How to plan your menu

    Here are some simple ideas for structuring your menu with tops tips from Anna Duttson of Anna Duttson Events and Lin Neillands of Food Unlimited.

    Pea & feta toasts

    Lin's top tip: When catering for numbers the old adage 'less is more' is worth bearing in mind. A well planned simple cold fork buffet is more appetising than lots and lots of different contrasting flavours and foods.

    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 to give an impressive looking spread.
    • Work out what space and equipment you have and make sure you have enough hobs, oven shelves and surfaces when you need them.
    • Do as much as possible in advance, there'll 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 pick cheap ingredients and be inventive with them. Use cheaper cuts of meat in slow-cook one-pots to great effect.

    Anna's 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.

    The little extras

    To keep guests happy and allow you time to get the main food out, Anna suggests, "Static nibbles, such as marinated olives, Parmesan shortbreads and tapenade on toasted croutes are good to have dotted on tables as these can simply be replenished." She also points out that it's worth remembering the end of the evening."A cheese board 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 eg on a mirror or piece of glass. Decorate with edible flowers and long sprigs of herbs.
    • Think about serving 'bowl food' instead 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 and mash or risotto. The food should be well seasoned and ready to eat. Serve in miniature bowls with a small fork. Make sure everything is small enough to eat with a fork. 

    Take a look at our selection of canapé recipes.

    SalmonCold buffet

    • Choose a centrepiece for your spread, this could be a roasted salmon or baked ham.
    • Make salads to go with this, go for a variety of textures, colours and food groups ie a grain or pasta salad, potato salad, a vibrant red 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 for example, a crisp lemon tart, a pillowy tiramisu and a bowl of exotic fruit salad or berries and cream.

    Take a look at our selection of buffet recipes.

    Lin's top tip: When planning your menu remember that at most parties all food needs to be eaten 'fork only, one handed'. Avoid meats that require cutting up with a knife and fork unless you have seating and tables for all guests.

    Curry buffetHot buffet

    • 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 eg Indian, British classics or Thai 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 have vegetarians, make one veggie or add a side dish with vegetables, lentils or beans that everyone can dig into but that 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 a few extras to complete the theme, naans and chutneys for an Indian, foccacia and marinated olives and artichokes for Italian etc
    • For dessert, 2 -3 cold options again make a sensible choice. If you want to do hot desserts, choose ones you can assemble beforehand, whip straight out of the oven and serve, a hot apple pie or fruit crumble are always popular. Serve with double cream to avoid messing around with custard.

    Look at our buffet recipes for more ideas.


    Plan your drinks menu too and then make it easy for yourself. Anna suggests, "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, ginger beer and mint rather than plain juice or fizzy drinks 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

    An impressive centrepiece is guaranteed to wow your guests, here are our favourite sweet and savoury recipes, plus all the ideas you'll need to put on a fabulous spread.

    Canapé, fingerfood and buffet recipes

    Canapé recipes
    Party food recipes
    Buffet recipes
    Sharing recipes
    Feed-a-crowd recipes

    Impressive centrepieces

    Foil-poached salmon with dill & avocado mayo
    Baked ham with brown sugar & mustard glaze
    Mustard-roasted beef fillet
    Duck & pork terrine with cranberries & pistachios
    Creamy risotto layer cake

    Drinks recipes

    Cocktail recipes
    Summer drink recipes

    Children's parties

    Kids party recipes

    Celebration cakes

    Celebration cakes
    Wedding cakes
    Birthday cakes
    Christening cake

    More recipes

    Recipes for all occasions

    Tops tip from catering experts Anna Duttson of Anna Duttson Events and Lin Neillands of Food Unlimited.

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