I freely admit that I don’t prepare excessively for dinner parties in a traditional sense. I don’t do a lot of prep cooking days before. I don’t spend hours before the party getting the house and the food ready.
I do usually spend a decent amount of time mentally preparing. It’s like an exam, you know. I am probably the only one who would make this analogy, but hear me out. For an exam, there is nothing you can do ahead of time to complete part of the exam. All you can do is make sure you know your stuff. Your methods, facts, and formulas. I like to approach cooking the same way. I know what I am making, in what order, where all the ingredients are (in my house or otherwise), and how long each step will take to complete. That way, even when I get home half an hour before my guest are going to arrive, I am not worried or stressed, because I have a plan.
Like those times when you sit down to study for an exam and just can’t seem to keep anything in your head, there are those rare occasions when dinner party planning can just allude you. Nothing inspires you even if you pour through dozens of gorgeous photo-filled cookbooks or you have tons of fresh produce in the house but just can’t decide how to prepare it or bring everything together. You are having a case of chef’s block.
Recently, I was just having one of those days. It was my last week at work before starting a new job, I was out every night that week working on a short play I was directing, and I had family visiting over the weekend. My brain was fried and my ability to whip up a delicious meal out of seemingly nothing was nowhere to be found. These are the steps I follow when menu planning alludes me.
Define your parameters
Do you have a half hour to cook and grocery shop? Do you have tons of food in the house that you can use? How many guests are you expecting? How many courses would you like to serve? Outline the circumstances of your dinner. Sometimes this is enough to make you think of the perfect recipe with what you have on hand, or that your favorite guest loves, or that you make excellently in ten minutes flat. Even if it doesn’t bring you that flash of inspiration, narrowing down your options helps you to concentrate your brainstorming.
Set your priorities
What are you goals in cooking for this party? Would you like to avoid using the stove or oven because it is just too hot out? Are these guests that you are aiming to impress? Are you tired of your usual recipes and looking to try something new? Identify your main cooking goal. When you are already stressed for time, trying to concentrate on too many aims in your menu planning is detrimental and will keep your brain spinning and indecisive. Decide what is most important for this one dinner. It is just one night, you don’t have to decide where to retire or raise your children.
Just pick a theme
Like trying to narrow down a topic for a college essay, a lack of direction in menu planning can be devastatingly paralyzing. Tex-mex, Italian, sushi night, BBQ, Vietnamese, All-American steak & potatoes, etc. There are innumerable paths a dinner can take. Think of a couple different options, and just choose one focus. Try to fill in a menu from there. If it works, great! If you still find yourself uninspired and hemming and hawing over what to make, you know you have the wrong theme.
Ask for suggestions
When I am really drawing a blank, sometimes I ask friends or co-workers for suggestions. I think that taking recipe suggestions at the last minute can be very tricky, but this is actually a back-handed way of finding out what you do want to make. Talk to a good friend, but listen to yourself. If you find yourself disagreeing with everything they suggest, think of why. You can often use the reasons you are turning down someone else’s ideas to discover what you have in mind.
Go to the matresses… I mean…cookbooks
I have a lot of cookbooks. Beautiful, full-color, filled with tons of tantalizing recipes. Unfortunately, there are very few that I have read all the way through. But this means that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of tantalizing recipes just sitting on a shelf in my kitchen waiting for me to try them out. Pick up a cookbook, flip through, and wait for inspiration to strike. They fill cookbooks with amazing photos for a reason: so readers want to cook the dishes. Let your cookbooks do their job and inspire you.
Center around one recipe
When all menu planning mental processes fail, it’s time to uber-simplify. Maybe you spotted a recipe in your cookbooks that inspired you or maybe it is time to turn to the master of all things search: the Google gods. Pick one dish, or even just one ingredient, and build from there. Many a dinner at my house has been born from a single Epicurious recipe search, and some of my most loved and repeated recipes have come from trying to figure out what to do with asparagus or sweet potatoes or kale.
What do you do when you are in a planning pickle?