Menu Planning Checklist

Whatever the goal of a meeting, it is important that the food be appetizing and the attendees have the opportunity for a little relaxation. But planning a successful dinner or cocktail party for a meeting group is not all fun and games. Even a short mid-meeting coffee break requires its fair share of strategic planning. Here are ten points to consider:

1. If you are having all of your meals at one facility, try to schedule them in different rooms. Most facilities urge you to use the same room for dinner each night so that they don't have to break it down and reset in another room. If you have no other choice, at least have the room arranged differently each evening. Move the bar or the buffet table to the opposite end of the room. Or, schedule your cocktail party in another area altogether.

2. Some groups are now scheduling longer meetings with a working lunch. If you are doing this, plan a "quick bite" lunch menu with everything on one plate. Alternatively, soup, salad, and sandwich buffets in any combination are quick, and everyone can find something to eat.

3. The trend in coffee breaks is toward healthier snacks. Try low-fat muffins, bagels, granola bars, fresh fruit, or yogurt as alternatives to sweet rolls. Be aware that coffee breaks can be expensive, so monitor how much you order to stay within your budget. Save your sugary items for afternoon breaks when attendees need an energy boost. Make-your-own sundaes, homemade cookies, or root beer floats: These are fun late-day snacks.

4. When planning a dining room setup, make sure there is adequate room around the bars and buffet table. Move them away from the entry door to avoid traffic jams. If there will be two bars, separate them. If having a buffet, try to place the table to run lines on either side. Tables of six and eight make the best conversational groupings. Tables of four are too small, and tables of 10 are too large for good interaction. Allow at least 45 minutes for lunch and an hour and 15 minutes for a seated dinner.

5. Almost all facilities will set up meal service for 10 percent more than the number specified, unless you tell them otherwise. Extra tables, chairs, or place settings should be removed before your guests arrive. It is easy to add places, but no one likes to sit next to an empty one. It's also a good idea to check a room 30 to 60 minutes beforehand, just to make sure it's the way you want it.

6. When planning menus, ask what the chef does best. The facility wants you to be happy, so let them make suggestions. If you plan a multicourse dinner, go light on the cocktail food. It's important to serve some food with drinks, but you don't want to fill everyone up before dinner. Also, remember that generally, people eat more in cold weather, so plan accordingly.

7. All passed hors d'oeuvres should be bite-sized, boneless, and without messy sauces. If deep-fried, supply a toothpick or some other type of utensil. The food selection should also have broad appeal. Avoid unfamiliar, exotic items that might turn off guests, unless you are having a themed event. There should also be a balance to please vegetarians, those who keep kosher, or anyone with special dietary needs. Try to learn in advance of any specific dietary requirements or food allergies. Make sure those attendees know what is safe for them to eat.

8. When ordering for a cocktail party, the following guidelines can help you gauge the amount of food you will need. When appetizers are passed by a waiter, plan on two to three pieces per person. If they are set on tables with toothpicks, plan on three to four pieces per person. If placed on tables with plates and forks, plan on four to five pieces per person. When ordering wine, assume that you can get six glasses of wine per bottle, and plan on three glasses per person.

9. If the facility will allow you to bring in liquor, this can save a considerable amount of money. If not, make sure you know their policies about unused alcohol. This only applies, of course, if you have a hospitality room. Can you receive credit for all unused portions or unopened bottles? If the opened bottles are yours, plan a way to get them home or give them to an attendee who has a car and can transport them. It's smart to check the numbers and brands the facility has stocked for you when you first arrive. It also helps to keep a running total of everything extra you have ordered, so you can check it against the bill. Wine is less expensive if you order the house brand, but be sure to taste it first.

10. Centerpieces are lovely but often expensive. The facility usually has candles, and some even have more elaborate decorations they will let you borrow. A variety of desserts on an elegant plate can also be used as a centerpiece. This gives everyone a chance to taste more than one dessert. Or, have the facility set up ice buckets in the center of each table, filled with bottles of red and white wine.

Leslie Schultz was a meeting planner who designed and founded Garrett Creek Ranch Conference Center, Paradise, TX, one of the country's leading conference centers for small meetings. For more information, please visit or call (972) 680-8679.

Originally published May 01, 2008

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