How to Plan a Cohesive Multicourse Menu
At least once a week, I find myself planning a menu. As someone who has worked as a personal chef, I cook a lot, and most of the time, I cook for other people. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a menu work, and if you’ve ever planned a birthday dinner party or bridal shower luncheon, you’ll know how much thought has to be put into the menu. From the number of guests to the theme of the party, you have to take a lot into consideration. However, it doesn’t matter what type of menu you’re planning, the process that I use to craft the perfect courses is always the same. For example, this week, I’m coming up with two menus: a romantic summery dinner for myself and a new love interest, and a pescatarian feast for a bachelorette party of 18. The menus will be distinct, but the way in which I come up with the multicourse meal is similar. Here’s my technique for coming up with a cohesive party menu.
Start by figuring out the basic information—the who, what, where, when, and why—of the event, as this will dictate your menu. The most important of these questions are: Where is the party? When is it taking place? Why is it happening? An 11 a.m. tailgate party in the parking lot of your alma mater in honor of the big game will require a totally different menu that a party held in your home in honor of your best friend’s engagement. At the tailgate, you won’t have access to a kitchen, so the menu will need to be items that are delicious at room temperature, or dishes that can be cooked or warmed over a grill. The location and access to a kitchen is the first most important thing to sort out.
Think about the person who the party is centered around. If it’s a baby shower, the menu should incorporate some of the mama-to-be’s favorite foods. If it’s a birthday party, make the guest of honor’s preferred birthday cake. For the bachelorette menu I’m planning, I’m focusing on the bride’s favorite dishes. She loves seafood and melted cheese, so shrimp skewer appetizers and fontina pesto lasagna are good menu options. These items are also easy to make in bulk, which is another thing to consider as I will be serving a large group.
If eight out of 10 guests are vegetarians, it doesn’t make much sense to serve leg of lamb, right? It’s important to think about dietary needs when menu planning. You won’t know what your guests do and do not eat unless you inquire about their dietary needs. Do so well in advance over email or text, and then plan the menu accordingly. While it can sometimes be difficult to accommodate everyone (Kristin doesn’t eat cheese, Sacha is a vegetarian, Heather is gluten free, and so on and so forth), a good hostess will try to make dishes that everyone can enjoy, or at the very least, an assortment of foods that will meet all needs.
Many menus involve a theme, especially if the event is around a holiday. Think Mexican food for a Cinco de Mayo dinner, spring brunch items for Easter Sunday, or a spooky-yet-comforting meal for Halloween night in (waiting for trick-or-treaters). However, a theme for a menu can be anything really. Did you spend some time in France last summer and want to relive it? Serve a luncheon of coastal French dishes. Is your garden overflowing with heirloom tomatoes? Offer a menu of dishes that use tomatoes: gazpacho to start, margarita pizza as a first course, and steak and tomato salad as the main.
While it’s a lovely idea to build a menu around a single ingredient, if you’re not specifically planning on highlighting one thing, don’t overdo it. Unless you’re planning a cheese-centric menu, there shouldn’t be cheese in each dish. You don’t want to give your guests palate fatigue. Instead, look for a menu that promotes balance. If you’re serving a cheesy appetizer, opt for a light salad with no cheese. If the main course is beef hamburgers, don’t serve meatballs for appetizers.
Being a native of California, my menus always reflect the season. It’s more affordable to cook with in-season produce, and just more delicious. The menu I’m planning for the aforementioned love interest includes basil, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, and corn—all ingredients that are plentiful now in Northern California.
The best menus provide the diner with a variety of smell, sight, and taste. Add some chopped parsley to an otherwise-drab bowl of soup for an instant pop of color. Throw almonds into a salad for much-needed crunch. Cool and hot, spicy and sweet, crunchy and creamy, tangy and salty—you want all of these sensations incorporated into the menu. Weight of the food is another thing to consider. A menu of rich indulgent foods (something like foie gras, lobster arancini, mascarpone and black truffle risotto, braised beef cheeks, and chocolate ganache tart) will leave your guests feeling heavy and full. This won’t lead to lively after-dinner conversation, so intersperse the heavy dishes with something light. Perhaps a citrus mousse instead of a ganache tart, or vegetable risotto instead of one with truffles.
The best hostesses know that the more you can make in advance, the better. You don’t want to spend the entire night slaving away in the kitchen, so choose dishes that are okay to make in advance. Take a tip from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, who always says a party menu should be made up of store-bought and homemade items. Make the homemade dishes the night or morning before the party and plate the store-bought dishes before the guests arrive.
If you’re doing the cooking, don’t plan a menu of foods that you can’t cook! Guests will notice if the hostess is uncomfortable, so avoid dishes that will stress you out. Instead, highlight what you’re good at: If you excel at roast chicken, make roast chicken. Hostess daredevils who want to try making homemade pizza dough for a pizza party should do it, but have some sort of store-bought pizza dough on hand in case your experiment goes awry.
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