By Ben Ford
What’s the key to a great dinner menu? While most people assume the answer is the food—how it’s prepared, the flavors used, even how it’s served—for me, the food is only part of the equation.
For a dinner party, your goal should be creating a menu that’s universally appealing, but requires minimal prep time and allows you to enjoy your guests. The key to this is not cooking, it’s organizing and planning for the big day.
While most of my experience in this area comes from my career as a chef, I also learned a lot after my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). As a family, we needed to understand the importance of planning ahead so we could help her however we could.
Shannon G., who is living with relapsing MS, was kind enough to share her own personal insights on this: “For me, proper planning and organization helps me be social and enjoy time with my family and friends. Getting my shopping done the weekend before, cooking slowly throughout the week, and letting my family handle some of the prep ensures I won’t be rushed or tired on the day of the party. It also frees up my time to take a nap before guests arrive, if I need to.”
Similar to Shannon, my mother was a busy working wife and mother trying to adjust to her diagnosis and what it could mean for her life, family, and hobbies.
The good news is that you can prepare a meal that you enjoy serving as much as your guests enjoy eating using my tips on how to craft the perfect menu. Check them out:
Consider your guests. After you make your guest list, ask if there are any allergies or dietary restrictions. You never want to find out about a peanut allergy or gluten intolerance right before an entree is served. The more you know, the more well-received your menu will be.
Create a balanced menu. Create a menu that is well balanced between hot and cold items. Cold or room temperature dishes are great because they don’t require oven space, and can usually be left unrefrigerated for longer periods of time. They can also be staged someplace clearly visible so they’re not forgotten about in the fridge (the phrase “out of sight and out of mind” can be unfortunately true). Sometimes a visual inventory of what’s been completed brings peace of mind when there is a lot going on.
“Food is such a central part of my life,” shared Shannon. “Not only because it allows me to spend quality time with my family and friends, but it’s also become a part of my relapsing MS routine. I take TECFIDERA, a pill that helps effectively treat my RMS. Because I take it twice daily, aligning my doses with meals is another way I stay organized and on track.” Dr. Ann Cabot, a board-certified neurologist from Concord, NH, weighed in, advising that “while you can take oral medications with or without meals, patients should always swallow TECFIDERA whole. It should not be crushed, chewed, or sprinkled on food.”
Create a timetable working backwards. Start from the time you want to serve, and work backwards to create a timetable that will help you stay on task, and even more importantly feel in control. I have included some guidance on this below.
Use the entire kitchen. While I’m sure you’ll want to warm up your side dishes before serving, remember that not everything has to go in the oven, especially when the entree is in the middle of cooking. Utilize your stove, your microwave, even a slow cooker, to warm side dishes, and don’t forget about cold side dishes—like salads—that won’t require any prep before serving.
Less is more. Don’t overdo it, and have fun. A few things done well always trumps many things done mediocre. Enjoy the process and still have energy for your guests. If you give yourself time to enjoy the process, the love will come out in your cooking.
Like Shannon, get your grocery shopping done the weekend before, and start preparing your side dishes a day or even two days in advance. I promise no one will know! Starting early and breaking up your tasks into more manageable chunks is a recipe for success.
There are lots of dishes that benefit from a little time in the refrigerator. Condiments, sauces, and braised or stewed items all fall under that category. Here is a holiday meal broken down in a timeline that is easy to follow. By following small steps you can achieve your goal.
On the Menu
- Roast Turkey with Gravy
- Split Pea Soup with Smoked Ham Hock
- Persimmon Salad with Goat Cheese and Candied Pecans
- Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
- Cornbread Sausage Stuffing
- Grilled Peaches with Crème Anglaise and Almond Brittle Crumble (check out my recipe below)
A Week (or more) Before Dinner
- Order turkey
- Buy peaches
3 Days Before Dinner
- Make Crème Anglaise
- Make almond brittle crumble
2 Days Before Dinner
- Make split pea soup
- Make pecans for salad
- Make garlic butter
- Make bread pudding
- Do big grocery shop
- Pick up turkey and thaw if necessary
1 Day Before Dinner
- Make cornbread for stuffing
- Make popover batter
- Make vinaigrette for salad
Night Before Dinner
- Make brine and put turkey in brine
8 Hours Before Dinner
- Put turkey in oven
4 Hours Before Dinner
- Blanch Brussels sprouts
3 Hours Before Dinner
- Make stuffing
An Hour-and-a-Half Before Dinner
- Make Brussels sprouts
Half-Hour Before Dinner
- Make salad
- Put stuffing in oven
- Heat soup
When You Sit Down to Eat
- Turn on the grill
- Grill peaches
Keep in mind that whatever is on your menu, this timeline is something you can adapt and make work for you and your needs.
Grilled Peaches with Crème Anglaise and Almond Brittle Crumble
4 peaches, halved and pitted
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons sugar
For a charcoal grill, arrange medium-high coals on one side of a grill. Test for medium heat above the empty side of the grill. Brush peach halves with canola oil and sprinkle with sugar. Place halves, cut side down, on a grill rack directly over coals for 3 minutes until lightly browned. Turn over and grill until juices start to fill the cavity from where the pit used to be. Remove from heat and serve with crème anglaise and crumbled almond brittle.
For Crème Anglaise
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
A pinch of kosher salt
½ cup whole milk
1 vanilla bean pod
¼ teaspoon honey
- To make the vanilla sauce, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt together in a medium bowl.
- Put the milk in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Split the bean pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and add the seeds and the pod to the saucepan. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to very low.
- Ladle out a scant ¼ cup of the hot milk mixture and gradually add it to the bowl with the egg yolks; this prevents the yolks from scrambling from the heat of the liquid.
- Add another ¼ cup in this way. Then gradually add the egg yolk mixture into the pan with the hot milk, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thick enough to leave a thick layer on the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh.
For Almond Brittle
¼ cup water
1 cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup roasted almonds, unsalted
½ teaspoon baking soda
- Combine the water, sugar, cream of tartar and corn syrup in a medium-sized heavy saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer. Bring to a boil over medium heat. After it boils, stir the mixture occasionally. Boil the mixture until it reaches 340 degrees F. The color should be deep golden brown. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter until melted, then the toasted almonds and baking soda.
- Pour the mixture onto a sheet pan lined with oiled parchment paper and spread it out to about ¼” thickness (it may not fill the whole pan). Let harden, uncovered, in a cool place, 30 to 45 minutes. (To wash the saucepan, soak it overnight.)
- Once the brittle has set, finely chop well to make the crumble.
Save, pin, or print these tips so you have them handy when you begin preparing for your next dinner party. I hope they help your family as much as they’ve helped mine. If you have your own tips on creating the perfect menu, don’t forget to share photos using the hashtag #ReimagineMySelf!
Ben Ford, Dr. Cabot and Shannon G. are paid spokespeople for Biogen.
Stories from Ben Ford