How To: Start Planning the Menu for Your Event
Tasting and deciding on your event menu is a big part of the planning process – no matter what kind of event you are planning. After all, when you are looking at many mouths to feed and it can feel like a lot of pressure to get right. So, you find the perfect caterer, you love all their food, but unfortunately you can’t choose their entire menu. Right off the bat, I’m just going to say it… you are not going to be able to please absolutely every person at your event, so don’t even try. The goal is to blow the socks off the majority of your guests and most importantly, you as the host should love the food.
Let’s begin with the different kinds of dining services that are usually available as options. The first one being, a full plated meal. This is considered “restaurant style” where every course is brought out by servers, separately, on their own plate for each guest. This option is typically the most expensive because of the logistics involved but can also have the biggest impact because who doesn’t love to be waited on without having to get out of your chair. The prep time for this kind of service can be quite time-consuming on your end also, as the host, because you will need to know everyone’s entrée preference (if you are providing a choice) with any necessary dietary restrictions. Creating place cards for each guest with this information is vital. The place cards will need to be big enough for the servers to read and indicate very clearly what each guest has chosen for their dinner. This kind of service can be the best option for smaller events with fewer guests.
The next option is the most popular, a buffet line. This tends to be the most desired dinner service because it requires the least amount of work for the host and provides the most options for the guests. This is beneficial because you can have a couple different entrees and sides without having to obtain a preference from each guest. Your guests can choose what they would like, or not like, to eat on their own. Do keep in mind guest dietary restrictions if you know them though, and make sure there are the necessary signs or notations on certain dishes (gluten free, dairy free, nut free, etc.). This kind of service works very well for events with large guest counts. However, you should also be aware, post pandemic, this option can be seen as unfavorable by some guests, because you are asking guests to get up, carry their plate to the buffet, wait in line very close together, and serve themselves with utensils that are being used by every guest. Sometimes there is the option to have a “served” buffet that is manned by staff and served to each guest, but that can be more expensive due to labor costs or may not be possible due to staffing needs.
Lastly, there is the family-style option of service. This can be related to a traditional Thanksgiving style dinner, where the food is on individual serving platters at each table and the food is passed around to all the guests sitting at that table. This is arguably the most labor-intensive serving style for the catering staff because they are constantly trying to keep up with demands of each table (sometimes there are 25+ tables) as platters need replenishing. With that said, this service style is a good mix between the plated dinner and the buffet line. It can create a slightly elevated dining experience since guests are not asked to get up from their seats and food is brought to them, but they can still decide if they want to place each item on their plate. And this way there are only 8-10 people using the same serving utensils versus all 100-200 guests. This kind of service works well for both small and large events.
Let’s quickly discuss some of the most common entrée choices for events. I am sure the first thing that came to your mind, but you wanted to quickly dismiss, is chicken. It is an easy, people pleasing meat, but can also be dry & overdone, right? Well, don’t dismiss it so quickly! Talk to your caterer and see what their chicken options are and if they can include one or two of them in your tasting because having this meat as the main part of your entrée will help keep costs down. Including a tasty sauce or using chicken with the bone in will help to keep the dish moist.
Of course, the next thought is to include some sort of beef option. This is something that you can almost guarantee will be enjoyed by most of the gentlemen at your party, but a lot of ladies feel like it can be too heavy, or they don’t eat red meat. So, if you would like to have beef as your main meat, I would recommend either offering a second option or choose a duet plate – meaning two meats on one plate. A duet plate can be beneficial both for you, as the host, and the caterer because guests don’t have to indicate an entrée preference, and the staff doesn’t have to be as concerned when serving dinner (unless you have guests who are vegetarians – more on that in a second). I would recommend asking your caterer about a nice flank steak with jumbo shrimp. Flank steak is a flavorful meat that has a quick cook time and is easier for a caterer to grill up in large amounts. Same with the shrimp, and that covers your seafood all on one dish. Speaking of seafood…
I am a fish & seafood girl all the way, so having that as an option for dinner always pleases my palate. However, it can be a tough one because you don’t want something that is too fishy, or overdone and flavorless. I would definitely recommend looking at the caterer’s salmon options. A nice beurre blanc sauce or simple lemon garlic butter sauce can keep the fish moist & tasty. Additionally, salmon can pair well on a duet plate with steak, should that be your preference. A halibut can also be a nice fish option.
Now that you have your preferred style of dinner service and your main entrée dish, what about those dietary restrictions I keep mentioning but not addressing? This can be a bit sensitive because everyone is so different and if you open the lid to that Pandora’s Box it can be hard to contain the responses you receive. I would recommend accommodating the most common restrictions before guests even ask… Have a single entrée option that pleases both vegetarians & vegans. Open it up to make sure guests can let you know if they need gluten free and/or dairy free options (and make sure to have a plan in place when you receive those requests). Lastly, if you are serving a duet plate with any sort of seafood, make sure you have a place for guests to tell you if they are allergic. Beyond that, typically people will make it a point to let you know if they have a severe allergy to something you are serving, but otherwise they are adults and can pick around what they prefer or are unable to eat. Try not to make this part more complicated on you than it needs to be. Again, you are likely not going to be able to please all of your guests.
Well, there you have it. A crash course in planning your event menu. I know there are things we didn’t cover, such as the side dishes, salad & dessert, but typically each caterer will have recommendations on what will pair well with the main entrée meat you decide to serve. In my opinion, if you have the option to taste the food before your event, do it! It will help put your mind at ease and allow you to create a cohesive meal that matches the vision for the evening you are creating. As an added bonus, I have included below some of my favorite caterer in Spokane/Cd’A area. Enjoy and happy planning!!