How to Host a Dinner Party: Planning your Menu and Schedule

So let’s say you’ve read my post about hosting a dinner party and ingrained these 4 elements to success into your head: 
  1. Plan it all out well ahead of time
  2. Balance the elements (and the work)
  3. Figure out what you can make ahead
  4. Create your schedule, stick to it as much as you can, and then relax!
Check it out for more about the steps above and my hard-earned wisdom about what to do to throw a dinner (or other) party you can actually enjoy.
Today I want to dive into more of the practical details around setting your menu and scheduling out what you can do when (which basically encompasses all of the elements above).  Here are the basic steps that I follow and recommend:
  1. Pick a style of food: Inspiration is everywhere – What have your guests been raving about? Who traveled where recently? What style of food do you most like to cook? There are many sources online including these ones here, here, and here.
  2. Find inspiration: I find the most reliable and helpful sources for recipes that work well with dinner parties are those that are specified as “Make-Ahead” (see this post on why make ahead is so important). Some of my favorite sites that do this well are: Food and Wine and Epicurious
  3. Set the menu: I recommend finalizing your menu and creating your shopping list a week out. This will help you with all of the next steps, including planning out your schedule and then, of course, making it all happen.
  4. Plan it out: As I mentioned in the original post, you’re usually pretty safe to start preparing make ahead items about 3 days out, so I start by considering how much time I have each day to dedicated to prep, how much space I have to store things in my fridge, and what will hold best in order to determine the best order for making everything. (See the example below for a real life example of this) 
I recognize that lists and guidelines are nice, but that the most helpful way to see how something works is to really see it in action, so here I’d like to walk you through a real life example of selecting, vetting, and planning your menu.

Planning a Menu and Schedule for a Dinner Party: Real Life Example

Helping us today is “Susie”, our imaginary friend who is having over 7 of her nearest and dearest next week.  She is hosting the dinner to help celebrate her friends who just got engaged and wants it to be a special, relaxing evening focused on good food and wine. Her friends are pretty adventurous when it comes to food, like to try new things, and don’t have any food allergies. Susie is proficient in the kitchen in that her space is pretty well stocked and she knows her way around a recipe, but she doesn’t have much experience in cooking ahead of time or in more elaborate preparations. Lets see what this process looks like for Susie:

1. Pick a style of food 

There are two key pieces of information that will help Susie in planning her menu: her friends are adventurous and she’s celebrating an engagement. An easy place for inspiration here would be to think about the couple and their favorite types of food or where they’ve traveled recently. In this example, let’s imagine it’s Thailand.
Susie should start where I like to imagine we all do (I hope it’s not just me!) and Google something like Thai Dinner Party:
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Notice that the first results that show up in the photo above are from what I like to think of as “reputable” sources in that they are websites/magazines that I know and trust and that they’ve already done a lot of the legwork for us.  Most of them don’t have a fully coherent menu or schedule, but they are ripe with inspiration.
Click through and you’ll notice some common themes:
Shredded salads
Meat Dishes and Curries
Coconut Desserts
Delicious Cocktail
Cool! Assuming that Susie likes the direction that these dishes are going in, we now have our general outline and some ideas of things that we could serve.  The most major challenge here is to keep your search really high level and just come up with the menu outline instead of trying to finalize every single detail and recipe.

2. Find Inspiration

We did much of this in our initial search (win!) but now we can narrow things down a bit and get more specific in what we could make.
Shredded salads:
  • Considerations: Keep well and can be made ahead; Can be hard to find ingredients like green papaya at your regular grocery store
  • Verdict: Make a shredded salad with ingredients you can find where you’re shopping
Meat Dish like satay or Curry?
  • Considerations: Meat dishes like satay are delicious and typical of the area but so are curries and they can be make ahead and keep really well since they fall in the “saucy” category
  • Verdict: Make a curry
Coconut Desserts:
  • Considerations: Want something that can be made ahead – either ice cream or rice could fit in that category. Which would guests enjoy most and what do I have the equipment to make?
  • Verdict: Let’s make a rice based coconut dessert
  • Considerations: Which best suits what our guests like to drink? Which one can be made ahead?
  • Verdict: Most should work – will decide when we look at recipes

3. Set the Menu

Now’s the time to really dig deep into recipes if you’re so inclined.  For the sake of this example, let’s focus on Susie who is mostly looking to find something delicious that she has the skills and equipment to make, can be made ahead, and her guests would enjoy.
Salad Course (Shredded Salad):  Based on the initial search and the decision to make a salad with ingredients that are easily found, this one from Saveur with carrots and zucchinni came up in the initial search and really fits the bill. 
Now that you’ve decided on a recipe, the key step here is to copy the links of the recipes you want into one document, along with the full recipe (serving size included).
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Note that this is nothing fancy, the main goal is to get all elements of the menu, along with ingredients and steps together now so that it’s easily modified and consolidated later.
Main Course (Curry): Our initial search also turned up a real gem here in the Massaman Chicken curry from Bon Appetit. How can you tell? 1. It’s a restaurant recipe which usually means it’s really tasty if they’ve bothered to source it from a favorite place and 2. It has do ahead instructions, which are SO key to having that easy, laid back dinner party we talked about before.
Something like this is what I always look for when picking dinner party recipes:
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Do the same as above – paste all the recipe information (in this case both the curry paste and chicken) into your document.
Dessert (Coconut Rice): Let’s just say that in this case our initial search didn’t turn up the right recipe for us. No problem – now that we know we’re making a coconut rice dessert we can go back to our friend Google to find the right one. You’ll see below that I even included “Make Ahead” in my search to ensure that anything we find is suitable to Susie’s needs:
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The Kitchn is a site I know and trust (plus there are always great comments!) and I can see here that there are instructions on making it ahead.
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Score! We have a winner.
Cocktail: We are looking for two kew things here: What will the guests like? and What has make ahead elements? (Sense a theme?)
This one that showed up in our initial search sounds like a great starter in that it’s spicy and echoes other things Susie will be serving. It doesn’t currently contain alcohol, but we won’t let that stop us! Especially when it’s already built as a pitcher drink – great for a laid back dinner party.
Just make sure you note the additional ingredient (in this case vodka) on your planning sheet:
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At this point you should have your ingredient list and menu essentially built in its own document now it’s time to…

4. Plan it out

With your menu and recipes all in one place you’ll want to go through and adjust each recipe to ensure it reflects the quantities that you’ll be serving. In this case we’ll need to:
  • Scale up the Shredded Zucchini and Carrot salad recipe by 2
  • Leave Massaman Curry recipe as written
  • Scale up the Thai Sticky Rice by 2
  • Scale up the Lemonade by 2
Now start a new page where you copy and paste the ingredients from all of the recipes onto one page. Then divide them into areas of the supermarket. You can see here that I kept it simple with Produce, Grocery, Meat, and Pantry (aka things I have):
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I also like to take the extra step of consolidating the “same” ingredients. Even if the measurements aren’t in the prettiest quantities (1 Tbsp instead of 3 tsp), it will still hep ensure that you have the right amounts of each ingredient.  Et Voila! Now you have your shopping list.
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Now it’s time to create your prep list. I like to first lay out the days of prep, which means that if Susie is hosting her dinner on Friday she might start prepping on Tuesday:
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Now go back to the instructions for the recipes to see what can happen where.  For example, we know that the curry paste can be made up to a month ahead of time, so that’s safe to do on Tuesday.  And the chicken curry says it can be done 2 days ahead, so we’ll slot that for Wednesday, which looks like this so far:
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Using the model of determining how much time you have, space in fridge, and what holds best, a prep list for Susie might look like this:
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You can see here that we’ve balanced doing things ahead of time (as much as possible) with doing minimal steps on the day of the meal so that time can be dedicated to getting other things ready (cleaning, serving platters, etc.) and most importantly enjoying the party.  You would follow this by looking at your items listed on any given day then flipping back to the original recipe for the actual instructions of how to do that.  Since you now have all of these elements both scaled up and in the same document, it should be easy and straightforward from here on out (barring any complicated cooking tasks)!
Phew! Now imagine that I have beamed you one of those tasty cocktails so you can sit back and relax while you wait for your guests to arrive! You deserve it!

What do you think, is this doable? Do you have a favorite technique for planning and hosting your dinner parties that I’ve missed here?

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