This post may contain affiliate links which means I could earn a small commission on any purchases you make -- at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting the site!
You want to plan a casual dinner party, but don’t know what to fix. Maybe you have a great grilled chicken recipe but don’t know what to serve with it. Or it could be you don’t know how many sides you should fix. It might be coming up with a winning main dish and dessert is stressing you out.
Wanna know a secret? Planning a casual dinner party menu doesn’t have to be hard.
In fact, it can be easy if you follow my simple menu-planning formula.
If you’re already a meal-planning whiz, this formula might seem too simple. But if you don’t know where to begin, it will give you just enough structure to fill in the blank with dishes that you love.
My Easy Menu-Planning Formula =
Main Dish + 1 Starch + 1 Vegetable + Dessert
Easy, right? You can always make more dishes, but these four components are all you need. If you include a main dish, a starch, a veggie, and a dessert, you’ve got a complete meal for dinner guests.
Let’s take a look at each component and then I’ll share with you several sample menus (with links to my favorite recipes!).
If each dish in a meal were an actor in a movie, the main dish would be the leading actor. You want it to be the star of the show, a solid recipe that you know well. Now is not the time to try out a new recipe (ask me how I know). Or to make something super complicated, unless cooking is something that you truly enjoy. Your main dish sets the stage for the rest of the meal, so once you’ve decided what to make, the rest of the dishes will fall into place.
When you’re trying to decide what to make as a main dish, here are some questions to ask:
- Is there a recipe you’re known for? Think about your best, tried and true dish, whether it’s a handed-down family soup recipe or your homemade lasagna. Let that dish become your specialty.
- Is there any dish that your family can’t get enough of? Pay attention to the food your family seems to enjoy the most. Chances are, your guests will love it, too.
- Do you want to serve something classic or something out of the ordinary? Think about your guests and their tastes, if you know them well. Do they like trying new dishes from around the world or should you stick to more familiar flavors?
- What are you in the mood for? If you’re a foodie, like I am, you’ve probably been obsessed recently with some particular dish or cuisine. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about the fajitas you had at that Mexican restaurant last week. Or you’ve had soup on your mind because it’s cold outside. Make something that sounds good to you, and your enthusiasm will come through in the flavors of the dish itself
Starches fall into three categories: breads & whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
- Breads and grains include all types of bread (duh), pasta, quinoa, rice, chips, and tortillas.
- Examples of starchy vegetables would be potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, and plantains.
- And legumes include lentils, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and all types of beans. Legumes double as protein, too.
- You only need to serve one starch with your meal (although you can serve more if you’d like).
- Try to think about what would complement your main dish the best. Don’t overthink it — just go with your gut.
- If your main dish includes some kind of sauce or gravy, you can serve it over mashed potatoes, rice, or quinoa.
- Chips, tortillas, or beans go great with Mexican food.
- Rolls or garlic bread go great with all kinds of meals.
Yay for veggies! Your vegetable sides are important for adding color to your meal.
Just think about the rainbow of colors in vegetables:
- Red — tomatoes (actually a fruit!), red peppers
- Yellow — yellow peppers, summer squash
- Green — green beans, asparagus, broccoli, green peppers, zucchini, cabbage, lettuce, spinach
- Purple — red cabbage, red onions, eggplant
- Orange — carrots, orange peppers
You can use any veggie side recipes you like. Just remember to add color!
- Choose easy vegetable recipes so you can focus on other things. Easy doesn’t mean tasteless — sometimes the simplest way of preparing vegetables can be the most delicious.
- I typically rotate between a big salad, grilled vegetables (usually zucchini, squash, bell peppers, and red onions), and roasted vegetables (whatever is in season).
- Use any recipes you like — just remember to add color!
The big finish. If the main dish is the leading actor, the dessert wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You want your dessert to leave your guests smiling.
Here are some broad categories to get you brainstorming:
- If your main dish is easy to prepare, you can take a little more time on dessert. Maybe you have a killer cheesecake that you want to make. If so, then pick a main dish that’s simpler, maybe something in the crockpot or Instant Pot that you don’t have to babysit.
- If your main dish is more complicated, make an easy dessert. You’ll notice in the menus below that I lean towards mostly simple desserts because I love to cook (but am less skilled in baking). Even just serving ice cream with a couple of yummy toppings can be a delicious way to finish off a meal.
Now it’s time to put our meal-planning formula into practice. The recipes in these menus are time-tested and guest-approved. They are some of my absolute favorites and my go-to recipes when I don’t want to think about what to make. Remember our meal-planning formula?
Main Dish + 1 Starch + 1 Veggie Side + Dessert
Let’s check out some menus that are perfect for casual dinner parties. Feel free to steal these meals for your own entertaining!
Garlic Lime Chicken Menu
This Garlic Lime Chicken is one of my family’s favorite meals, and its flavors are impressive for company. The garlic lime sauce is delicious served over mashed potatoes. It is hands-on, though, right before you’re ready to eat, so everything else in the menu is something you can make ahead of time.
Pasta, garlic bread, and salad make a classic Italian meal, and the sorbet is a nice light dessert after all those heavy carbs. As far as prep goes, the pasta sauce can cook all day in the crockpot, and the garlic bread, salad, and sorbet can all be made ahead of time. Even spaghetti can be made ahead of time if you follow these instructions.
Main Dish: Sarge’s EZ Pulled Pork (from Allrecipes) and buns
Starch: Savory Grilled Potatoes (from Allrecipes)
Veggie Side: grilled vegetables, baked beans
Dessert: Strawberry Shortcake (from Food Network)
You can make this pulled pork in the crockpot and shred it the day before. It’s easy, so you can spend your time on a more complicated dessert. All the sides are made right before serving (these potatoes are my absolute favorite — I could eat them for a meal all by themselves!).
Main: Pork Carnitas (from Recipe Tin Eats)
(+ tortillas & fixings — Couldn’t Be Easier Homemade Salsa, sour cream, guacamole)
Starch: chips (& the tortillas)
Veggie Side: beans, fruit salad
Dessert: vanilla ice cream with Sautéed Apples (from Allrecipes), hot fudge, or caramel sauce
Who doesn’t love Mexican? This pork is made in the crockpot and then crisped in the oven right before serving. I tend to go overboard when I serve a Mexican meal to guests because I, personally, love Mexican food. I make the salsa and guacamole from scratch (each takes only 5 minutes), and I usually make homemade queso, too (recipe coming soon!). Everything can be made ahead of time in this meal (except for crisping the meat), but I typically make the beans right before serving.
This is one of my main go-to meals for dinner guests, especially when we’re having another family over. It’s so easy. You can make the chili in the crockpot in the morning, and then all you have to do at dinner time is put out all the fixings. The cake is super simple but tastes amazing.
If you need a delicious meatless meal for entertaining, these Red Curry Lentils are perfect. If you substitute dairy-free butter or oil, this whole menu would be a great fit for your vegan friends. The fruit salad can be made ahead of time, but everything else needs to be made right before you’re ready to serve unless you want to make Pinch of Yum’s crockpot version of the lentils. That version makes a lot, so it would be great for feeding a crowd.
If planning a casual dinner party menu stresses you out, my menu-planning formula gives you a simple framework to start with. Plan your winning main dish first, add in a starch and a veggie, and finish with a yummy dessert. It’s that easy.
Do you have any dishes that you’d like to make for guests? Need any help coming up with sides or a dessert to go with them? Leave your menu-planning questions in the comments.