter with Italian cheeses and meats, tiramisu for dessert, and a nice Chianti to enjoy it all with.
c. Guest Considerations – this is obvious but here are a few things to consider.
If children are coming, serve something they will likely eat. It is fine to have an adult menu and children’s menu, but that is a lot of extra work.
If you are having people you don’t know very well (e.g. your spouse’s co-workers), try to glean whatever you can about them. For example, my husband works in the technology area, so when we have some of his co-workers over, there are several folks from India. Therefore, I must consider having a proper number of true vegetarian dishes, even if the main course is not.
Unless you know everyone really well, it is probably not a good idea to serve a dish that might turn people off or be something they are allergic too (e.g. shellfish, lamb, veal, organ meats, etc.)
2. Number of guests greatly impacts the menu as well. This is true from the perspective of your budget, oven space, stove space, refrigerator space, advance notice / time to plan, etc. If you have one oven, don’t plan an entire meal for 50 where all items require time in the oven.
3. Think through how each item will be prepared. You should not be in the kitchen working the entire time your guests are there. Make sure you have a menu where the majority of items can be prepared in advance and need minimal work from you during the party. It’s fine to have some last minute things, but they should not be very time or labor intensive.
4. How much money do you want to spend? Throwing a party can become expensive really quickly. Your menu should reflect how much you have budgeted. Most of your expense will be in alcohol and your choice of meats. These are the first areas to cut back on your expense.
Once these things are known, you can decide on a great menu and move on to where all the real party planning really takes place….making the lists!