3-Course Dinner Ideas

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A typical three-course dinner includes an appetizer, an entree and dessert. Your meal can be an impromptu dinner among friends or a more drawn-out and elegant affair for a special evening. No matter the event, by following a few guidelines you will be able to create a number of three-course dinners for every occasion.

Start with the Second Course

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Building your menu around the entree, or second course, will make it easier to determine the complementary courses. The second course is primarily a meat or vegetarian entree with a side dish. Examples like roasted chicken with sauteed peas and carrots or roast beef with creamy, whipped potatoes are typical second-course dishes. For vegetarians, stuffed red peppers with quinoa and slivered almonds are a good second course.

Caterers generally use the rule of protein, starch or grain and vegetable when planning entrees. Relying on this method ensures a balanced diet with a range of textures and tastes to choose from. Serving steak with rice and mashed potatoes would be too starch heavy and not appealing to the palette. Serving steak with a roasted red potatoes and lightly steamed asparagus makes a well-balanced and visually appealing plate.

Colors should be considered when planning an elegant or celebratory meal. Poached salmon is a lovely, but lightly colored fish. Choose visually bold vegetables like spinach, beets, carrots, or strips of yellow or red pepper to serve alongside the fish. Rice would go well here, but try wild rice instead of white for a more colorful mix of foods.

First and Third Courses

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Once the entree has been decided, the appetizer and dessert course can be laid out. Consider how heavy or light your entree is. If it is a light dish, like fish or broiled chicken, you may want to add a heavier starter course like a bowl of chowder or a serving of pasta salad. If you are serving pot or pork roast, a green salad is an appropriate first course.

Desserts can follow the same idea. After a particularly heavy meal, small cookies with coffee or freshly sliced melon may be all your guest can handle. Leave the more substantial desserts like apple pie a la mode or cheesecake when following a stir-fry or a dinner of thinly sliced London broil.


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One more consideration is the seasoning of your menu as a whole. A spicy gumbo, fiery tacos or three-alarm chili should have cooling side dishes such as cornbread or white rice to help calm the palette. Having one dish with distinct seasoning is plenty, you don't need one course fighting with the other in the flavor category.

On the other hand, use herbs to enhance otherwise delicate flavors without overwhelming the main dish. An entree of fettuccine with a mild alfredo sauce can be livened up with a side dish of roasted tomatoes, green beans, onions and garlic seasoned with oregano and basil. A crisp, green salad or a plate of peppers and olives can start this meal. And because alfredo sauce is pretty heavy, finish with a bowl of fresh berries and just a dollop of whipped cream.