The major rules and principles to plan an appropriate menu. Follow menu planning etiquette to plan a menu that your guests will enjoy and to avoid any embarrassment.

What menu planning etiquette is

Every occasion requires an appropriate menu. Menu planning etiquette is the set of rules to properly plan a menu for any social event. 

Such rules include the menu requirements for each occasion, the logistics factors to consider, and how to deal with your guests’ diets.

If you are hosting, follow menu planning etiquette to properly plan a menu that every guest will enjoy. 

how to plan a menu

Menu planning etiquette rules

1) Every occasion has its menu etiquette

Some menu etiquette rules can largely differ based on the occasion.

The type of occasion informs the quantity, variety, and even type and quality of the food on the menu. The main types of occasions in menu planning etiquette are: 

  • Breakfast. 
  • Brunch. 
  • Lunch. 
  • Afternoon coffee. 
  • Afternoon tea. 
  • Aperitif or aperitivo
  • Dinner.
  • Drinking party. 

Food quantity

In menu planning etiquette, food quantity refers to the individual servings. In other words, how much of each food you plan to serve to any of your guests.

As a general rule, the main meals require a larger quantity of food. The main meals are breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner. On any other occasion such as a snack, afternoon tea, coffee, or aperitivo, you should serve a smaller quantity of food.

Menu variety

Similarly, menu planning etiquette recommends more courses for formal occasions than for informal ones. A formal dinner should have at least 5 to 7 courses. While for an informal dinner menu you need to plan 2 or 3 courses.

Food type and quality

Different occasions call for different foods. The same food can be appropriate for some events, but inappropriate for others.

First, consider the setup of the event. The same food could be appropriate for a buffet, but not well-suited for a seated and plated meal. 

If your guests will be sitting on couches and not at a table, you may prefer easy-to-eat food. Thus, avoid food that requires being cut with a knife, or liquid and saucy food.

Second, consider the type of event. One food can be appropriate for breakfast, but uncommon for dinner. Scrambled eggs are perfect for breakfast but inappropriate for a formal dinner. You can serve pasta for the main meals, but not for afternoon tea or coffee.

Finally, the formality of the event. Some foods or recipes are considered mostly formal or informal. As an example, pizza is mostly informal food. Thus, it is best to avoid it on a formal menu. 

You can find food-specific information in our food and beverage etiquette guides. 

avoid complex menu

2) Plan the menu according to your cooking and hosting capabilities

Nigella Lawson, a popular food writer, famously said that we should make people feel welcome in our house, not put on a show. Menu planning etiquette reflects this principle.

Thus, you should include in the menu only food that you are comfortable with. Plan a menu to include only dishes that you are confident you can cook well.

Avoid experiments. Such as anything you have never cooked before or very elaborate dishes. If you are hosting a large party, be even more conservative. 

Plan your menu at least a couple of days ahead. Write it down. Write down the necessary ingredients, tools, and time needed to prepare. Try to visualize what each course or platter should look like.

Plan to cook as much as possible of your menu before your guests arrive. Avoid recipes that require complex, last-minute actions with a high risk of failure. Such as flambé. 

Finally, review your menu plans based on your budget. Planning the menu ahead helps you control how much you spend.

3) Plan the menu based on the required tools and equipment

In menu planning etiquette, logistics are as crucial as the food.

Do you have all the necessary tools to cook? Do you have all the tableware, cutlery, glasses, napkins, and furniture needed to host and seat your guests? 

Before planning your menu, understand how many people you can comfortably host. If you plan in advance, you have enough time to buy or borrow any missing items. 

4) Plan the menu based on ingredient availability

Do you have all the needed ingredients for your menu? 

Plan to buy as many ingredients as possible ahead of the event day. Some foods must be eaten fresh. Thus, they cannot be bought in advance. Such as some fish, seafood, or dairy products. In such cases, try to reserve the needed quantity in advance. 

Some foods may be unavailable depending on the season. If possible, exclude them from the menu.

the ideal menu planning etiquette based on your guests

5) Accommodate the needs and tastes of your guests

Plan the menu based on your guests. Some guests may have a conservative taste in food. Others may be more open to new dishes or flavors. If you do not know some of your guests well, opt for a conservative menu.

Take the number of guests into account. Some food may be delicious, but not well-suited for large parties. Plan only dishes that are easy to prepare for the number of guests that you expect.

Avoid the most hated foods

If you are not sure about your guests’ tastes, be conservative in planning your menu. Avoid the foods or ingredients that are most often disliked

Similarly, exclude from your menu any food that may be controversial due to sustainability or ethical concerns. Such as avocado, foie gras, or lobster.

the three types of dietary restriction

Plan for dietary restrictions

A goal of menu planning etiquette is to make sure that your event is inclusive. Thus, you need to take into consideration your guests’ dietary restrictions.

The most common dietary restrictions are of three types:

  • Religious.
  • Medical or health-related.
  • Lifestyle choices.

Politely ask your guests in advance if they cannot eat some food. Plan for some alternative options in your menu. 

The most common religious dietary restrictions

Some guests may prefer or need to avoid certain foods due to their cultural or religious background. Religious dietary restrictions usually forbid some foods or restrict them on some occasions.

Considerate hosts should be aware of the most common religious dietary restrictions. Ask your guests if they need to avoid any food. Then, plan your menu accordingly. 

The list of the most common religious dietary restrictions:

The most common medical or health-related dietary restrictions

Some guests might be unable to eat some food due to allergies, intolerances, or medical conditions.

the eight most common food allergies

Allergies make our body’s immune system react when we ingest a specific food. Allergies can lead to serious harm. Any food can cause an allergic reaction. However, 8 foods account for 90% of allergic reactions.

  • Milk and dairy products. 
  • Eggs.
  • Peanuts.
  • Tree nuts. Such as almonds, walnuts, or pecans. 
  • White meat fish. Such as sea bass, flounder, or cod
  • Shellfish or seafood. Such as crab, lobster, or shrimp
  • Wheat. 
  • Soybeans. 
the eight most common food intolerances

Intolerances make our digestive system unable to properly process some foods. They can lead to physical distress and discomfort. Intolerances exist for many foods. However, some of them are particularly frequent.

  • Lactose. Found in milk, yogurt, and soft cheese.
  • Gluten. Found in bread, grains, pasta, and beer.
  • Histamine. Found in mushrooms, pickled and cured foods, and alcoholic drinks.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG).
  • Caffeine.
  • Alcohol.
  • Artificial sweeteners.
  • Artificial food colors, preservatives, or flavor enhancers.

Finally, some medical conditions require the patient to limit or avoid some foods. High pressure and heart diseases require low salt and low cholesterol diets. Diabetic guests need to stay low on sugar. Guests that are recovering from an illness, disease, or surgery, may need to follow a dietary regimen. 

The most common lifestyle-choice dietary restrictions

Lifestyle-choice diets are regimens that a person voluntarily decides to follow. The reasons behind a person’s choice may vary. They can be related to physical and emotional well-being or to personal beliefs.  

While some diets may follow trends and fade away, others are widespread and established. As a host, you should be aware of the most common diets and their requirements. 

6) Plan for consistency and variety in the menu

A proper menu balances consistency and variety at the same time. 

A consistent menu must include dishes with similar styles, flavors, and aroma profiles. The menu may or may not have a theme. However, you should not include in the same menu one or more dishes that are completely different in flavors and style. Such as pizza and sushi. Or lobster and pork chops.

At the same time, you need to plan for variety. Otherwise, your menu risks being dull. Plan your menu in order to balance colors, tastes, textures, and temperatures.

  • Vary the colors of your food. 
  • Do not repeat ingredients too often. 
  • Balance bland, strong, sharp, and sweet flavors on the same menu. 
  • Match flavors together. 
  • Avoid food that covers other flavors or is not easy to pair. 
  • The texture should vary too. Mix creamy and crunchy. 
  • Unless the weather commands otherwise, include both warm and cold dishes on your menu. 

Similarly, menu planning etiquette calls for variety between events too. Avoid serving the same menu to the same guests more than twice. Keep a diary of your social events. This way, you can keep track of what you served and to whom. 

7) Pair the right beverages with your menu

Menu planning etiquette recommends planning the drinks after planning the menu. 

Some soft drinks, wines, or cocktails may be more or less appropriate for the food that you are serving. 

Plan for the right quantity of each beverage. Soft drinks must be available in abundance. With wine, the rule of thumb is to plan one bottle per guest. This quantity includes pre-dinner and after-dinner drinks.

8) Plan the nutritional values of the menu

According to menu planning etiquette, the host needs to offer food and drinks in abundance. However, it is best not to overload your guests. Make a rough count of how many calories the menu contains. 

As a reference, the average adult male needs 1,800 calories a day. The average adult female needs 1,400 calories. A Big Mac with regular fries and a soft drink is 1,000 calories.

For the main meals, the menu should provide between ½ and ¾ of the daily calories. For other occasions, the menu should provide less than ½ of the daily calories.

menu planning etiquette mistakes

Menu planning etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst menu planning etiquette mistakes. 

  • 9/10. Not accommodating dietary restrictions.
  • 7/10. Planning an overly complex menu.
  • 7/10. Including food inappropriate for the occasion.
  • 6/10. Planning a dull menu.
  • 6/10. Planning an inconsistent menu.