fresh fruit with a chocolate ganache

I’m probably (definitely!) a weirdo, but I love menu planning. My husband makes fun of me, because I will sometimes go so far as to make an Excel spreadsheet to plan a menu. Usually, however, I just stick with the notes feature of my phone.

We frequently feed crowds of up to 50+ people in our home, but even smaller gatherings deserve some intentional menu planning. Even just a little bit of planning can go a long way in making an event meal be a success!

When planning a menu, there are three key categories of consideration: yourself, your guests, and your kitchen. You must consider yourself by understanding what resources you have to go towards the meal, and you must consider others so that you can ensure that the meal will meet their needs. And you must consider the limitations and layout of your kitchen (or wherever you are making/serving the food).

Considering yourself and your situation:

Ask yourself what resources and skills you already have. Time, money, and energy should always factor into what you decide to serve. Don’t plan to bake something difficult and fancy if you already know that your week is going to be hectic. Don’t plan to spend so much money on food that you can’t pay an important bill. And don’t plan to stress yourself out by cooking new recipes you aren’t comfortable with. Instead, ask yourself the following questions (and give yourself honest answers!):

  • What does my week leading up to the event look like? Do I already know that it will be full of appointments and activities? How much time will I reasonably have to spend preparing for this event?
    • If you need help quantifying how much time you will have, I encourage you to write out your approximate schedule each day for the several days leading up to the event. Then, you might be able to identify what pockets of time (if any!) you have to spend food-prepping. This will help you determine how much food you can make in advance, versus how much will be made last-minute, versus how much you might buy pre-made.
  • What resources am I willing to spend on food for this event? Don’t forget, resources include time and energy, in addition to money. Determining what you will spend in each of these categories will help you narrow down an appropriate menu.
  • What skills do I already have? What recipes do I already love to make?
  • What foods will I not mind leftovers of?
  • What do I have going on after the event? In some cases, it might make sense for you to make extra of certain foods if you will be wanting them for something else. For example, maybe you have been tasked to bring a dessert to a potluck the next day. Bake cookies for your event, but make it a double batch so you have some for the potluck! It doesn’t usually take that much more time and energy to double or triple a recipe, so be strategic in deciding what to make.
spinach salad with all the yummy toppings

Considering your guests and their situations:

When learning to write or speak, a key principle is “know your audience”. This same principle should be applied to menu-planning. If we want our meal to truly serve those we are serving, then we must understand what their needs are! When I plan a menu, here is how I approach it.

  • Allergies/Intolerances/Aversions. Sometimes you already know what your friends and family won’t eat, but sometimes you don’t. If you feel comfortable, before the event ask your guests if there are any foods they need to avoid. This can give you insight into what you should serve, or if you should have something specific set aside for those with special food needs. Ultimately, some people are picky. It might be for dietary reasons, or it might be for flavor/texture reasons. But, whenever possible, you want people to have a variety of foods that they consider safe to eat. Some easy ways to account for these needs include:
    • Consider keeping “controversial” ingredients to the side. Different crowds will have different “controversial” ingredients, but as you get to know your guests, you will learn what things are worth keeping to the side. Ideas:
      • Croutons. Not only do they get soggy tossed in a salad, but then people who are gluten free or low carb cannot have the salad. Having them in a bowl next to the salad allows people to choose if they want them.
      • “Stinky” cheeses. I like blue cheese and feta on salads! Some people hate them, and some people have to be dairy-free. Easier to just keep cheeses to the side.
      • Nuts. Sometimes I put nuts in salads, sometimes I don’t. But if I know I have someone with a nut allergy coming, I try to keep nuts either completely off the menu, or at least to the side.
    • Consider having a “tame” version of the main food. If the main course of your meal is a really spicy chili, have a mild version too. If you are serving an egg casserole that is so delicious and has ALL your favorite meats and veggies in it, consider making a really simple one too that is just egg and cheese. If you are making a gourmet seafood stew, consider having some simple roasted chicken as an option on the side.
    • Single ingredient foods. Try to have at least a few single ingredient foods out. A veggie or fruit tray is a really easy way to accomplish this. Or have a bunch of bananas on the table. Or a bowl of cashews. People with food issues quickly can identify these as “safe”, and if they have nothing else they can eat, these might work for them. Plus, these types of foods are probably ones you have on hand anyway, it’s just a matter of remembering to set them out!
    • Take photos of ingredient labels. I have found it helpful, when I suspect I might have some people who are avoiding certain ingredients, to take a quick photo of ingredient labels while I’m preparing food. For example, if I’m cooking breakfast sausage, before I throw away the wrapper, click! Or if I’m heating up a frozen appetizer I bought, before I throw the box away, click! That way, if someone asks me, “oh what’s in this?” I can pull out my phone and reference the label. It might make a difference in whether or not someone can eat it! And, if I don’t end up needing the photos, I just delete them after the event. But at least I was prepared!
    • Serve multiple proteins. Protein is the backbone of a meal. But not everyone eats every type of protein! Some people avoid red meat, others pork, others avoid seafood, some can’t have nuts, etc. But having at least two proteins helps to ensure at least most of your guests have a meal that satisfies them!
  • Balance. A breakfast menu that is just made up of cinnamon rolls, bagels, and avocado toast may seem okay at first, but then you might realize that it’s made entirely up of bread! I would just be serving bread in different forms. I know if I just ate a bunch of bready foods for a meal I wouldn’t feel very well afterwards! Replacing one of those dishes with an egg casserole, and another one with a fruit salad, would easily bring a bit more balance to that meal. It is important to be mindful of the categories of food that we serve:
    • Protein. Make sure that you have some protein options! Protein is healthy and keeps people full.
    • Vegetables. Even if it’s just a simple veggie tray, try to have some fresh vegetables available! This is obviously healthy, but also good for vegans or people with allergies.
    • Flavors. If I was having a dessert-only event, but all I served was chocolate, what about the people who don’t like chocolate?! Serving some fresh fruit, or a box of shortbread cookies, and maybe even a salty snack, at least ensures that everyone has something they might enjoy. This principle can be applied to many other menus as well.
    • Those controversial ingredients. You don’t want all of your dishes to have nuts, gluten, dairy, onions, or any other ingredients your guests might be avoiding. Having a variety of dishes, with a variety of ingredients, gives your guests a way to choose the foods best for them!
fruits and veggies don’t have to be complicated!

Considering your kitchen:

You may be an amazing baker and multi-tasker, with an array of ingredients at your fingertip, but if you only have one oven, you are limited to what that one oven can do for you. Our kitchens can be wonderful places where we lovingly create food, but we must be mindful of how they will serve us as we prepare to serve others. When planning a menu, keep these things in mind:

  • Refrigerator space. Make sure that your menu and food preps are going to fit in your refrigerator! Or consider borrowing space from someone else’s refrigerator, if need be. One trick that I’ve found helps me save space is to have friends bring certain bulky items the day of the event. When friends ask what they can bring to brunch, I might have them bring a jug of orange juice or a fruit salad. For a taco party, extra shredded cheese and a tub of sour cream. For a barbeque, maybe potato salad. With these bulky cold items taken care of, I can focus my own fridge space towards other dishes or ingredients.
  • Stovetop space. If you are cooking a large meal and have 5 things you want to cook on your 4-burner stovetop, then you either need to make some of those things ahead, change your menu, or find an alternative way to cook one of those things.
  • Oven space. You can’t roast a turkey, bake loaves of bread, and cook your famous sweet potato casserole all at the same time. Make note of what needs oven time, and when. Then adjust your menu and preparations accordingly.
  • Countertop space. Are you serving the food on the same counter that you use to prepare the food? If your space is limited, try to have all the food prepared ahead of time, and just set it out when it’s time for the event.
  • Specialty cookware. Rice cookers, crockpots, electric griddles, etc. can be a great way to maximize your cooking abilities. What do you have available to you? You can free up oven space by cooking your hashbrown casserole in the crockpot. Free up stove space by using the rice cooker. Make 4 grilled cheese at once by using the electric griddle instead of a skillet. Use the specialty cookware you have access to!
trying to maximize counterspace!

Bringing it all together:

You won’t use every strategy listed here for every meal you serve. However, if you can get in the habit of asking yourself relevant questions, being mindful of your guests’ needs, and using your space wisely, you can learn to serve meals with relative ease. A meal doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be thoughtful. We want to be good stewards of what we have, and do our best to serve those that God has placed in our lives.

“And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:10

bruschetta is always a favorite at our house
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