How To Plan A Menu For A Dinner Party

How to plan the perfect menu

Today we're welcoming Anna Watson Carl, a New York City-based cook and writer who will be penning a regular entertaining column for us. Her first cookbook, The Yellow Table: A Celebration of Everyday Abundance will be out this fall, featuring 100+ simple, healthy recipes, affordable wine pairings and a stress-free guide to hosting gatherings at home.

I love gathering people around the table. Nothing fancy: just good food, good conversation and good people. I believe that taking time to share a meal around the table with friends and family is one of the most important things we can do today—yet many people are still intimidated by the prospect of entertaining at home.

One thing I hear over and over again is that people think everything has to be Pinterest-perfect in order to have friends over: the house, the food and the table. But the myth of perfection is just that—a myth. The most important thing is simply being together.

My goal is to ensure everyone is having a good time, and the best way to do that is to make sure that I have a good time, too. When the host is stressed out, it casts a pall over the entire meal. So my philosophy is to keep it simple. Prep as much ahead as possible, don't overthink the menu or the table and by all means let people help out. I'm not afraid to supplement a menu with a store-bought item or two, either. Remember: people first, food second.

Photo: Mike Gilger

I've learned so many practical tips over the years that can help take the stress out of entertaining, and I'll be talking through a new topic each week. First up? How to plan a menu. Choosing a menu can feel daunting at first, so start by answering a few basic questions: How many guests are you having? If you're hosting just four people, you can make a more complex menu (say, plated courses, or individual tarte tatins for dessert) than if you're cooking for twelve. Then, what's the occasion? Keep in mind any holidays that have themed menus (Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving), and how formal or casual the gathering is meant to be. Next, consider your budget. Determining how much you can spend on ingredients will be one of the biggest factors in deciding how simple or elaborate the menu will be. Finally, ask yourself how long you have to prep. Think realistically: If you're coming home from work to host a mid-week dinner party, you're going to want to either assemble something very simple or choose a menu that can be made completely in advance.

Planning a menu is essentially a balancing act of colors, textures, temperatures and flavors on the plate, along with the constraints of time, budget, occasion and season. Here are a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind:

① Think season: If it's hot outside, make it easy on yourself and leave the oven off. Throw together some simple salads and grill meat or fish. If it's cool, serve something comforting like a big pot of soup or a roast chicken, and some simple vegetable side dishes.

② Pick a main dish and go from there. Let your main dish determine the flavor profile for the meal: If you're serving a spicy Thai dip as a main, pick side dishes that complement those flavors, like steamed coconut rice and stir-fried Asian greens with ginger and garlic. If you're serving a heavier main course, like pappardelle al ragu, choose a light starter, like citrus salad with arugula and crumbled feta. The goal is balance.

③ Think starter, main, sides and dessert. You don't need to have every one of the courses to make a good meal, but they make for good starting points. I like to have some snacks and wine out when guests arrive (this both makes them happy and buys me time to finish cooking). Don't be shy about asking guests to bring something, either—people love to help!

④ Choose only one complicated dish. For the sake of your time (and sanity), if your main dish takes hours to make, keep the side dishes simple. The goal is not for you to be slaving in the kitchen all night, but to actually enjoy your meal and your guests.

⑤ You don't have to make everything from scratch! If you're making the main course, supplement the rest of the meal with a few carefully chosen store-bought items. A loaf of bread from a local bakery, good cheese and a pint of high-end ice cream can be lifesavers, and your guests won't care a bit.