I am getting cautiously excited about feeding my buddies. And though there might be a slight re-learning curve when it comes to making fun, casual conversation, I am pleased to say that I have already perfected my menu-planning strategy for when I get to cook for other people again.
The main difference between “cooking for me” and “cooking for people I want to think highly of me” is that the latter calls for a meal. Though I may be quite satisfied with a bowl of cottage cheese and crumbled potato chips for supper, that is not something I would ever serve a guest.
Cooking for friends and family is how I show them that I like them, and that display translates into at least three components — a main and two sides, or a main, a side, and a dessert. It’s a reasonable amount food, but I can be very unreasonable about how intricate and fancy each component should be, so I developed a rule to keep myself in check while menu-planning. To keep yourself sane while making meal for other people, you should make one thing — and one thing only — from each of the following categories.
- Something that can be made ahead of time: This could mean days ahead or hours ahead — it’s up to you. But basically, you want at least one dish that you can make and then forget about until serving time. A cold salad, homemade bread, a dessert, or even a meat dish best served cold or at room temperature — are all good options.
- Something you can kind of ignore: This may be a dish that can be roasted, very slowly grilled, or cooked in a pressure cooker or slow cooker. This could be your protein (like a pork tenderloin or some chicken thighs, for instance), but roasted carrots, baked potatoes, or rice made in a rice cooker or pressure cooker could also work.
- Something that demands your attention: This is anything that requires fiddling, watching, flipping, or futzing. Delicate vegetables, meat on the grill, or expensive steaks all fall into this category.
Want a fourth thing? Buy it, or tell someone to bring it when they ask “what can I bring?”
The nice thing about this framework is that pretty much any component can fall into any category, so you can get real fancy with whatever strikes your fancy, which will keep you relatively calm, but not bore you. The resultant offering could look like a meal of grilled chicken thighs (category 3) with this carrot salad (category 1) and some baked potatoes (category 2); or it could look like this Instant Pot pork shoulder (category 2), with some homemade rolls (category 1), and sautéed asparagus (category 3). I almost always outsource dessert, but if you’d rather bake something sweet than something savoury, you could buy the rolls and bake a pie. If, however, you want a dessert that falls into category 1, cut up some fresh fruit ahead of time and serve it with a pitcher of cold heavy cream.
If you don’t want to cook all three components, that’s fine too! I always advocate for doing less over doing more, and outsourcing as much as needed to keep a grip on your sanity, especially if you are new to cooking or new to cooking for other people. Cooking for four requires a different skill set than cooking for one, and overwhelming yourself with a too-precious menu only sucks the joy out of doing the former.