I’m hosting my first Thanksgiving at our new home! And that means a chance to combine traditions with new ideas, one of my favorite things to do. This year, I’m breaking it all down in my Host a Holiday Dinner series, and today we’re focusing on Part 2: Building a Menu Plan.

In the first post in the series, I broke down how I begin pulling recipe ideas together in different categories in order to brainstorm. And now it’s time to organize all of the ideas into a cohesive and inclusive menu. This can be nuanced and depend a lot on your specific situation, but I’ll show you how I do it. Hint: It involves some index cards and color coding.

Part 3 | Part 4

Understand Your Limitations

For any big holiday dinner, you are working withing some expectations. Since I’m working on Thanksgiving right now, I’m thinking about a traditional harvest meal centered around a turkey dinner. If you are doing a spring brunch or a Christmas dinner, you may be working within different boundaries, so keep that in mind.

Another factor you need to consider are your guests. Do you know of any food allergies or preferences? Be sure to ask everyone invited if they have any restrictions. In my family, we have a few guests who eat low-carb, one who is gluten intolerant, and I eat very little meat.

Also Thanksgiving is a holiday full of tradition, so getting creative with certain dishes or making substitutions may make some people upset. I asked our guests if they had any specific favorites. One example is that no one is attached to any vegetable sides, so that’s a place I can be more creative, but that our sweet potato dish should be sugary and not savory.

Organize and Color Code

I like to write each dish idea on a card and include any major ingredients using a color coded system. I’m a visual person. For me, seeing everything laid out in front of me in an orderly and organized way, really helps me wrap my head around the complexities.

You may find that my system isn’t perfect for you, and that’s okay! You can adjust as needed, so that you are highlighting the information that’s most important to you. For my cards, I used the below format. I focused on colors to point on the main protein, vegetables, and carbs in each dish. In the bottom corner I added relevant restriction information for vegetarian, low carb, and gluten free.

Start Pairing and Balancing

Once I have everything laid out and organized by course, I start grabbing a few from each column and putting them together. I begin by checking for a balance of ingredients. If I have a Brussels sprouts vegetable side, I probably don’t also want those featured in the stuffing.

Next, I just start reading the recipe names out loud together. Does blueberry stuffing sound good with roasted garlic mashed potatoes? Or does cornbread stuffing go better? The benefit to having the cards is that it’s super easy to move them around and build different ideas of menus.

Finalizing A Basic Menu

I snap a quick photo of each complete menu that sounds delicious to me, and then I can compare those side by side. Many times, I find that the same dish shows up across multiple menu options. That usually means it’s a winner because of its versatility, or it just sounds super tasty. I use those as my anchors and fill in the rest based on the full menu pictures I took.

Then it’s time to move onto the next steps: planning a shopping list and prep schedule! Look out for the next post where I will go over how I do these two pieces of the puzzle, and for my full menu plan.

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8 thoughts on “Host a Holiday Dinner: Building a Menu

    1. Thank you! No kids here (just pups), but this is definitely a fun activity for kids. They can help make the cards, and play around with arranging them for sure.

  1. This is a great idea! My family has some dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, allergy to soy, allergy to nuts, and diabetic), so it can be a challenge to prepare meals that everyone can eat. I love this idea of writing it all out so that you can figure out the best combination.

    1. Thanks! I found that adding all the allergy/restriction info in one place made it super easy to see how many dishes worked for people. That way everyone can get a full meal, without sacrifice.

  2. This is GENIUS. Honestly, If I ever had the chance to host a large meal at my home, I’d probably do something very similar to this. It sounds like such a creative way to keep all your ideas in one place, stay organized, and create one delicious dinner!

    1. Thanks so much! I have definitely been accused of being crazy organized when it comes to things like this, so I’m glad to hear someone else would do the same.

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