One of the questions I receive most often is about menu planning.  Whether plotting out meals for the workweek, or deciding upon a holiday entertaining menu, deciding what to make can be daunting.  How in the world to choose?!  Since the holidays are right around the corner, I thought I’d share a few of my tips for planning special-occasion menus, along with some of my favorite holiday menus from years past.

Keep the main course familiar

I learned the hard way years ago that it’s much more fun to spend time with my guests than to be stuck at the stovetop for most of the evening.  I therefore plan menus where the bulk of cooking can be done in advance, allowing me to join the party.  I have to admit that for me, the menu-planning portion is half the fun.  I love curling up with a few cookbooks for inspiration and sketching out a plan.  I always start with the main course and then work my way to the other dishes.  For the entrée, I stick with something familiar, whether it be a dish I’ve made before, or a preparation that I’m comfortable with.  I also almost always choose dishes that can be made ahead of time.  Braises are one of my favorite things to make this time of year, since they can be cooked completely in advance and are even better the next day.  They’re homey but elegant, and always satisfying.  Roasts are also a winner, since they can be popped in the oven and left alone.  I leave the fuss of frying and last-minute sautés to more informal meals.  For vegetarian dinners, individual gratins or lasagnas are lovely.  Family style feasts with a few different platters of vegetable dishes are also fun.

Start with a simple nibble

I like offering my guests something tasty to nibble on when they arrive, but I keep it really simple.  Spiced nuts, a really good chunk of cheese, or a simple crostini with fresh ricotta and a smattering of seasonal vegetables are all staples for me.  That way I can focus on the rest of the meal.

It’s all about balance

For the appetizers and side dishes, I aim for a balance of textures and flavors with the main course.  If I’m doing a first course, a simple soup with a colorful or textural garnish, or a seasonal salad fits the bill.  Sometimes I’ll skip a first course all together and do a more substantial “nibble”, such as a caramelized onion and blue cheese tart, or mushroom flatbreads.  For the side dishes, slow-cooked polenta, grits and vegetable purees are great beds for braised meats or vegetarian stews and can be made before your guests arrive.  Alongside, I like to offer a bit of color and brightness.  Perhaps some roasted Brussels sprouts, mushrooms or squash, or a zippy salad or slaw.

Simple desserts (or delegate)

While I love finishing a special meal with something sweet and beautiful, desserts are my least favorite course to cook (as you may know, I’m not a baker by nature).   I hardly ever mess with elaborate cakes or pastries, but stick with simple but satisfying desserts that can be prepared in advance.  A well-made chocolate mousse can be unforgettable, as can a rustic fruit tart, or even afogato (coffee with gelato), which requires hardly any work at all.  Store bought ice cream can be dressed up with amaretto-spiked cherries, or whipped ricotta can be sweetened with sugar and vanilla and topped with stewed fruit.  And, when I can, I delegate dessert to a friend, who is usually more than happy to contribute!

Make lists

I’m a list maker, and when planning a dinner party or special meal, I make a shopping list (food, alcohol) and a “prep to-do” list.  The to-do list includes everything I need to prep or cook, from roasting the nuts, to braising the short ribs, to whipping the cream and grating the chocolate.  There’s nothing as satisfying as crossing off each item as it gets done (well at least for me, much to the amusement of my husband), and it ensures that I won’t forget anything (like the time I forgot about the mushroom garnish on the mushroom soup…).

James’s birthday falls in December, and, coupled with the holidays, there’s never a shortage of meals to plan.  Below are a few menus from past years, with links to recipes when available.  I hope this gives you some inspiration in your own menu planning.  Enjoy, and happy holidays!

  • Whipped Ricotta with Garlic Crostini
  • Arugula & Green Bean Salad
  • Osso Buco with Gremolata
  • Risotto Milanese
  • Warm brownies with ice cream
  • Crostini with roasted mushrooms and mascarpone
  • Caesar salad
  • Ragu bolognese with papperdelle pasta
  • Tiramisu
  • Herbed turkey breast, cherry pan sauce
  • Mushroom & Swiss chard bread pudding
  • Shaved Brussels sprouts salad
  • Individual pear crisps