How to plan your menu
Here are some simple ideas for structuring your dinner party menu, from prepping canapés ahead of time to choosing a centerpiece and serving up cocktails and sides.
When catering for numbers, the old adage 'less is more' is worth bearing in mind. A well-planned simple cold fork buffet can be more appetising than lots of different contrasting flavours and foods. Read on for top tips from catering experts Anna Duttson of Anna Duttson Events and Lin Neillands of Food Unlimited.
General hints for planning your menu
- Think about flavour combinations and avoid clashes, as people often pile a little bit of everything onto their plate.
- Choose different colours and textures for an impressive spread.
- Work out what space and equipment you have and make sure you have enough hobs, oven shelves and surfaces for the menu you want to serve.
- Do as much as possible in advance – there will be plenty to do when guests arrive without undue fussing over food.
- Be clever with your budget – it can be expensive catering for large numbers, so choose cheap ingredients and be inventive with them. Use cheaper cuts of meat in slow-cooked one-pots to great effect.
Presentation tips: When you're planning a buffet, think about good colour combinations and creating varying heights to make food look interesting and inviting. Space canapés out well on simple trays and the food will speak for itself.
Snacks and nibbles
To keep guests happy and allow you time to get the main food out, serve static nibbles, such as marinated olives, parmesan shortbreads and tapenade on toasted croûtes and replenish as needed. It's also worth remembering the end of the evening – a cheeseboard is good for later on, and bacon sandwiches after midnight are always a winner.
This may sound like the easy option, but canapés can be labour intensive. Make it easier:
- Serve 6-8 canapés per head.
- Serve a mixture of hot and cold.
- Prepare as much as possible ahead.
- Choose canapés that look beautiful but don't require a lot of last-minute assembly.
- Presentation goes a long way so use (borrow if necessary) beautiful dishes, platters and trays. Think about unusual ways of serving the food – for example, on a mirror or piece of glass. Decorate with edible flowers and long sprigs of herbs.
- Think about serving 'bowl food' in place of some or all of the canapés. These are larger than canapés (perhaps a quarter of the size of a main course) and good choices include Thai curry with rice, sausages & mash or risotto. The food should be well-seasoned and ready to eat. Serve in miniature bowls with a small fork, and make sure everything is small enough to eat easily.
Take a look at our selection of canapé recipes.
- Choose a centrepiece for your spread, such as a roasted salmon or baked ham.
- Make salads to go with this in a variety of textures, colours and food groups. For example, you could serve a grain or pasta salad, potato salad and vibrant tomato salad.
- It's always good to have bits to pick at, so offer deli plates of cold meats or smoked salmon (if this isn't your centrepiece), dips and crudités.
- Serve different breads and breadsticks.
- Serve 2-3 desserts, again opting for different shapes and textures. Good options are a crisp lemon tart, pillowy tiramisu and exotic fruit salad or berries and cream.
Take a look at our selection of buffet recipes.
Top tip: When planning your menu, remember that at most parties it's best if the food can be eaten with a fork only, one-handed. Avoid meats that require cutting with a knife and fork unless you have seating and tables for all guests.
- Pick a couple of one-pot style dishes and a carbohydrate like rice or potatoes that can go with both. You can pick a theme, like Indian, British classics or Chinese, so that people can mix and match. If you are making spicy food, make sure at least one is mild as not everyone likes chilli. If you're catering for vegetarians too, make one veggie or add a side dish with vegetables, lentils or beans that everyone can dig into but will suit for a vegetarian main course too.
- The beauty of a one-pot is you don't have to deal with complex timings. It can be prepared in advance and left to simmer on the stove or kept on a hot plate.
- To make the meal feel more special, add in extras to complete the theme, such as naans and chutneys for an Indian or foccacia and marinated olives for Italian.
- For dessert, 2-3 cold options make a sensible choice. If you want to do hot desserts, choose ones you can assemble earlier and serve straight from the oven. A hot apple pie or fruit crumble is always popular. Serve with double cream to avoid messing around with custard.
Look at our buffet recipes for more ideas.
Plan your drinks menu to make it easy for yourself. Cocktails can be made up in jugs beforehand so you don't have to prepare them as guests arrive. An interesting soft drink, like elderflower or ginger beer, adds impact. Make sure you have plenty of drinks on ice – there's nothing worse than champagne, white wine or beer that isn't chilled enough.
Take a look at our selection of cocktail recipes.
Party recipe ideas
Here are our favourite sweet and savoury recipes, plus all the ideas you'll need to put on a fabulous spread.
Canapé, finger food and buffet recipes
Foil-poached salmon with dill & avocado mayo
Baked ham with brown sugar & mustard glaze
Mustard-roasted beef fillet
Ultimate quiche lorraine
Duck & pork terrine with cranberries & pistachios
Creamy risotto layer cake
Get more inspiration from our collection of dinner party mains.
Do you have any tips for planning a menu? Leave a comment below...
Tops tip from catering experts Anna Duttson of Anna Duttson Events and Lin Neillands of Food Unlimited.