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By Charles Hopkins Published 04/7/2006 | Social Issues

All the slaving over your much-anticipated dinner party may come to nothing if you havent got the menu right. Menu planning, for obvious reasons, is the life and soul of a meal, for who would want to sit down at a table groaning under exotically named but inedible dishes, simply because the host or hostess has not planned the menu in advance and cooked up a mess? The best way to prevent such culinary disasters is to decide certain facts in advance. 

Who are you cooking for? 

Say you have invited 20 people. It is quite conceivable that a few among them may be diabetic, allergic to unlikely substances, heart patients with dietary restrictions, and vegetarians. Someone may even be on a slimming diet that does not include certain foods. In order to prevent embarrassing gaffes at the dinner table, take the trouble to find out which of your guests have dietary restrictions owing to some reason or other.   

What are you cooking? 

A young lady we know once invited 10 people over for a sit down dinner and then, because she was just setting up house, got carried away by her desire to impress her guests. So she ended up planning a menu that went something like this: 

As a starter, she served creamy crab béchamel cakes served on sweet corn relish with chipotle émoulade. We kid you not -- she claimed she got it from a restaurant menu

Chicken asparagus soup

A Caesar Salad

Roast salmon

Lamb shank with saffron risotto and covered with a cumin mint raita



Crème Brûlée


By the time the first guest arrived, our hostess was in tears because her kitchen was a minefield of ingredients, half-cooked meat and fish, and salad dressing spilling over every possible surface. You may well be laughing about it, but would you try a menu like this if you were not absolutely sure about your abilities? You would be surprised at the number of people who overstep their culinary limits when faced with the task of menu planning. 

Are you confident about new recipes? 

This question follows from our previous one. Do not try something new just for the sake of it, particularly if this is a dinner or lunch where you really need to impress someone. For all we know, you could be a literary agent inviting the future Rushdie to dinner! Keep it simple, and more importantly, stick to your strengths. That is not to say you should never experiment with a menu, but keep it for family gatherings and such like, where a slip-up wont cause you to burn with shame for the rest of the evening. 

Will all your food taste the same? 

Try and ensure that whatever you cook, the ingredients vary. Dont go stuffing everything with vinegar or tomatoes or garlic. You dont want everything to smell and taste the same, and this is a vital part of menu planning.  

Is your kitchen adequately equipped? 

Can you make a bundt cake if you dont have a bundt cake pan? Can you make Swiss rolls if you dont have Swiss roll tins? Redundant as these questions may seem, a lot of hosts, in their enthusiasm to try new things, often forget that they may not have all the equipment required. So before you begin, make a list of things that you will need and make sure you have them, or else alter your menu planning to accommodate replacement dishes. Also note the basics of your kitchen, e.g. number of refrigerators, number of gas burners, number of microwave oven burners, etc. All this has a bearing on your final menu.  

Will cooking take too long? 

Plan the menu carefully to determine exactly how much time each dish will take. Factor in pre-cooking essentials such as cutting, dicing, sautéing etc, and add at least 20 minutes to the given time. For instance, if the recipe says cooking time is 30 minutes, set aside 50, and if you finish earlier, good for you!