For some people, planning a large dinner party is as simple as breathing. For the other 99 percent of us, getting a group together to eat, drink and be merry is a cause for anxiety or outright panic. While the purpose of a dinner party is to enjoy the company of friends and family, the food is still important. The good news is that you can plan a dinner party menu that's delicious, easy to prepare and bound to impress.
Choose a Theme
Build a menu featuring foods that are best served buffet or family-style. Unless you have a staff of hired help, individually plating and serving dishes isn't practical and is likely to cause you stress. Menus featuring pasta are a good choice, for example. Cook a large pot of your favorite pasta -- or several types for variety -- and offer a choice of sauces, such as Alfredo, marinara and a meaty Bolognese sauce. Serve meatballs on the side, and let each guest customize her own dinner. Mexican-themed buffets are also a good dinner party menu option.Provide a variety of taco toppings including grated cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, guacamole and salsa. Younger kids might prefer a cool ranch dressing in place of the spicy salsa. Let guests build their own tacos or fajitas, served with rice, beans and refreshing margaritas for the adults or lemonade for the kids.
Appetizers and Cocktails
Keep a three-course dinner party menu. In general, a meal of a soup or salad course, main course and dessert is the easiest to plan and manage. When guests arrive, serve a selection of appetizers and cocktails. To keep things simple, designate a signature cocktail for the party, plus wine, beer or soft drinks. For the kids, provide milk or fruit juice. Aim to serve several different appetizers; a cheese plate and a selection of creamy dips with vegetables crudités are simple crowd pleasers.
Keep a Simple Entree
Choose items that can be prepared on a large scale without losing their flavor or texture and that don't require intense concentration or preparation. That's not to say that you can't serve an elegant entrée, but items that are labor-intensive or that need individual preparation aren't the best choice when feeding a crowd. The cost of a dinner party also starts to add up when you choose elaborate recipes. In addition, simpler entrées are generally more kid-friendly. A simple stuffed chicken entrée, for example, is less expensive and easier to prepare than individual Cornish game hens.
Stay With the Familiar
Cook what you know. Even the most confident cook can get nervous when planning a meal for a crowd, so your dinner party is not the best time to try out a new recipe with ingredients you've never tried. You want your dinner party to be memorable, but not in the "Remember that horrible fish" kind of way. Experiment with new recipes on your family before the dinner party, so you can adjust as necessary. Plan your menu around established favorites as the main entree, and experiment with new recipes for appetizers or side dishes.
Prepare in Advance
Lower your stress level and keep your energy high on the day of your dinner party. You probably don't want to be working in the kitchen up until the minute your guests arrive. Carefully planning your menu and choosing dishes that you can prepare in advance can help. Decide on a menu at least a week or two before the party, and make a shopping list as well as a list of all the tasks you need to complete. Determine the prep work you can complete in the days leading up to the party, and do as much work beforehand as possible.