When you’re creating a menu, there are several things to consider beyond just the food itself.
- You have to think about preparing the food.
- Do you have adequate pots, pans, sheet trays, and whatever else the recipe calls for. If you want to prepare food in advance, do you have adequate freezer space for storage?
- If you need to serve several hot dishes at once, can your ovens accommodate this?
- If you don’t have exactly what you need, how can you use what you have?
When I was in college, one of my first apartments had an oven that basically had one temperature setting: 400 degrees! This was an interesting challenge. I didn’t bake a lot of cakes or cookies, but I did roast vegetables, meats and chickens. I also learned to make many things on the stovetop that normally would have gone in the oven.
Several years later, I was in a different apartment. It was more modern, with an all-electric kitchen. I was cooking a family holiday meal and baking the cake several days ahead. This was a recipe I had made many times. I mixed the batter, poured it into the bundt pan and put the pan in the oven. When the timer went off, I took it out of the oven, cooled it on a rack and turned it upside down to unmold.
The cake was completely raw in the middle! The heating element in the electric oven had died. I went out and bought a countertop convection oven and cooked dinner in that. Of course, I made a quick menu modification.
These were experiences I never forgot. They taught me to think about the actual food preparation when creating a menu.
Once you figure out how to prepare everything, next you need to think about how you are going to actually serve the food.
- Is this going to be a sit down event with all the guests at one table and all the food plated in the kitchen, or is it a buffet where the guests serve themselves?
- Is it family style where the food is passed around the table? Or is it a combination?
I’ve done it every way and sometimes combine the three styles. I serve the salad or first course plated at the table, main course with several dishes buffet style, and dessert — family style. There is no one way of serving.
As you think about the type of service, you must think about dishes, platters and silverware. Do you have enough dishes and silverware? Everything doesn’t have to match or be perfect, to give a great party. You can mix different styles. I buy things at flea markets, tag sales and online. I mix it all together with family heirlooms and things I’ve collected from my travels. If you look at the table for the Mexican Fiesta, you will see I have combined vintage McCoy Pottery, handmade dinner plates from Italy, glasses from World Market and Italian table linens purchased on Ebay.
It’s vital that you have enough of everything. You don’t want to create a beautiful event and when someone accidentally breaks a wine glass — not have an extra. This is just another example of where being prepared reduces stress and ensures you will have a good time at your party.
The final element in creating a menu is considering your guests’ possible dietary restrictions. I live in Beverly Hills and people in my area seem to have a lot of dietary restrictions. Some of my friends don’t eat carbs at all (except, occasionally fresh fries); some are strict vegans (except for dessert); some are pescetarians (only fish — except for Thanksgiving when they eat turkey). Some are gluten-free. Some have real food allergies (e.g. fish).
So how do I handle this? First, I inquire about food preferences. True allergies such as fish and nuts can be very serious and I respect that. For all the rest, I ALWAYS have things on my menu that are nut free, fish free, gluten free, sugar free and carb free. I don’t focus on this. I focus on great tasting food.
If you look at my menus, you will see how easy it is to accomplish: I always include some tasty vegetable dishes that can make a meal. I always have several great homemade desserts but I always include seasonal fresh fruit. For example, in the Mexican Fiesta Menu, you can substitute chicken for the crab. The tacos, jicama salad and basically everything else is vegetarian. There are several dishes — rice, beans, jicama salad — that are all gluten free. I don’t make a big deal over this. I just plan a menu that has something for everyone and tastes great.
As you consider everything I’ve talked about in Create the Menu, you want to make choices that you are totally comfortable with. Don’t be overly ambitious. Your comfort level will insure a great party.