First I ask myself a series of questions...
Is there a theme? Maybe a regional theme... Italian, French, Mexican. A food theme...chocolate, cheese, apple. A holiday theme... Chinese New Year's, Mardi Gras, Halloween. Or anything else you can think of...Springtime Tea Party, No Cook Menu, Super Bowl Party, Carnival Food. Food Network shows typically choose a theme menu for each episode, if you need some ideas. I am currently planning my cookie exchange menu.
How many people will be attending? Will it be a small group of girlfriends? One or two couples invited over for dinner? A party for everyone we know. Or somehere in between? My cookie exchange should have 8-10 people attending.
What courses do I need? Appetizers only? Heartier snack foods? Full course dinner? Desserts only? I will be doing an appetizer buffet. We will also be tasting our cookies before the swap so I won't need any sweets.
How will the food be served? Will it be buffet style? Sit down dinner? Or just grazing while hanging out? Will people have to hold drinks and plates of food at the same time? Do I want to plate each course before serving? Are there last minute items that will need to be cooked and served immediately? I prefer to do as much as possible before the party. Although my kitchen is part of an open floor plan, I want to attend my party and not be cooking/plating during the whole thing. Due to my limited size dining table, I usually do a buffet style spread on my kitchen island.
Finger food or silverware required? Seated at a table is pretty much the only way to serve items requiring cutting with a fork and knife. Items like soup are also best served while seated. Finger food is the easiest. People can put items on a plate and mingle, or stand and graze at the buffet. You can also put "food stations" around the room to prevent a traffic jam at a single buffet. Finger food also helps reduce clean up. No silverware to wash!
How much time do I have to prepare before the day of the party? Can I go grocery shopping well in advance, or do I need to buy lots of fresh ingredients right before the party? Can I make menu items a day or two before? For example, foods like dips usually taste better made the day before instead of at the last minute. Will I have time to cook days before or will I be cleaning my house and decorating? Monday is a great day for my cookie exchange. I can do all my baking and cooking/prep over the weekend.
How much time will I have to prepare the day of the party? Will I be having people over right after work during the week or will I have all day Saturday to cook? Saturday parties allow more last minute cooking but I still try to serve items I can finish before the party and not have to cook during the party. For after work parties I try to choose items I can cook the day before, or prep all the ingredients and cook quickly at the last minute.
Will others be bringing anything? Do I need to prepare the entire menu or will others be bringing dishes. If I am preparing the entire menu I have to choose some quick and easy items, but if others are bringing dishes as well I can choose a few more time intensive items.
Next time I'll talk about choosing recipes.