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Party 101: How to Plan a Menu When You Don’t Know Your Guests

What to serve when you don’t know your guests well? Three tips.

Menu planning is one of my favorite things to do. (I wish I had the same enthusiasm for weekly meal planning, but that’s another story.) It’s a research project, an excuse to try new things, and it’s creative. However, many people have shared with me that menu planning causes them great anxiety. And it tends to be harder when you’re inviting someone over who you don’t know well. Here are my tips for picking a menu that will work for most.

  1. Play it safe. After years of hosting, I have compiled a list of guaranteed crowd-pleaser dishes. If it’s the first time we’re eating together, chances are you’ll be dining from my greatest-hits list. As a general rule, if I don’t know my guests’ preferences well, I tend to avoid fish, spicy foods, nuts, mushrooms, olives, cilantro, and raw things (aside from fruits/vegetables). If serving meats, I stick to bacon or chicken.
  2. Ask first. “What foods should I avoid?” is my go-to question (works way better than “What do you like?”) to find out about allergies, special diets, and strong aversions. It is a good question to ask people you have not seen in a while, too, because these things change. 
  3. Prepare something that is special to you. What better way to get to know someone than by sharing something about yourself? When planning a menu for people you don’t know well, think about the dishes you love, perhaps something that is a family tradition or a cherished comfort food, and prepare it. It’s a combo discussion-starter and meal. 

The Dinner Party Menu: Crowd Pleasers

The dishes below are sure to appeal to a broad range of tastes, while at the same time are anything but boring.


  • Bacon & Dates (Recipe? Roll and bake at 400°F – Wow) 
  • Artichoke Dip & Baguette (Recipe from Simply Recipes, and feel free to add garlic)
  • Manchego or Irish Cheddar, with crackers, bread, fruit, and/or an interesting spread
  • Pizza Bianca, if you want to receive a marriage proposal before dinner (Serious Eats recipe)


  • Chicken Kabobs (196 Flavors has recipes and photos that will make you stop reading this post and run to the kitchen)
  • Chicken in Milk (Jamie Oliver has a recipe for a whole roasted bird is classic with a fun twist)
  • Rice Pilaf or Pasta such as orzo tossed as a salad
  • Panzanella (Ina Garten’s recipe is great – I sauté the bell pepper and toss it all with romaine lettuce)
  • Roasted Veggies (Sheet-pan veggies, such as cauliflower or brussels sprouts, or whatever is easy)
  • Cornbread (Grandma’s Cornbread on All Recipes is excellent)