How to Plan a Catering Menu

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Smoked salmon with cucumber appetizer prepared by a caterer.
Smoked salmon with cucumber appetizer prepared by a caterer. (Image: charlotteba/iStock/Getty Images)

Even if you're a master planner and a genius in the kitchen, planning a catering menu can be quite the challenge for a beginner. You must consider both your client's taste preferences as well as dietary restrictions, practicality and portion sizes. Covering all of your bases will improve the likelihood that the guests and the clients will be satisfied with your work.

Find the Menu Parameters

Talk to your client about what they would like to see on the menu. Determine if they have foods that they absolutely do or do not want at their event. Make a list of menu requirements to refer to as you plan. Some clients will ask you to pick all of the menu items without giving much input, but you should always run the menu by them anyway. If your client does want little input, or if you are catering your own gathering, think as if you are a client hiring a caterer. In this mindset, write a list of menu requirements that you would give to your caterer – and use it. At the end of the process you should have a loose list of menu parameters to work with.

Account for Dietary Restrictions

You should always consider some dietary restrictions when planning a catering menu, even if the client did not ask you to. Meatless dishes are a good place to start as they accommodate some religious restrictions as well as the restrictions of vegetarians and vegans. Grain, nut, sugar and dairy-free dishes help cater to allergies as well as people suffering from diabetes and other medical conditions. Offering these dishes will ensure that guests with allergies or restrictions that are unknown to the host can still enjoy the food.

Plan the Menu Amounts

To begin determining how much food you will need to prepare, find out how many guests to expect and whether you will provide light snacks or full meals. If you're providing full meals, decide how many courses you'll be serving. Usually, an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert should suffice. Offer at least four different options for each course to satisfy everyone's tastes. If you're providing snacks, plan several different menu items with enough food for at least three pieces per person. This planning allows you to determine how much of each ingredient you will need to buy for the event.

Choose a Variety of Flavors

Not everyone enjoys the same range of flavors, so it's important to select menu items with a wide range of flavor variety. A balance of sweet, spicy and savory dishes is a good place to start. Additionally, offer both rich and light dishes. This helps ensure that each guest enjoys at least one item on the catering menu.

Consider Time and Energy Requirements

Whether you're working with a team of cooks or you're cooking the food for the event yourself, make choices based on time and energy requirements to help simplify things. Try to avoid dishes that require large amounts of refrigerator space or expensive, hard-to-find ingredients.

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