Once you have decided to host a dinner first consider the practicalities.

  • What is the date of your proposed party?
  • Have you drawn up a guest list and theme?

Remember that guests should feel as comfortable as possible and in designing your party it is important to consider aspects such as their individual tastes, the age of your guests and also the general ambiance you are striving to create.

·     Make a realistic assessment of how much time you have to prepare for your party and also take account of your culinary skills. Where short of time remember that some foods can be purchased in a prepared form e.g. stocks and sauces, while some items can be bought directly from a delicatessen e.g. the meat and fish used in the antipasto described later on in this lesson.·   

Consider how formal you wish the dining experience to be e.g. a sit down dinner party is more formal than a buffet, so it is important to consider what type of event you will feel most comfortable in hosting. Space may also be an issue as a table and chairs will require more space than a buffet table where guests can move between rooms/ stand. Buffet style dining will therefore, allow you to have a larger guest list.

Designing menus for a buffet or sit down meal

With the basic design of your dinner party decided. You should then decide on what menu you will provide. When designing the menu for your dinner party a few basic considerations should be taken into account:

  1. Consider who you are catering for - a successful menu must account for the likes/dislikes of each of the participants at your event. If for example, you are catering for a small group of friends and amongst the group there are a couple of people who do not like, or are allergic to, eggs and shellfish, then it would be easier not to select dishes containing these two foods.
  2. Consider your budget - your choice of foods should also reflect your budget. Choose foods that are in season and locally sourced to help reduce costs. Where catering for profit, it is also essential that the foods you source allow you to have a healthy profit margin.
  3.  Make sure each ingredient in your menu can be easily sourced as you will not wish to waste valuable time searching for ingredients that are not widely available.
  4. Consider how you wish to serve foods - certain foods will be more suited to a seated meal service while others can be more appropriate to buffets or barbeques.
  5. Go for menus that have been tried and tested - it is a good idea to cook foods that you enjoy cooking and know work well. Preferably keep menus simple at first; you can always add more complex recipes as you become more experienced.
  6. Make sure that you prepare enough servings. Write a guest list to obtain a complete guide to how many servings you need to prepare, adding a couple of extra servings for any last minute guests and to provide the option of an extra serving. As you select particular recipes review their serving size and multiply by the number of servings required.
  7. Consider timing - preferably choose some recipes that can be prepared ahead of time or cooked quickly at your catering event. This will allow you to spend more time serving meals and attending to your guests. Writing a time specific cooking plan will also allow you to cook and serve foods at the correct time.
  8. Ensure that each menu choice complements the others. When designing your menu it is important to consider how you can offer foods that vary in aspects such as taste, texture and temperature, where flavours compliment each other as well as giving contrast where appropriate. If serving a main meal which is quite ‘heavy’ and filling e.g. roast beef, consider starting with a lighter starter such as a clear soup or consommé. Also consider how food will appear on the serving plate. It is for example, important to choose side dishes which provide contrasting colours and textures to the main dish e.g. a white/cream coloured dish such as chicken breast will not go well with similarly coloured side dishes such as mashed potato and cauliflower. Consider also how you can balance spicy dishes with a cooler side option e.g. a spicy meat dish may work well with pasta or rice which is in a creamy sauce.

Buffet dining tips: Although buffet style dining is generally easier to cater for than a full sit down menu, it may still be hard initially to decide on foods to include and also on how foods are to be presented. Here are a few tips and recipes to help you execute the best buffet style experience.

  1. Consider your room arrangement. The right room set-up is key to making your buffet table a success. Where space permits try to place your buffet table in the middle of a room so that guests are able to access the table from both sides and queues are kept to a minimum.
  2. Consider how food/ plates/utensils are to be placed on the buffet table. One good way of arranging the buffet table is to have plates on one end followed by main dishes and then vegetables and side salads with napkins and cutlery at the other side. This arrangement means that guests will be able to serve foods as they pass down the buffet table without requiring a spare hand to carry a napkin, knife and folk.
  3. Choose buffet foods wisely, generally foods which will require cutting/slicing will be less popular at a buffet meal as this will require a spare hand/flat surface. Chosen foods should also provide a good range of colour and textures.
  4. Beware of potential food poisoning/contamination by keeping a careful eye on temperature. In general buffet food should not be left out for longer than 2 hours, while in warmer climates the time where food may be safely left out will decrease to about 1 hour due to the possible food poisoning risk.

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