HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >



I am trying to plan a summer party at our family's bay house near Galveston, Texas, for the my college's deans and department chairs (my colleagues and the chairs that report to me.) I have never entertained much, so I really need some help!

My original idea has been to tell people to come anytime after 2:00pm and serve a buffet about 5:30 - 6:00. I'm inviting about 50 people; perhaps half of those will come, I presume. While the party is rather casual, I don't want the typical cookout menu or barbecue or sandwiches. I guess what I am looking for is something that will maximize an interesting menu for so many people, while allowing me to prepare most items ahead of time to minimize wear and tear on my nerves the day of the party.

Am I asking too much? Is my basic idea sound? Does anyone have alternative ideas? Can anyone come to my rescue? Or should I just call a caterer?


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. First of all, you should probably reconsider waiting 3 hours to serve your buffet. I'd have some nibbles ready when the guests arrive, then the main buffet about 3 pm. Some cheese/crackers, hummus w/pita, crudite with dip, or some other light finger foods would be fine. If you wait til 5:30-6, you might have guests grumbling about the lack of food (tho not to your face, I guess). I vividly recall going to a baby shower, and the hostess kept checking on the food, etc etc. We didn't get a bite to eat til almost 2 hours after the stated arrival time (and that included the very pregnant guest of honor!). When food finally appeared, all the guests swarmed over it.

    Second, for buffets, I always like to include a platter of roasted veggies or antipasti, all of which can be prepped the day before. You can do asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, baby brussel sprouts (cut in half), carrots, and add some marinated artichoke hearts, bocconcini, sliced salami, mortadella and provolone. Serve it with some sliced baguettes if you like. Some interesting salads, maybe a roast turkey or ham w/breads and rolls would be easy too.

    Lastly, whatever menu you choose, do a timeline and really think it through. It is possible to entertain large groups if you plan, plan and then plan some more. Good luck and have fun!

    4 Replies
    1. re: rednails

      Another idea that I really love is to have a variety of chocolate fondue selections for dessert. You can prepare most of the trays of bite sized morsels for dipping ahead of time and the fondue warmers keep the sauce warm for a long time which is handy for buffets. There all kinds of things that can be dipped like pretzels, marshmallows, fruit, cubed cake, etc. For more ideas and recipes on different fondue flavors here is a link http://www.chocolate-candy-mall.com/c... I think you will find that it makes a fun and memorable addition to your party.

      1. re: rednails

        LOL, I've witnessed this "swarming effect" first hand. I thought it would be civilized invite people at 3 pm and serve a buffet at 6 pm. Lots of snacks and drinks in the garden, but by 6 pm they were a frantic horde which devoured the buffet in under 10 minutes and demanded more. Be warned.

        I love the idea of doing a cold / room temperature roast. Get a great ham add a simple glaze and have a friend slice it up.
        People will inevitably ask what they can bring. I usually have a theme (this year our summer party is American South) and ask them to bring a specific item (appetizer, salad, dessert) along the theme. People love bringing stuff and it makes your life easier.

        Have a great party.

        1. re: Mila

          I have such a hard time saying "yes" when people ask if they can bring something. If it's my party, I've planned all the food (control freak? you decide).

          I once let people bring food and two guys showed up with (1) box of supermarket cookies and (2) jug of orange juice. We called that bachelor picnic food.

          1. re: NYchowcook

            I Have a hard time also, once I deicded to have people bring things and those people cancelled at the last minute. So now if I do have someoone bringing things I let them bring extras

      2. You estimate that around 25 people will come and are planning a buffet that is casual, but with a few interesting or memorable dishes...this is very doable, even for one person. Too many 'stand out' dishes detract from one another, especially on a buffet, and I would recommend doing one good basic dish and one more special one for each course - for example, one fabulous cake and then squares and cookies that can be made ahead.

        Could go with a theme - one idea for a summer party would be to make a few beautiful salads, a lot of which could be done ahead of time, and serve them with really good bread. Devilled eggs and pigs in blankets for your nibbles to start.

        1. AN icnredibly easy, do-ahead nibbler that could work is puff pastry pinwheels. With store bought puff pastry, you can add gruyere, prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, anchoies, herbs, etc., have them alll cut out, placed on cookie sheets, stacked in the fridge, ready to throw into the oven as the guests arrive. They require no supervision or fuss, perfect with drinks in warm weather.

          1. KathyR: Agree with the previous posters about having serious food available early on. You should word your invitation accordingly.

            I know you said no sandwiches, so I hesitantly suggest a layered loaf sandwich to complement the rest of your menu. It can be impressive if you use quality mortadella, proscuitto, Genoa salami, and a good sliced turkey, along with provolone and mozz. I usually put roasted red peppers in as well and spread basil pesto and/or tapanade on top and bottom lids.

            When you hollow out the loaf and fill it generously, you can easily get 8, maybe 10,
            abundant slices out of a large round sourdough loaf. And they must be made ahead, wrapped and weighted in the fridge overnight, so good news there. Bring to room temp. Put a skewer through each wedge for security, if you like. I like to use an electric knife to slice. The loaf seems to hold together better in my experience.

            Of course, salads and fruits and veggies in any form. Take advantage of your local summer bounty. Maybe a cold soup, too, in pitchers set in a trough of ice with shooter glasses at the ready -- gazpacho? Help yourself, come back for a refill.

            FYI Renting plates, glassware, and even flatware and cloth napkins, is really quite reasonable and such a relief. We've done this several times, from small gatherings to groups of 80. We didn't have to wash anything, just scrape food and rinse well. We've always purchased the breakage insurance. It's pennies and pays for itself if you chip a glass or two. Call around in your area for prices and local stipulations. A real plate is so much nicer than a paper plate, no matter how hefty, and safer than using family service.

            1. first of all dnt call a caterer its a waste of money!,if ur waiting till 5ish to give food they will all be starveing nd end up leaving,give them sumting to eat when they arrive,I know,no sandwiches, but it is a safe bet nd its easy,but i suggest doing is to make things like cie mini sandwiches,roast veg in small pita breads other things like that,just make it interresting ,these can be prepared in advance no more than 2days,nd maybe a selction of cheeses.but i would serve this at bout 2ish,mayb 3.then with plenty of alchol to keep them busy,if possible,if not make aslection of different types of lemonades which can b made or bought its up to u.then bout 5ish serve some cold salads and a selection of different breads,all of cold salads should be prepared at least a day in advance as it developes flavour,dnt prpare 3days or more in advance as by this stage it could b gone off.salads:roast pepper with goats cheese,ceaser salad,spinach with avacado and grpefruit.by the way its better to have too much food than too little so make enough for 50ppl or even more.good luck...for a dessert buy a nice big sticky chocolate cake,as they will be aeting really light nd probably b expecting sumting nice nd filling at that stage.

              6 Replies
              1. re: clairsy87

                Wow, thanks to everyone for the great replies! I was planning to have nibbles available in the afternoon, but perhaps you are right that I should have the buffet earlier. Good advice about renting the plates and glasses, too!

                An idea that I came up with in the meantime was to have chilled beef tenderloin and/or smoked salmon as the main entrees. I know that's not as "casual" as I first said. What do you think of that, and what would be good sides?

                1. re: KathyR

                  I agree that there should be a dish with a starring role, and then lots of good sides. One buffet dish that I have made many times is Stuffed Chicken Breasts (boneless) from the Martha Stewart Entertaining cookbook. They are stuffed with frozen chopped spinach and a ricotta egg mixture with various herbs and seasonings. It might be perfect for your party because it serves 24 as part of a buffet, is relatively inexpensive to make, large quantities can be made easily and they can be stuffed and baked the day ahead. They can be served hot, cold or room temp. Cut them in half and serve them on a huge platter decorated with herbs and cherry tomatoes. If you are interested, I'll paraphrase the recipe. If you or someone you know has the book, it's on p. 294. This recipe looks quite elegant and tastes really great.

                  1. re: KathyR

                    I go to a large xmas party every year thrown by a friend and she and her husband start the cooking 1-2 weeks in advance (there are sometimes upwards of 100). She always serves smoked salmon and roast beef cold with interesting dipping sauces (usually a horseradish cream and something else I can't remember). Both can be prepped the day before. I would then serve simple sides and salads maybe some green beans with slivered almonds and garlic, a simple cucumber/tomato salad, perhaps even couscous or a light roasted potato dish. Then splurge on dessert and make something really memorable.

                    1. re: KathyR

                      I make some simple roasted veggies, a spinach salad and some crusty bread when I serve chilled beef tenderloin

                      1. re: KathyR

                        The beef tenderloin sounds wonderful, maybe with a horseradish cream as condiment. But do you mean smoked salmon? I think of that more as an appy. But a chilled poached salmon would be a great fish option, maybe with a dill sour cream sauce.

                        The roasted veggies someone suggested would work with both. And a huge platter of dead-ripe sliced tomatoes. Potatoes for the beef could be potato salad or a layer potato cake or gratin served room temp. A cold petit pois salad or cold salad of petit pois/asparagus tips/snow peas or sugar snaps, lightly blanched and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette.

                        It's Texas in the summer so it's going to be hot, right? I'd be heading for anything sitting on a bed of ice! For dessert, how about frozen souffles -- raspberry or lemon? Served with little crispy chocolate cookies or florentines.

                        This is such a fun thread! Sometimes I think planning the party is the best part!
                        Your guests can dress casually, and with a buffet they'lll be helping themselves, but there's no reason you can't wow them with your twist on a picnic theme!
                        Please let us know what you decide to do. That's the only thing that makes me unhappy about CH -- not knowing what happened!

                        1. re: KathyR

                          Condiment with Chilled beef tenderloin, I love to drizzle with EVOO, Mustard Aioli, Capers, Shaved Parmesan. Then a nice spring mix w/balsamic and some Parmesan flatbread. With the salmon a crumbled goat cheese and fresh dill. And Garlic Flatbread

                      2. Did you want the dinner part to be buffet as well? I was thinking a fajita bar (beef, chicken, veggies, ect.). I've also done individual beef wellingtons before and little cornish game hens for a dinner party - oh and rack of lamb is also nice. If any sound like possibilities, I'll bounce some side options off you. Let me know :)

                        1. For basic nibbles, you could include little pizza squares... BBQ chicken, veggie, etc.

                          Could also do some hummus, baba ghanoush, taramosalata, ratatouille, and pita and/or pita chips.

                          Sugar Nut Topped Brie w/ crackers

                          Oyster Shooters

                          Kebabs or teriyaki skewers would be easy to do ahead, and still good at room temp or sun temp. Broiled stuffed tomatoes are also easily prepped ahead and can sit out.

                          Mini individuals pot pies; pork shoulder, brisket, ribs, all viable meat options.

                          Couscous or other interesting grain-based salads, chili-lime buttered grilled corn on the cob, sweet potato wedges w/ lime and sage.

                          I like the idea of little smoothies as appetizers/refreshers upon arrival--perhaps date shakes, berry shakes, and maybe key lime w/ graham crackers crumbs atop.

                          Figs stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon; or bacon wrapped dates.

                          Love the idea of panzanella opposite a gazpacho.

                          Bread pudding for dessert, alongside as mentioned some glazed fruit salad, some biscuits/cookies, and brownies and lemon squares and florentines.

                          Or, just do what Oprah did :-) http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/200208...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Emme

                            One more idea for you that was a big hit at my dad's summer backyard wedding... They did a bunch of stations with wine pairings, kind of an around-the-world concept too... One station had Chinese Chicken Salad in the little to-go boxes paired with a sauv blanc. There was a cheese sampling station w/ a champagne I believe. A carved meat station w/ red. Skewers/kebabs w/ another white and red option. You get the idea, but you're limited only by your imagination, and the guests have fun w/ the variety plus the wine sampling.

                          2. One of my favorite summer salads is a grilled ratatoille. You can even make it a day ahead of time, refridgerate it over night, and serve it at room temp the day of. What i do is prepare classic vegetables, sliced for the grill: tomatoes, zuchinni, yellow squash, onions, japanese eggplant, bell pepper and fennel bulb. As each vegetable is prepared it goes inot a large bowl. I drizzle it with olive oil and add chopped tarragon or basil, minced garlic and salt and paper. Toss to coat all the veggies. Then, I grill the vegetables over hot coals using a mesh cover on top of the grill so I don't loose any! Cook in batches so as not to overwhelm yourself.

                            This goes really well with a cous cous salad which also can be made ahead of time.

                            Good luck!


                            1. Poached salmon w/ dill sauce would be lovely -- and attractive presentation if you buy a large piece, which would be good for a crowd.
                              Perhaps a cucumber salad with dill & vinegar
                              panzanella if you have good tomatoes.
                              sesame/peanut noodles.
                              Wolfgang Puck has a fabulous Asian style coleslaw -- Chinois chicken salad (w/ or without the chicken) http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/recipedet...

                              Since it's Texas in the summer, I would steer clear of mayonnaise-based salads.

                              One salad I love for a crowd is a wheat berry salad -- it's different, but a crowd pleaser, especially if you have vegetarians in the group (though I think that's illegal in Texas?!)

                              1. Agree that the timing is off - if I have a weekend party it either is five-ish on Saturday or about 1:00 on Sunday - timingwise that lets people get their Saturday errands done with time to shower and change, or get their Sunday morning things - church, reading the paper, mowing the lawn, whatever - done, but gets them home in time to prepare for the week ahead.

                                The tenderloin and salmon would make a wonderful combo and are dead easy - you can then have sauces for them and some easy summery sides - sliced ripe tomatoes with basil, corn on the cob, a big platter of ambrosia, something decadantly chocolate.

                                Tell us what you decide and how it turns out!

                                1. My standby faithfuls that are delicious, easy AND do ahead are poached salmon w/tarragon mayonnaise and orzo salad. Both these recipes are on the Epicurious site. You can do the cold roast also and that will give a choice to people who don't care for salmon for some reason. A starter of gazpacho, a green salad...deviled eggs, steamed shrimp or other munchies can round out the menu and still leave lots of room for dessert. Sorbets, fresh fruit can add to cookies and a great cake.

                                  This is all very low stress stuff plus you can have your fish store poach the salmon for you to save you time and energy. Also, it's all room temperature. Great on a warm summer afternoon.

                                  Let us know how it goes.

                                  PS I think I'd start the party later in the day when it's a bit cooler and you can start with a chilled wine or cocktail to ease into the dinner buffet.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: KingsKetz

                                    I would also start later and have food ready when people start arriving or very soon there about.
                                    And be prepared someone will show up way too early.


                                  2. I too am planning a summer party -- a pool/barbecue party but sans hot dogs and hamburgers. I expect about 35+ people. Would like a critique of my tenative menu.
                                    I put on invitation that 2 pm was swimming and drinks and serious eating 4-8:30. (so that people w/ kids can essentially come early for the swim time) Am planning to offer the apps early on.
                                    beer, natural soda, seltzer – cans, white wine
                                    chile infused tequila guave margaritas

                                    chips w/ salsa & guacamole
                                    hummus w/ pita
                                    chili cheese tortilla crisps
                                    crudites & dips
                                    deviled eggs (it's not a party w/o 'em!)
                                    almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon

                                    serious food:
                                    rosemary/garlic grilled shrimp
                                    clams on the grill w/ mignonette
                                    stuffed chicken breasts? (Martha -- made ahead)
                                    Barbecued chicken -- a fab Dinosaur bbq recipe
                                    asian slaw a la Wolfgang Puck
                                    green beans vinaigrette w/ grape tomatoes or sugar snaps w/ sesame soy vinaigrette
                                    peanut/sesame noodles
                                    feta wheatberry salad
                                    corn salad/salsa?
                                    antipasto platter – grilled vegetables, marinated artichokes, olives, soprasatta
                                    composed salad w/ asparagus, radishes & oranges
                                    poached salmon w/ dill sauce

                                    strawberry shortcake
                                    homemade ice cream
                                    lemon sorbet frozen in lemon halves
                                    ice cream sandwiches?

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: NYchowcook

                                      IMHO at first glance it looks more like a good potluck than a planned menu - great food choices, but without a discernable theme. (Are you cooking around dietary restrictions, I wonder?) The first thing I would get rid of is the almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, it seems fussy and not in theme with the rest of the (cold) appetizers. You already have devilled eggs which can be done beautifully enough to add a nice elegant touch.

                                      The menu would definitely benefit from further editing - two chicken dishes and three seafood seems like a lot, and there are way too many salads. Dessert - keep the lemon sorbet only if there are people who really can't eat anything else, and you don't need cookies, ice cream and the same elements repeated in ice cream sandwiches.

                                      Some plain bread, rice, or polenta would be great as well, to soak up the juices from the barbecued things and offset that nice smoky char as well as be a foil for all the strong flavours in your salads.

                                      1. re: pepper_mil

                                        thanks for the critique! You're spot on -- I have no theme!! And yes, I need to pare down. I used to have regular summer parties and liked to wow everyone w/ the food.

                                        So I've gone overboard to start. I'm apprehensive that over 40 people will come and I want to be sure to have enough food. I want to both have food available early on, and then barbecue some items (since it's a pool/barbecue party).

                                        Perhaps I should go w/ the Martha stuffed chicken breasts (to make ahead) and then grill the shrimp and clams. Skip the salmon, trim down the salads, and nix the ice cream sandwiches and sorbet.

                                        1. re: NYchowcook

                                          Yes, save the ($$) salmon and sorbet for an elegant adult party.

                                          In general, you want to multiply the size rather than the number of dishes when feeding larger groups - the more variety of dishes you have, the more people will eat since they will want to try everything. The only other comment is that I get a kid friendly vibe from the app and dessert collection but not as much in the serious food part - I don't know your kid/adult ratio or if they are 4- or 14- year olds, but if they are older and have been swimming all afternoon they will be able to put away quite a bit.

                                          1. re: pepper_mil

                                            Satays as an entree would go nicely/and can be prepared ahead of time with a nice dipping sauce. I love walk about food.
                                            It it were me, I think I would add a couple more apps, what you have might not tide them over.

                                    2. i agree with everyone else that you need food right away. one thought is to have a theme...i just went to a moroccan food party and it was memorable with really fresh tastes and much of the preparation done ahead. the menu included roasted vegetables, veggie couscous, chicken couscous, shish-kebab (lamb/chicken), pastry dishes (forgot what they are called) and fruit. really nice on a warm night and the table was so festive.

                                      1. kathy,

                                        1. you are entertaining job-related people...seems that you are their "boss"
                                        2. you haven't entertained much...especially for a crowd of people
                                        3. if you have a spare house...you have spare cash
                                        4. you should be the dazzling hostess...not the harried cook

                                        1. have the affair catered
                                        2. a good caterer can supply a few people to serve, walk around with appetizers, tend a bar, keep warm foods warm and cold foods cold, clear used plates, set up/clean up, etc.
                                        3. relax and enjoy your own party with style and class, instead of worry and concern
                                        about the food/drinks

                                        1. knock yourself out
                                        2. make yourself a nervous wreck
                                        3. spend hours agonizing over everything
                                        4. cook where you have never cooked before, with no guarantee of success
                                        5. not impress people who should be impressed
                                        6. not get a manicure and a pedicure and a facial and a new oufit and your hair done

                                        to me, it's a no-brainer

                                        your guests will remember a wonderful party, not gossip about your entertaining faults

                                        just do it!


                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: kleinfortlee

                                          I don't know if it this is available in your area. But we have a variety of "Taco Catering" Co. basically what they do is make tacos (really good ones) all night. You make beans, rice, salad. The cost is about the same as what you would spend, and you don't have the headache. It's something fun and different. I do agree with the others and you should probably start the buffet earlier than 5.

                                          1. re: kleinfortlee

                                            Yes, if you're the boss, and don't have much experience entertaining, I think you should consider the de-stressing factor of not doing the cooking and hiring a caterer.

                                            If you don't want to show off, you could have the caterer drop off and set up, skipping the passed trays and caterer's presence.
                                            And yes, a manicure and pedicure and being the present hostess sounds good! (Unfortunately I'm planning the knock yourself out route)

                                          2. My mother attends parties of this sort fairly often (well-known academics). Menus she has shared with me include roasted pig, fresh (grilled) garden vegetables, fresh corn, grain and pasta salads, ice cream/sorbets, and lots of good wine and beer - this menu/theme has occurred several time, both host-provided and potluck. Another time the theme was indian food, mostly vegetarian, and tandoori meats.

                                            All of the menus have included lots of vegetarian/vegan options as a bulk of the attendees were.