Although a dinner party is about the people and conversation, some guests will still be expecting dinner. To plan your dinner party menu, break it down into the following 4 steps:
Step 1: Assess Resources Step 2: Lay A Foundation Step 3: Build the Menu Step 4: Add Wine (Optional)
The available time, space, and equipment relative to the number of people attending is a significant factor in what you can serve. However, most limitations can be circumvented by planning ahead.
Plan your menu based upon how much time you have to prepare the day of and day before the party. Everything will take longer than you expect, so keep things simple.
The critical time factor is the amount of last-minute preparation required to serve a particular dish. In addition, the more guests, the more last-minute preparation required; unfortunately a larger party also means you will have less time (and ability to concentrate) for cooking.
Therefore, plan dishes that can mostly be prepared ahead and require simple last-minute cooking and finishes. For example, you can achieve complex flavor layering in your dishes by preparing casseroles, soups, dressings, and sauces a day or two ahead then just cook the dish, protein or pasta before serving.
This method also gives you the opportunity to try new things, then start over or abandon dishes, if they don't turn out as planned.
Throughout the planning process, stay conscious of the amount of space you will need to refrigerate, cook, prepare, plate, and drop dishes. Specifically:
Number & size of cooking burners
Area to drop dirty dishes
Choose dishes that can be baked at similar temperatures if you only have one oven.
Verify that you have the appropriate equipment to prepare each dish at the right time, as well as, storage containers for any ingredients made ahead. Especially:
Pots & pans for cooking
Baking sheets for cooking and storage
Plastic bins to drop dirty dishes
Lay A Foundation
Lay your dinner party menu foundation by choosing your main or specialty dish. Start by creating a list of possible dishes based upon food choices, your cooking experience, and preparation time required.
Select important foods and ingredients first to narrow down possible dinner party dishes. Factors influencing food selection include:
Your party’s theme or color
Fresh, natural produce available
Guest of honor preferences
Guest food restrictions
Choose dishes you have (successfully) prepared before. Your cooking experience will largely determine what type of dishes you should attempt.
Your dinner party is not a good time to be overly ambitious. But, if you want to serve a new dish, be sure you practice the recipe before your party.
As mentioned, choose dishes that require very little last-minute preparation. Make soups, sauces, dressings, casseroles, ahead of time to reduce the amount of work and stress you have during your dinner party.
Build the Menu
Build your dinner party menu to support your selected premier dish. To keep your party manageable structure your menu to 2 to 4 courses, plus an hors d’oeuvre served during the cocktail hour.
Feature only one specialty dish, otherwise keep it simple. Plan your menu courses starting out light and getting heavier toward the main course.
A list of the most common meal courses:
Dessert with Coffee & Cordials
*Serve an appetizer course after seating, in addition to hors
d'oeuvres during cocktail hour.
Be careful not to overuse an ingredient or repeat a style of cooking, however do stick to a theme throughout the meal.
Like exceptional parties, complementing and contrasting are key principles in delicious dishes and magnificent meals. Within each preparation, and between each course, plan your flavors, textures, and colors to balance and distinguish your ingredients and servings.
Go with the flow with flavors, but be careful not to repeat. Contrast
between courses with light and heavy or hot and cold. Also, contrast
flavors during a course, such as sour, acid, or bitter with sweet;
savory with salt; piquant or spicy with neutral or bland.
Like flavors, try not to repeat textures too often while you contrast between courses and within dishes. Specific textures include crunchy, soft, smooth, hard, chewy, flaky, creamy, chunky, dense, silky, grainy, and juicy.
Finally, plan the presentation of your color combination on the plate. Coordinate the visual effect and avoid having too many foods of one color.
Vegetables offer a wide variety of colors and garnishes offer an easy way to add color, including edible flowers, carrot curls, green onions, chives, parsley, radishes, herbs, chopped red pepper, lemons, limes, and oranges.
Add Wine (Optional)
If you wish to serve wine with dinner and do not have a lot of experience, keep it simple by focusing on the body (aka weight) of the wine. Besides the separation of white (lighter bodied) and red, wines are generally further classified as light-, medium-, and full-bodied.
These classifications usually follow the alcohol content of the wine (more alcohol=more weight). Use light-bodied wines for lighter courses and wines with more body for heavy courses.
Choose a store with a large wine selection and consult with the staff. Ask for suggestions based upon your sauces, as well as the ingredients of your dishes.
Plan on serving 1/2 bottle per person, and choose a wine paired with the main course. It is not necessary to select a wine for each course, but you may optionally choose to serve a lighter wine more appropriate for the early courses.
Wine offered to you as a gift by a guest should not necessarily be served during dinner.