Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 5: The Menu

Ah, the food. The thing most often scrutinized (read: judged) and talked about long after an event takes place. No pressure, but if your food sucks, it will leave a bad taste in the mouths of your attendees (pun very much intended).

So, how do you prepare everything for a party, from cleaning to setup to activities and STILL manage to have food that wows your guests? Well, it comes down to planning, of course.

As with many of the elements of a party that I’ve covered so far, you need to think about a few key things to get started:

  • Who – the who is important for a few reasons:
    • Does anyone have dietary restrictions you need to accommodate? (vegan, gluten free, keto, dairy free – I have seen it all!)
    • Are you responsible for food for a few attendees or a large crowd?
    • Can you rely on anyone that is coming to prepare and bring part of the meal?
  • Where – this will help you determine if you should plan more hot or cold food, how far in advance food needs to be prepared / ready and what accommodations you have available for serving (both space and things like power for a crockpot or a fridge to store cold stuff)
  • When – the timing of your event should help you decide the heartiness of the meal. For example, a 2pm birthday party could be served by snacks and dessert only, whereas a 12pm baby shower should provide a full lunch.

Once you have a sense of how many people you need to feed, what size of meal you need to give them, what limitations you have on what you serve and an idea of who might be able to help, then you can start to brainstorm on the actual foods you want to include. This is the fun part. I like to circle back to my theme at this point. If you’re having a bridal shower tea, you should stick to traditional “tea foods” like finger sandwiches, mini snacks and cakes, and fresh fruit and veggies. A backyard Baby-Q would be well served with barbecued meats and traditional southern sides (think coleslaw, cornbread, collard greens, and the like).

If your party theme doesn’t help clarify your menu, then pick foods that will be a favorite of the guest(s) of honor. If your kid loves pizza, have pizza at their birthday party. If you’re secretly addicted to Chick-fil-A chicken, order a party tray of nuggs. Food that will please you and/or your guests is far more important that something overly fancy or novel.

And, while I’m at it, a quick aside about home-making vs. ordering – I’m always a fan of home prepared foods at parties. For one, it’s way cheaper and two, it gives you more control over ingredients, especially when it comes to allergens. However, there is NOTHING shameful about ordering food. This is a great option when you’re not great at cooking or have your hands full with other elements of the party. Don’t feel like you have to be a super-host and handcraft every single element of the event. Good food is good food, no matter whose hands prepared it.

Hopefully by now you’ve been able to brainstorm a number of options for your food. Now it’s time to review and edit. During this process, think about the following:

  • Do you have the major food groups represented? (protein, grains/starch, veggies/fruits, dairy)
  • Is your menu appropriate for your attendees? (think back to dietary needs, allergens, pickiness)
  • Can you pull it off? (4 dishes that all need to go in the oven won’t work, but neither will a stove top meal that needs to feed 50)

This last bullet, in particular, was a major factor in planning the menu for our upcoming party. We wanted the full cruise dining room feel, with a menu our guests of honor can order off of. This means multiple appetizers, main entrees and desserts. But, we didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen right up until dinner is served. So, we did some googling and got creative. Here is the menu we landed on:

Appetizers

  • Polenta Cakes – these are easily made ahead and re-warmed before serving or served at room temperature; we’re using a recipe from Recipe Girl
  • Squash and Apple Soup – we need vegan options for some guests, so this checks that box and is easily made in a small crockpot; thanks Nerds with Knives
  • Shrimp Cocktail – thaw the shrimp and you’re done! Can’t get any easier than that

Mains

  • Beef Tips – these are easy to make in an Instant Pot and can be kept warm until ready to serve; they also can be dairy free; we’ll serve these over herbed rice, the only thing we’ll be cooking on the stove all night
  • Chicken Marsala – this will be made in the oven and served over mashed potatoes, which we’re keeping simple by buying some Bob Evan’s trays you throw in the microwave to warm
  • Sous vide steak – this will also be served with mashed potatoes; I bought my hubs a sous vide for Christmas and we love it! You cook the steak in a bag in water for 2-3 hours and then right before you’re ready to eat, use a grill, hot oven or torch to brown the outside and create a delicious crust. It is so tender when prepared this way!
  • All of our mains will be served with a side of green beans with bacon and feta cheese, which we’ll keep warm in a small crockpot (I bought a mini trio crockpot a few years ago, so it’s getting put to use for this party!)

Dessert

  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Cups – we’ll make dairy free chocolate cups and fill them with this divine pudding from Mr. Food
  • Apple spice dump cake with ice cream – this is another dairy free option and can be made in a crockpot!
  • Cheesecake bites – another “make ahead” option that we can even plate ahead of time; check out the recipe from Crazy For Crust

Drinks

We will have coffee, water, wine, and spirits with a specialty cocktail called Giggle Juice.

One of my next steps in planning is to sort out the presentation of each of these options – the soup will need an attractive bowl and I’d love to use martini glasses for the shrimp cocktail. The rest still needs some work. I’ll be back with more on that as I get into assignments and supplies needed to pull the evening off.

But, as a quick update, our party date has changed (again) and we’re back on for April 10, so, as a special edition this week, check back on Friday to learn more about what we planned as our event “primer” to get our guests of honor out of their house so we could take it over for the event.

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Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 3: Choosing the Location

Depending on the type of event you’re planning, choosing the location can either be a big to do (like a wedding / reception) or a total no-brainer (where else would I have it but my house??). Nonetheless, like any event decision, it shouldn’t be a throwaway.

There are a few important considerations you should account for when selecting your venue:

  • Number of guests – you won’t know your final attendee count when you choose the location, but a good rule of thumb is to plan a space big enough to fit 75% of the guests you invite. Inevitably, some people won’t want to come, will have to work or will have other plans, so this will give you an idea of the space you need to comfortably fit everyone.
  • Activities – this is important for a few reasons. Firstly, if you’re serving food, you need a location that has any needed food prep / storage / warming or cooling accommodations. Secondly, it needs to be big enough to set out tables for guests to eat. I always like to have a minimum of one chair per person when I’m serving food, even if they aren’t all at a traditional table setting. Depending on the type of party, everyone may or may not sit down to eat at the same time, but it’s nice to have the option should that happen. Finally, if you have other things planned beyond eating, you will either need space to fit those activities too, or you’ll need to either move to a new location (a different room, another part of your yard, etc.) or “flip” your space. This might include breaking down tables or putting food away and should be planned into your event flow.
  • Weather – I talked about this a bit in Part 1, but does the geographical location and time of year dictate that you’re indoors? Does a likelihood of unpredictable weather mean you need a backup plan or do you have a covered outdoor location that’d work either way?
    • Funny story about covered outdoor locations… I went to a baby shower for my SIL toward the end of May. This was some years ago now, but I’ll never forgot her shower. It was outside under tents / in the garage, so definitely well covered from the beautiful sun. However, when it randomly started down-pouring with hail and huge gusts of wind, the tents weren’t a whole lot of help to the guests under them!
  • Safety – this is even more important for any events happening now with COVID social distancing measures, but also applies to general safety and well-being. Here are some things to think about:
    • Do I have adequate room to allow guests to safely move around the space and one another? (think 6 feet distancing and fire safety)
    • Are there any dangerous elements I need to protect my guests from? (think grills, fire pits, stairways without railings, sloped yards, uneven pavement, pools or hot tubs)
    • Will all guests be able to attend without restriction? (think wheelchair access, if required, safety for small children, pet allergies)

Sometimes, with all of these items considered, you may land on a location you never thought you would. Let yourself think outside the box and keep the happiness of yourself AND your guests top of mind.

For our party, we landed on the home of the couple we’re celebrating as our location. It’s the biggest, has two spacious areas where we can host the different parts of the evening and has everything we need for food prep. It will also mean the couple doesn’t have to drive, so they can imbibe freely.

At first this seemed like a bad idea because we have a lot of setup and prep to do and don’t want them to be there for that. But, after some creative thinking, we’ve come up with a way to get them out of the house for some added fun and “priming” for the event since it ties perfectly into our theme. More about that in future posts…

Speaking of, next week I’ll be walking you through my process for creating the invite, a critical part that sets the tone for your guests. Stay tuned.

Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 2: The Project Plan

Depending who you ask, you’ll get different answers to the question, “what makes a party great?” Some might say it’s the food, others the location (especially if it’s somewhere fabulous) and then there are those who think it’s the activities that make an event memorable.

I’m a firm believer that it’s all of these things – the full experience – that truly make a party. Unfortunately, it can be any one thing that can also “break” a party, so it’s important to do your best with all the major elements. In order to help with planning all of the details and working with others involved in putting on the party, I like to create a party project plan. I even create these when I’m throwing a party solo (because usually my husband is helping or someone has volunteered to bring food or something else). I find they are a good way to keep myself from regularly worrying about when I need to do certain things or if I have everything accounted for.

There really isn’t much to a project plan. As a project manager by trade, I’m used to writing these day in and out and I’ve seen tons of variations. But, I like to keep mine simple so it’s easy for me to keep updated and share with others without them thinking I’m totally crazy. The core basics to include on a solid project plan are:

  • Activity name – what is the task or action that needs to be accomplished?
  • Owner – who is going to be responsible for doing whatever the activity is?
  • Status – what’s happening with the activity?
  • Due date – when do you absolutely have to have it complete?
  • Comments – what info is relevant about the activity (decisions, input, issues, etc.) that you want to note?

You can see my sample project plan here that I built for the upcoming anniversary party. This is just my first draft and it’s likely that as I start to get into some of the activities in the plan, other things will arise and need to be added. It’s not important to get the plan 100% complete and perfect from day 1…just to get it started and keep it updated as you go so nothing slips through the cracks.

Once you have a simple tracker started either on paper or digitally (feel free to download and edit mine!), then you can brainstorm all the activities that you think need to go on it and assign owners and due dates. Here are some rules of thumb I use for due dates and owners:

  • Owners
    • Assign the person who is going to be responsible for getting the activity done, even if they need to consult others for their input on it.
    • Be up front with your expectations for owners of activities – are you hoping they will keep the plan up to date or will you manage that?
    • It’s okay to generalize activity names by owner – as long as the owner knows what they’re supposed to do as part of the activity, you don’t need to write out every little detail.
  • Due dates
    • Start at the end and work backward.
    • Send invites 1 month before your event.
    • Request RSVPs 1 week prior to your event (and then use this date for final food / seating planning).
    • Remember they are “drop dead” dates – aka the latest possible date the activity can be done to stay on track. Ideally, work ahead when possible.

While it might seem a little OTT to create a project plan for your next event, I promise it will be worth the 10-15 minute time investment by reducing your stress levels and helping you feel more prepared overall. Give it a shot!

If you have any questions or a unique situation you want advice on, leave a comment below! And, stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll cover the process of choosing a location.