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How To Create The Perfect Menu for Your Holiday Gathering

Are you on a quest for the perfect holiday gathering to impress your family and friends? It all starts with proper planning and menu! I would argue that even Martha Stewart experiences some stress around the holidays. Arguably, one of the most important factors of a great party is a relaxed, hospitable host who is ready to enjoy the people around the table. Great dinner party warmth begins and ends with the spirit of the host. Whether you are cooking for two or 20, planning ahead to ease the stress is an absolute must.

The Guests

Before I plan anything, a great first step is to determine whom I will be hosting and the size of the party. Will it be my Midwestern in-laws who prefer meat and potatoes? Will it be my mother and sister who are picky as well as gluten free? How many people will I be hosting? Will there be kids? Knowing who you are looking to entertain and cook for is the very first step. My menu can get much fancier if I have guests that are adventurous and like to try new things. However, it doesn't have to be boring if I am going to cook traditional dishes. Don't forget to ask your guests if anyone has any food allergies, preferences, or dietary restrictions.

The Holiday

First and foremost, consider the holiday. Is it Thanksgiving? Christmas? Easter? Are you looking to go traditional or against the grain? So many questions, I know. However, determining how you want to present yourself is important so you can determine how to move forward.

The Setting

After you identify the guests as well as the occasion, you can start to work out the details around "the setting." Will you be hosting outdoors, dining room or at the kitchen table? Will you be plating and serving for presentation or letting people serve their own? Will you be serving family style or a buffet-style banquet serving? This will help you determine the theme and the décor to accommodate. Don't forget about creating a cozy ambiance with candles, the right music, and décor. Some touches that form the base of a great dinner party atmosphere:

  1. Turn down the lights.

  2. Light some candles.

  3. Use fabric napkins.

  4. Bring in warm colors.

  5. Turn on the music!

The Budget

Having a clear idea of how many guests you are hosting and determining your budget - tight or loose - is imperative before going any further. Budgets can range anywhere from $15 to the moon per person depending on the food and drink you decide to showcase. If you are on a tight budget, your menu doesn't have to reflect it.

Another thing to consider is whether you are taking care of everything yourself or asking other attendees to bring a dish. You can set the theme, but flexibility is required when asking others to contribute. You may be hoping for a certain type of potatoes to go with the prime rib, but your best friend may bring instant mashed rather than homemade mashed.

The Menu and Food Selection Process

  • Think Seasonal - As a general rule of thumb, thinking seasonal and local is a great way to ensure fresh and tasty ingredients.

  • Showcase Your Protein - Whatever type of protein you decide to serve, it will most likely be the focal point of your menu. Some holiday favorites are prime rib, turkey, lamb, ham and fish. Once you determine your main dish, everything else builds from there. In most situations, you will need to plan ahead to ensure that you can get the desired cut of meat from your local butcher, farm, or market. I'll never forget the Thanksgiving I failed to order a Turkey in advance and was scrambling to find one. Once I did find one, it was frozen and I had to get creative to thaw it out in time. Check out some really good recipes for Turkey Alternatives for Holiday Meals

  • WOW Factor - Every menu needs an element of excitement. Will you be serving caviar with crème fraiche as an appetizer? Or making your own bourbon truffles for dessert? Maybe you decide to make a dish that has history in your family that makes for a great story? Don't be afraid to add one surprising and bold element to your menu to get the discussion going.

  • Textures and Temperature - You want your food to taste amazing, but don't forget about the textures and temperatures of different dishes you pair with one another. A great menu incorporates various textures and consistency such as creamy, crunchy, chewy, and melt in your mouth amazing. Add a couple cold dishes, such as shrimp cocktail or salad, that you can potentially make ahead to lessen the burden in the hours before guests arrive.

  • Colors - First impression is everything. Make it colorful and artistic. Food presentation is extremely important to entice the palate. I always add fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables when plating or presenting a dish. You cant go wrong if you slip in some sage, parsley, thyme, and rosemary.

  • Vegetarian Options and Dietary Restrictions - Going back to your guest list, be sure to plan for a side dish or two if anyone has any food allergies, preferences, or dietary restrictions.

  • Kids - If there are any kids, I always make a huge dish of mac-n-cheese. It never fails.

The Drinks

Don't forget the drinks! Are your guests wine drinkers? Or do they prefer beer, mocktails, soda, sparkling or flat water? Wine pairing for seasoned oenophiles is not for the faint of heart. Learning to pair wine with food is exciting and fun. However, if you are uncomfortable pairing your dinner menu, ask a friend or let me know how I can help!

The Timing and Planning

Planning, shopping, and decorating all take time and certain money constraints. It's imperative that you manage your expectations. Do you work full time and have kids like I do? Planning takes a little creativity to get it all done. I plan out what I would like to do, then taper back or expand when I determine the time I have to prepare. "Make ahead" dishes are my favorite and come in handy leading up to the event. Also, don't be afraid of store-bought appetizers, utilize your local butcher shop to tie the tenderloin or brine the turkey, or local baker to make desserts for you. I always leave some breathing room knowing that something will inevitably take longer than expected. One trick I use is to write out my menu, print out all my recipes, and then write out timing next to each one. This helps me decide prioritization and what to make when planning.

The Backup Plan

Not to add to the stress, but always have a backup plan. What?! Your oven won't work just before you slide the main dish in?! What do you do if your kitchen faucet stops working just as you wash off the turkey(true story)? Pizza and/or Chinese may be your only options. In the event of a catastrophe such as this, go with the flow! If your plan goes down the drain at the last minute, remember your guests are coming over to enjoy your company and celebrate. Don't forget, I offer consultative services to help you plan and execute your event if you feel overwhelmed. Let me know how I can help.

Cheers and best of luck planning and cooking! It will all be worth it in the end when your spouse says, "I'll do the dishes!"

For more inspiration, check out the most popular Christmas Dishes in America courtesy of YouGovAmerica

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