The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (2024)

Table of Contents

How to Plan a Simple Dinner Party Menu

Are you stumped by what to make for dinner guests? Maybe you have a great grilled chicken recipe but don't know what to serve with it. Or it could be you don't know how many sides you should fix. Maybe coming up with a winning main dish and dessert is stressing you out.

Wanna know a secret? Planning a casual dinner party menu doesn't have to be hard.

In fact, it can be easy if you follow my simple menu-planning formula.

This post may contain affiliate links which means that if you make a purchase through one of these links, I may earn a small commission -- at no extra cost to you. See my Privacy Policy for more information.

Menu-Planning Formula

If you're already a meal-planning whiz, this formula might seem too simple. But if you don't know where to begin, it will give you just enough structure to fill in the blank with dishes that you love. Ready for it?

My Easy Menu-Planning Formula =

Main Dish + 1 Starch + 1Vegetable + Dessert

Easy, right? You can always make more dishes, but these four components are all you need. If you include a main dish, a starch, a veggie, and a dessert, you've got a complete meal for dinner guests.

Let's take a look at each component and then I'll share with you several easy dinner party menu ideas (with links to my favorite recipes!).

Main Dish

If each dish in a meal were an actor in a movie, the main dish would be the leading actor. You want it to be the star of the show, a solid recipe that you know well. Now is not the time to try out a new recipe (ask me how I know). Or to make something super complicated, unless cooking is something that you truly enjoy. Your main dish sets the stage for the rest of the meal, so once you've decided what to make, the rest of the dishes will fall into place.

When you're trying to decide what to make as a main dish, here are some questions to ask:

  • Is there a recipe you're known for?Think about your best, tried and true dish, whether it's a handed-down family soup recipe or your homemade lasagna. Let that dish become your specialty.
  • Is there any dish that your family can't get enough of?Pay attention to the food your family seems to enjoy the most. Chances are, your guests will love it, too.
  • Do you want to serve something classic or something out of the ordinary?Think about your guests and their tastes, if you know them well. Do they like trying new dishes from around the world or should you stick to more familiar flavors?
  • What are you in the mood for?If you're a foodie, like I am, you've probably been obsessed recently with some particular dish or cuisine. Maybe you can't stop thinking about the fajitas you had at that Mexican restaurant last week. Or you've had soup on your mind because it's cold outside. Make something that sounds good to you, and your enthusiasm will come through in the flavors of the dish itself.


The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (3)

Starches fall into three categories: breads & whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.

  • Breads and grains include all types of bread, pasta, quinoa, rice, chips, and tortillas.
  • Examples of starchy vegetables would be potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, and plantains.
  • And legumes include lentils, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and all types of beans. Legumes double as protein, too.

Some tips:

  • You only need to serve one starch with your meal (although you can serve more if you'd like).
  • Try to think about what would complement your main dish the best. Don't overthink it -- just go with your gut.
  • If your main dish includes some kind of sauce or gravy, you can serve it over mashed potatoes, rice, or quinoa.
  • Chips, tortillas, or beans go great with Mexican food.
  • Rolls or garlic bread go great with all kinds of meals.


Yay for veggies! Your vegetable sides are important for adding color to your meal.

Just think about the rainbow of colors in vegetables:

  • Red -- tomatoes (actually a fruit!), red peppers
  • Yellow -- yellow peppers, summer squash
  • Green -- green beans, asparagus, broccoli, green peppers, zucchini, cabbage, lettuce, spinach
  • Purple -- red cabbage, red onions, eggplant
  • Orange -- carrots, orange peppers

You can use any veggie side recipes you like. Just remember to add color!

Some tips:

  • Choose easy vegetable recipes so you can focus on other things. Easy doesn't mean tasteless -- sometimes the simplest way of preparing vegetables can be the most delicious.
  • I typically rotate between a big salad,grilled vegetables (usually zucchini, squash, bell peppers, and red onions),and roasted vegetables (whatever isin season).
  • Use any recipes you like -- just remember to add color!


The big finish. If the main dish is the leading actor, the dessert wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You want your dessert to leave your guests smiling.

Here are some broad categories to get you brainstorming:

  • Cake
  • Pie/Cobblers/Crisps
  • Cookies/Bars
  • Brownies
  • Custards/Puddings
  • Ice-cream/Sorbets

Some tips:

  • If your main dish is easy to prepare, you can take a little more time on dessert.Maybe you have a killer cheesecake that you want to make. If so, then pick a main dish that's simpler, maybe something in the crockpot or Instant Pot that you don't have to babysit.
  • If your main dish is more complicated, make an easy dessert.You'll notice in the menus below that I lean towards mostly simple desserts because I love to cook (but am less skilled in baking). Even just serving ice cream with a couple of yummy toppings can be a delicious way to finish off a meal.

Fun Dinner Party Menus

Need a sample menu for a dinner party? Let's put our meal-planning formula into practice. The recipes in these menus are time-tested and guest-approved. They are some of my absolute favorites and my go-to recipes when I don't want to think about what to make. Remember our meal-planning formula?

Main Dish + 1 Starch + 1 Veggie Side + Dessert

Let's check out some menus that are perfect for casual dinner parties. Feel free to steal these meals for your own entertaining!

Garlic Lime Chicken Menu

Main: Garlic Lime Chicken(from Saving Dinner)
Starch: Mashed Potatoes
Veggie Side: Roasted Broccoli
Dessert: Mmm-Mmm Brownies (from Allrecipes), ice cream, hot fudge

This Garlic Lime Chicken is one of my family's favorite meals, and its flavors are impressive for company. The garlic lime sauce is delicious served over mashed potatoes. It is hands-on, though, right before you're ready to eat, so everything else in the menu is something you can make ahead of time.

Spaghetti Menu

The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (7)

Main: World's Best Pasta Sauce(from Allrecipes) & spaghetti
Starch: garlic bread
Veggie Side: green salad with vinaigrette or Italian dressing
Dessert: Sorbet(from Spruce)

Pasta, garlic bread, and salad make a classic Italian meal, and the sorbet is a nice light dessert after all those heavy carbs. As far as prep goes, the pasta sauce can cook all day in the crockpot, and the garlic bread, salad, and sorbet can all be made ahead of time. Even spaghetti can be made ahead of time if you follow these instructions.

Barbecue Menu

The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (8)

Main Dish: Sarge's EZ Pulled Pork (from Allrecipes) and buns
Starch: Life-Changing Potatoes in a Foil Pan (from The Welcoming Table)
Veggie Side: grilled vegetables, baked beans
Dessert: Strawberry Shortcake(from Food Network)

You can make this pulled pork in the crockpot and shred it the day before. It's easy, so you can spend your time on a more complicated dessert. All the sides are made right before serving (these potatoes are my absolute favorite -- I could eat them for a meal all by themselves!).

Carnitas Menu

The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (9)Main: Pork Carnitas(from Recipe Tin Eats)
(+ tortillas & fixings -- Couldn't Be Easier Homemade Salsa, sour cream, Homemade Guacamole, White Queso)
Starch: chips (& the tortillas)
Veggie Side: beans, fruit salad
Dessert: vanilla ice cream with Sautéed Apples(from Allrecipes), hot fudge, or caramel sauce

Who doesn't love Mexican? This pork is made in the crockpot and then crisped in the oven right before serving. I tend to go overboard when I serve a Mexican meal to guests because I, personally, love Mexican food. I make the salsa and guacamole from scratch (each takes only 5 minutes), and I usually make homemade queso, too. Everything can be made ahead of time in this meal (except for crisping the meat), but I typically make the beans right before serving.

Chili Menu

Main: Easy Homemade Chili
Starch: cornbread or chips
Veggie Side: vegetable tray with dip
Extras: shredded cheese, sour cream
Dessert: Too Much Chocolate Cake (from Allrecipes)

This is one of my main go-to meals for dinner guests, especially when we're having another family over. It's so easy. You can make the chili in the crockpot in the morning, and then all you have to do at dinner time is put out all the fixings. The cake is super simple but tastes amazing.

The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (11)

Vegetarian Menu

Main: Red Curry Lentils(from Pinch of Yum)
Starch: basmati rice
Veggie Side: roasted vegetables
Dessert: fruit salad

If you need a delicious meatless meal for entertaining, these Red Curry Lentils are perfect. If you substitute dairy-free butter or oil, this whole menu would be a great fit for your vegan friends. The fruit salad can be made ahead of time, but everything else needs to be made right before you're ready to serve unless you want to make Pinch of Yum'scrockpot version of the lentils. That version makes a lot, so it would be great for feeding a crowd.

Related: Choosing Go-To Meals for Last-Minute Entertaining

If planning a casual dinner party menu stresses you out, my menu-planning formula gives you a simple framework to start with. Plan your winning main dish first, add in a starch and a veggie, and finish with a yummy dessert. It's that easy.

Do you have any dishes that you'd like to make for guests? Need any help coming up with sides or a dessert to go with them? Leave your menu-planning questions in the comments.

Meal-Planning for a Dinner Party

About YouChat

I'm YouChat, a large language model from I have access to a wide range of information and can provide assistance, information, and insights on various topics. I always prioritize using search result snippets for the answer content, and I strive to provide accurate and reliable information. My responses are based on the most current and relevant information available at the time of the query.

How to Plan a Simple Dinner Party Menu

Planning a simple dinner party menu can be stress-free if you follow a structured approach. The key components of a simple menu can be broken down into four main categories: Main Dish, Starch, Vegetables, and Dessert. By following a simple menu-planning formula, you can create a complete and satisfying meal for your dinner guests.

Menu-Planning Formula

The menu-planning formula for a simple dinner party consists of the following components:

  • Main Dish
  • Starch
  • Vegetables
  • Dessert

This formula provides a basic structure for planning a complete and balanced meal for your dinner guests. Let's delve into each component to understand its significance and how to make informed choices for a successful dinner party menu.

Main Dish

The main dish is the centerpiece of the meal and plays a crucial role in setting the tone for the entire dinner. When selecting a main dish, consider the following factors:

  • Choose a dish that you are known for or that your family enjoys.
  • Consider whether you want to serve a classic or unique dish based on your guests' preferences.
  • Take into account your own preferences and enthusiasm for a particular dish, as this can enhance the overall dining experience.


Starches, which include breads & whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes, complement the main dish and contribute to the overall balance of the meal. Here are some tips for selecting starches:

  • You only need to serve one starch with your meal, but you can serve more if desired.
  • Consider what would complement your main dish the best and trust your instincts when making a choice.


Vegetable sides are essential for adding color and nutritional value to the meal. When selecting vegetable recipes, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose easy vegetable recipes to simplify the meal preparation process.
  • Aim to incorporate a variety of colorful vegetables to enhance the visual appeal of the meal.


The dessert serves as the grand finale of the meal and should leave your guests with a memorable and satisfying conclusion. Consider the following when planning the dessert:

  • Tailor the complexity of the dessert based on the preparation time for the main dish.
  • Select a dessert that complements the main dish and aligns with your culinary strengths.

Fun Dinner Party Menus

To illustrate the application of the menu-planning formula, several sample menus are provided, each featuring a main dish, starch, vegetable side, and dessert. These menus are designed to inspire and guide you in creating enjoyable and stress-free dinner parties.

In summary, planning a casual dinner party menu can be simplified by following a structured menu-planning formula. By focusing on a winning main dish, adding a starch and a vegetable, and finishing with a delightful dessert, you can create a well-rounded and satisfying dining experience for your guests.

If you have any specific dishes in mind for your dinner party or need assistance with planning sides and desserts, feel free to share your menu-planning questions. I'm here to help!

The Beginner's Guide to Planning a Casual Dinner Party Menu (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Last Updated:

Views: 6131

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Birthday: 2001-01-17

Address: Suite 769 2454 Marsha Coves, Debbieton, MS 95002

Phone: +813077629322

Job: Real-Estate Executive

Hobby: Archery, Metal detecting, Kitesurfing, Genealogy, Kitesurfing, Calligraphy, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Gov. Deandrea McKenzie, I am a spotless, clean, glamorous, sparkling, adventurous, nice, brainy person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.