How to Host a Dinner Party: The Menu

November 03, 2015


Flustered trying to figure out how to host a dinner party?

Cooking for a successful dinner party takes skill.

In this series, you’ll learn how to create a menu, shop for your event, prepare in advance so that you can have a relaxed and enjoyable event.

For our first post, here are some things to consider when planning your menu.

Number of guests

2-4 is the simplest, and should require the least amount of planning.  You probably have enough dinnerware and won’t need help plating or cleaning up dishes between courses.  You can plan a more elaborate menu.

4-6 is manageable but 6 will take more time, money and planning.  You can pull it off alone.

6-8. Make sure you have help and start in advance.

8-12. Definitely have cleaning, plating and cooking help.  Start the prep in advance.  Keep the menu simple.

What’s the food theme?

If you are doing a multi-course meal, you should stick with a theme.  The theme can be linked to a specific cuisine or an event, like Valentine’s day.

BBQ, Mexican, Persian, Cuban, French Bistro, Italian Rustic, All-American, Spanish Tapas, etc.

What’s seasonal?

You want the seasons to inspire your menu.  Don’t serve a strawberry peach crisp in the middle of winter, when peaches and strawberries couldn’t be more out of season.  Don’t make a Caprese salad the star dish in February, either.

For summer, feature the bounty: Tomatoes, basil, zucchini, stone fruit, cucumber, corn, and lighter protein dishes.  Salads, fresh flavors.

For fall, think butternut squash, brussels sprouts, pomegranates.

For winter, think root veggies, braised meat dishes, hearty stews, warming soups.

For spring, go salad or soup.  Feature spring peas, crisp greens, and whatever is at the farmer’s market.

How many courses? Family style or plated?

Are you serving hors d’oeuvres?

Do you want to offer one giant buffet, where everyone can serve themselves, or are you doing a multi-course meal?

Do you have enough dinnerware to serve 3 courses?  Will you have to wash the appetizer plates to be able to serve desserts?

Do you have a platter for hors d’oeuvres?  If serving family style, do you have enough platters and serving spoons?

I do not recommend doing more than 3 courses unless you do some serious advanced prep, and have someone else helping you with the plating and cleaning.

To eliminate the need for hors d’oeuvres, a cheese spread, or marinated olives, Marcona almonds, fig bread, etc can go a long way.  You can make it elegant without giving yourself extra work.

Family style is MUCH easier than plated.  Having to plate 3 courses for 8 people as a home cook is hard.

Get dessert from your favorite bakery, or have some guests bring chocolates instead of wine.

How much do you want to spend?

Protein is anywhere between $8-$30 a pound.  You need to account for 1/3 to 1/2 pound of protein per guest.

Ground meat is the least expensive.  Fish like tilapia, cod and sole will range around $10/pound. Filet mignon will cost you $30 for 2-3 guests.

The more elaborate the recipe, the more ingredients you will need.

Things like beans, rice, quinoa, etc can be upgraded to become sophisticated dishes for less.

For a dinner party of 4, expect to spend minimum $80-$100 for a 3 course meal.  For 6, $120-$140. And for upwards of 6, $140-?

You can do it for less by going vegetarian.  And you can do it for way more by going for lobster and caviar.

Cheese plates, fig bread, marcona almonds can add up as well – the more pre-packaged things you buy, the more expensive as well.

Are the recipes overly complex?

You can make great food without having a pretentiously difficult menu.  One of my favorite dinner parties to host is Cuban.  With a big pot of cuban beans, some ropa vieja made the day before, a pan of Sofrito rice and a cabbage slaw, you can host a family style dinner without the price tag or stress levels.

But a fancier menu with steak in a red wine sauce, duchesse potatoes, a vegetable medley will require more work: Not only do you have to cook the steak last minute, you have to make a sauce too.  It’s likely cooking the steak will take you away from your guests.  If you are cooking steak for 4, not so bad.  But steak for 10?  Good luck not getting flustered.

Things like roasts, short ribs, or any other braised meat dishes like stews can be made ahead of time.  If you are serving fish, try to find a recipe that includes baking or broiling instead of searing, and a sauce or marinade you can make ahead.

Vegetable gratins, grain salads, purees or even roasted vegetables can be made ahead of time without compromising quality.

If you decide on dessert, do something that can be made ahead of time: flans, bread puddings, cakes, pies, etc.

The key is MAKE-AHEAD as much as you can, without compromising quality.

If you want to do all the cooking, you are not going to enjoy yourself if you are busy freaking out in the kitchen.  Trust me.

Where to look for recipes

You can always find good recipes on Cook’s Illustrated, The Kitchn, Serious Eats.  Ina Garten does a good job of make-ahead recipes that are great for entertaining.

As a personal chef, I have been doing my own dinner parties for years.

I cannot tell you how many of my own parties I have spent exhausted and not being able to mingle.

Over time, I have gotten smarter about entertaining.  The first step is planning a menu that’s simple and elegant, with as many components that can be made ahead of time as possible.

Next up in the series: How to PLAN for your dinner party, which includes my own Thanksgiving menu.





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