Menu Planning for Any Occasion
Expert Advice

Image: Deposit Photos, monkeybusiness

In an era of fast casual dining, drive-through coffee, packed-to-the-gills schedules, and instant gratification, menu planning can seem like a daunting task for anyone. In reality, planning a menu should be a fun, stress-free activity that allows you to reflect on the purpose of your gathering and the tastes of your guests. Whether you are sipping cocktails by the fire pit or snacking on crudites on the sofa, your guests will be impressed by your thoughtful and unique choices.

Cocktail Hour

Start your party off right with cocktails to impress-there’s nothing better than arriving at an event and immediately being handed a delicious and beautifully crafted drink. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can even create your own signature cocktail specifically for the event-something to match a color scheme or the event’s theme will always be a hit. While having beer and wine available for your guests is always a good idea, there’s just something special about cocktail drinks.


Make sure to consider the venue when deciding on appetizers. If your guests are going to be mingling in and out of multiple rooms, perhaps a small tray of appetizers in two or three rooms will be best. If everyone is going to be sitting together and playing a card game, something that is easily passed around will be more effective. If your event is outside, try to arrange for covered dishes or arrange for a small awning so your delicious treats won’t be pilfered by birds or soaked by rain. If you are entertaining outside and the forecast is hot, try to avoid serving anything easily perishable, like deviled eggs. Fresh fruit items or charcuterie boards are a great alternative!


Your main course should be the star of the show and should be able to be enjoyed by everyone. When planning the menu in advance, it’s best to check with your guests for allergies or food sensitivities to make sure that everyone can enjoy the meal together (this applies to your cocktails and appetizers as well). If your event has a theme, incorporating the menu items into the theme is sure to be pleasing to both the eye and the palate of your guests. Matching your cocktails with the entree will serve the same purpose, as well as creating a lovely through-line for the taste buds. For example, if you are serving a lemon thyme pasta dish, accentuating your cocktails with a citrus-forward spirit will elevate the entire experience for your guests.

Seasonal dishes will also be your best ally in planning events like this. If your event is during the hottest days of summer, your guests won’t want to eat heavy, rich dishes that leave them feeling hot and overfull. Contrarily, if you are hosting a winter event, heat and warmth are almost required! If you’re stumped for recipe ideas, want to try something brand new, or just want a fresh take on your old standards, there is a wealth of delicious recipes online for any occasion.


A carefully crafted and complimentary dessert to finish off your meal will leave a sweet taste in your guests mouths in more ways than one. The easiest and cleanest way to serve dessert is to choose something that can be made in individual dishes-individual jelly glasses of homemade chocolate mousse or individual ramekins of creme brulee will make for easy and quick serving-plus, it looks elegant and professional!


Once the desserts have been enjoyed and cleared away, your guests will likely linger over the table for quite a while. Good food and good atmosphere have a way of keeping people in their seats this way. Make sure to offer to refresh cocktails or other drinks if they are getting low, and it’s always best to brew a pot of strong dark coffee and have some cream and sugar available for those who want it-bonus if you have an espresso machine and demitasse cups.

As your guests leave, make sure to thank them for coming, send them home with extra food if you won’t be able to eat it all, and make sure to remember that planning a menu is important and creating something delicious is worthwhile, but that your guests also came because of you.