These questions (along with your goals & limits in Step 1) help figure out the scale of the event and will have a big impact on how much work you have to do. But they’re also where the most creativity comes in, for me, so finding the answers can be really fun.
- Do you have a theme or a specific cuisine in mind?
- Do you want to use favorite recipes, or try something new?
- Will your guests be coming hungry or just want something light?
- How do you plan to serve the meal?
- How important is appearance to you?
- Where are you serving it? Will there be temperature/spoilage concerns?
Theme: Picking a theme or cuisine is the really fun part for me, but this doesn’t automatically have to mean you try something new. Sometimes I plan the meal around recipes I’ve been making regularly, other times I pick a theme and go out and research to find just the right recipes. Libraries are often involved in that process, since it’s hard to know which cookbooks will be the most useful until I can compare several. I like extreme meal planning, what can I say?
Satiety: If you don’t want to have to make too much food, serving it at a time when people don’t expect a full meal helps, of course. I’m not sure I could get away with that anymore, since my tendency to cook enough to serve twice as many people as expected is pretty well established among everyone who knows me or has even heard of my events. But there are times when lots of food just isn’t helpful – a cocktail party or a mid-afternoon party, I guess. I tend to stick to full meals and food that “sticks to your ribs,” as my Grandmother would say.
Setup: I’m not a big stickler for formality, so I’ve really never done a proper multi-course meal. I tend to serve meals as a buffet or big overloaded family-style serving. Sometimes, though, it helps to have a buffet near the table for things that aren’t possible to pass (soup, heavy pans, etc.). There are a few types of food where your furniture arrangement will make a big difference in their success – fondue is one, where you want people to be able to reach everything.
Aesthetics: I like pretty food. Usually this is about getting a nice range of colors and textures in the food itself, which is always a good thing to keep in mind when you’re menu planning, since your eyes do affect your mind and the way you enjoy the meal. Other times it’s about how you present the food – cutting things neatly, arranging them on plates. Bits of herbs or edible flowers (violets, pansies, roses, nasturtiums all work) are really fun to use if you like to garden. But just lining things up works fine if you don’t want to get fiddly.
Or the “pretty factor” can be purely presentational – lighting, dishes, linens, etc. This doesn’t have to be expensive. I find lots of dishes at thrift stores by looking for things that can go together even if they weren’t meant to originally – I have a very large collection of mis-matched white plates that I can use if I want to serve a big crowd at a sit-down dinner. I’ve found great linens there too, to the point that I now need to stop collecting them so I’ll be able to store everything. I have candles from Ikea that I put in the mismatched bronze candleholders I’ve also collected from thrift stores.
For serving outside when it’s nice, the most important purchases I’ve made are pop-up screen covers for food and clips to hold tablecloths onto the tables. When we want to serve lots of people we haul out our inside chairs and make tables from old doors and sawhorses. Someday I may buy some cheap folding plastic tables, but then I’d have to figure out where to store them too.
Location: The size of the location will have some impact on how many people you can include, of course. It helps to have an open layout in my studio apartment – I’ve been known to grab some of our smaller folding furniture to extend a table with an extra tablecloth when more people join us than we originally set the table to include. If you can’t do a sit-down dinner, you should plan for easy finger food of course. Set up several different spots with food to encourage people to move around. I found some “vintage” folding TV trays that are nice for this kind of setup, that I can scatter near chairs to let people set their food or drinks down.
Other Hazards: Spoilage is usually only a factor in the summer outside, but if you’re doing an open buffet that will be out for a long time it’s worth keeping in mind. Dairy products and seafood are usually the worst culprits, along with meat if it’s something that’s not “well done” or otherwise preserved. I try to avoid creamy salads at summer parties or borrow a “dorm fridge” to stick them in when people aren’t grabbing food. Anything that needs to be plugged in should be protected from trip lines. I’m a klutz so I’m paranoid about stuff like that.