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How to Design a Multi-Course Dinner Menu

If you're ready to take your entertaining up a notch or two, get our tips on designing and orchestrating a multi-course dinner party that's sure to impress your friends and family in delicious style.

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With planning, patience and practice, you can pull off a seemingly effortless multi-course meal.

If you've already rule the neighborhood potluck and can pull off family-style spreads for a crowd, you're probably ready for a new entertaining challenge. There's no better way to show off your cooking -- and hosting -- skills than to design and execute a multi-course dinner menu. We're not saying it will be easy, but with forethought, practice, and a few tips, you'll be able to organize your courses so that food stays warm, diners feel satisfied, and the meal goes off without a hitch.

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Light, bright dishes such as this lemon-and-pine-needle sorbet make great starting courses and palate cleansers.

Choose Your Courses

Before you start searching your recipe collection, determine how many courses you want to serve. Even a professional chef can only whip up five or six courses on their own, so if you don't have a friend or partner as your sous chef, you may want to limit your menu to three or four courses.

 

Now it's time to come up with a list of potential recipes. Include a variety of dishes: balance out heavy, rich courses with light, bright palate cleansers, and for every labor-intensive showstopper, include one or two simple plates you can prep in advance. Having trouble getting started? Try organizing your menu around a theme—the season, a recurring ingredient or your favorite cuisine, for example. If you're feeling adventurous, surprise your guests with novel takes on old favorites: a deconstructed cheesecake, say, or a modern twist on a crowd-pleasing crown roast.

 

As you start to finalize your menu and plan your shopping list, remember that when serving multiple courses, you'll want to keep portions small and generously seasoned. This will ensure the meal stays interesting -- and your guests aren't too full before the crown roast is served.

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Use simple, easy-to-prepare courses to bookend elaborate plates such as this updated take on boeuf bourguignon.

Make Your Game Plan

Now that you've decided on the courses, it's time to put them in order. There's no need to conform strictly to the standard appetizer, entree and dessert sequence, but there's wisdom to be found in the classics: If you start with light dishes, work up to richer dishes and finish off with a delicate flourish, you'll give the meal a satisfying arc.

 

As you consider the diner's experience, don't forget your own. To keep your guests' appetites whetted, you'll need to send out a new course every 10 minutes or so, which means two complex dishes in a row can easily kill your rhythm. Start with dishes you can prepare mostly in advance, such as broths, breads, sorbets or simple sous vide-cooked meats, to give yourself time to finish labor-intensive middle courses.

 

Also consider each course's touch points: the last-minute actions that take it from the pan to the plate. A homemade bread course may have just two touch points: slice and arrange on serving dishes. But a showy beef dish may have several: slice, plate, garnish with microgreens, sprinkle with fresh herbs, drizzle with a balsamic reduction, and dust with sea salt. If a certain course has a long list of touch points, give it some breathing room by serving simple dishes beforehand and afterward.

 

Prep for the Party

Once your dinner menu is set, it's time to finish your preparations. Write down as much as you can: shopping lists, the steps you'll need to complete both in advance and on the day of, and any other useful information, such as guests' dietary restrictions. Then gather all the necessary equipment, utensils, and serving dishes -- plus a few extra, in case you drop a fork or shatter a bowl. Finally, practice, practice, practice! The more you prepare, the more quickly you'll get into the groove on the day of the party -- and the more you'll be able to enjoy turning your careful planning into a meal your guests will rave about for months to come.

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