From choosing containers for a single-serve meal to the best drinks to have on hand, a professional caterer shares her tips.
picnic party on the grass
Credit: Getty / Westend61

'Tis the season for outdoor entertaining, and if you aren't already thinking about single-serving menus, now's the time to do so. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, safely hosting guests is of the utmost importance. "Whether it's in the form of personal picnic baskets or designated containers with single portions of food, a contactless (or single-serving) menu means that guests will have their own individual setup in terms food, drink, dishes, and utensils," explains professional caterer Annie Campbell. "You'll need to choose dishes that can be prepared and packaged well in advance, and at served room temperature."

Along with sparing you from the hassle of serving food buffet style (and making your guests more comfortable in the age of the coronavirus), Campbell says employing a single-serving menu at an outdoor celebration allows you to be more present, too. "It takes the awkwardness out of having to navigate each step of the party," she explains. "If everything is set up safely in advance, you can jump to the main event: great food, great conversation, and hopefully some much needed laughter." Curious how you can prepare a contactless menu for your next backyard party? Campbell's advice makes the process simple.

Choose containers wisely.

The right container can make or break a single-serving menu. "Paper take-out containers and glass jars work well for packaging individual dishes, since you can embellish the top with fresh herbs or a small bundle of flowers," she explains. "Place the food inside each container with a linen napkin and real flatware wrapped in twine for a personal touch." Skip single-use plastics where ever possible—while they're convenient, they're a bad choice for the environment.

Pick an appropriate meal.

In addition to selecting an entrée that can easily be packaged up individually, Campbell says it's essential to put together a meal that can be served room-temperature, too. "For entrées, I love fried chicken alongside a cornbread panzanella and classic coleslaw," she says. "For an Italian evening, serve dishes such as hanger steak or salmon with salsa verde paired with farro with grilled market vegetables, and a caprese or chopped salad with an oregano vinaigrette. All of these dishes work very well served room temperature."

Keep desserts simple.

Campbell says you'll want to pick a dessert that's easy to serve to each guest separately. "Finger foods work best for desserts: chocolate chip cookies, brown butter rice crispy treats, or cherry crumb bars," she says. "For a birthday celebration, cupcakes work better than cake. An individual seasonal crisp is another great option."

Consider single-serving spirits.

When it comes to adult beverages, Campbell suggests sticking with premade cocktails that don't separate over time, such as spicy margaritas or mint gimlets. "We like to put a pre-batched cocktail (usually two per guest) in a glass or jar with a lid for guests to chill and stir just before drinking," she says. "You can also set up individual cocktail kits for each person with spirits, mixes, and garnishes—just be sure that each guest has their own ice bucket and flat or sparkling water available."

Don't forget about snacks.

No outdoor party would be complete without snacks, which Campbell says can also be served per person. "Individual grazing boards and boxes are perfect for snacks," she says. For a sophisticated snack spread, she recommends crudités with homemade buttermilk chive dip or cheeses and charcuterie mixed with seasonal fruits and crackers. "You can also keep it simple with individual small bowls of olives and cashews, or potato chips with classic onion dip," she says.


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