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How to Choose Appetizers for a Dinner Party

Whether you're planning the first course for a sit-down dinner party or a few nibbles before moving on to a buffet, barbecue, or other casual meal, we help you select the necessary amounts and right mix of appetizers to serve. Follow these guidelines and then get our free quantity charts and a party timeline checklist to ensure your appetizer party is a success.

Begin with the Guest List

Before you can decide how much food to prepare, you need a good idea about how many people will be at the party. Formulate your list and send out invitations about a month before the party date. That leaves plenty of time for responses and menu planning.

The Invitations: Clearly state on the invitation that dinner is part of the evening's events and the kind of dinner it is: barbecue, buffet, sit-down dinner, potluck, progressive, or other type of meal. If your guests know exactly what to expect -- and what to wear -- everyone will be more comfortable. If guests are unclear about the party details, they may help themselves to more appetizers than you expect or make other dinner plans before or after your party.

Based on your guest count, plan to serve a mix of dishes for your appetizer course. Use this list to estimate the number of appetizer selections you need:

  • 10 or fewer guests = 3 appetizer selections
  • 10-20 guests = 5 appetizer selections
  • 20-40 guests = 7 appetizer selections
  • More than 40 guests = 9 appetizer selections

Use our Appetizers Quantity Guide, available below, to identify the right mix of appetizers for your party size. It includes both the recommended number of appetizer selections and the appropriate number of servings of each. Then go to the next page for ideas to help you select and serve your party appetizers.

Get our free Appetizers Quantity Guide.

Select Your Appetizers

Appetizers come in salty, sweet, light, rich, hot, cold, and any flavor combination you can imagine. Think of appetizers as falling into families of foods. You'll want a well-balanced table that offers suitable elements of each family. The appetizer course, especially if it's designed as a cocktail party to encourage mingling before the meal, should intrigue palates without overwhelming the main course.

Select from these appetizer families:

Garden: raw, cooked, and stuffed vegetables; potatoes; olives; fruits; and berries

Starch: finger sandwiches, canapes, pizza, dumplings, filled phyllo pastry, bruschetta, breadsticks, crackers, biscotti, rolls, and buns

Protein: meat and fish dishes, such as meatballs, riblets, sliced meats, skewered meats, chicken wings, shellfish, fish, sushi, plus egg and cheese selections

Snacks: nuts, chips, pretzels, tortilla chips, popcorn, and other mostly savory finger foods

Dips and Spreads: dips, compound butters, tapenades, pates, guacamole, relishes, and other spreads

Compiled in an easy-to-use chart, our Appetizers Quantity Guide, available below, features the recommended number of appetizers from each family and the appropriate number of servings of each according to your party size. After you've decided which types of appetizers are appropriate for your party, check out the ideas on the next page to explore ideas for planning your party menu.

Get Our Appetizer Quantity Guide.

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Try these easy appetizer recipes.

How to Plan Your Menu

The cocktail hour is a chance to nibble and talk. When an appetizer spread is the first course at a dinner party, select your finger foods to whet guests' appetites for the coming meal. Fill the assortment with variety, and provide the right quantities to introduce the meal without spoiling the enjoyment of it.

The Menu: When you can estimate a guest count, begin planning your party menu. Traditionally, start with the main course and build the other courses around it. The basics of menu planning apply to the appetizer course as well. Consider these principles:

  • Keep it simple. Build the appetizer course and your overall party menu around familiar dishes, and add only a few new recipes. Make only one or two splashy dishes. Let the others play supporting roles. Round out your menu with convenience items, if you wish.
  • Balance the choices. Alternate rich, highly flavored foods with simple, fresh items.
  • Contrast colors and shapes. Mix the creamy colors of cheeses or dips with the bolder presence of fruit or meat dishes.
  • Consider temperature and texture. Make meals lively and varied. Serve hot and cold foods in your appetizer spread. Remember to include crunchy and creamy foods, too.
  • Plan make-ahead selections. Keep the number of recipes that involve last-minute preparation to a minimum.
  • Avoid repeating flavors. For example, a punch, salad, and dessert all with pineapple as an ingredient is overkill.

Using these tips, your party menu will come together with ease. On the next page you'll find ways to manage all the planning, serving, and decorating details for a successful party.

Editor's Tip: When a main course follows an appetizer spread, skip sweets in the first course. Save them for the perfect finish paired with coffee and after-dinner liqueurs. If you'd like, bite-size desserts can be served as a buffet to encourage guests to relax and linger after a big meal.

Check out these party-friendly recipes.

Get Ready to Welcome Guests

With your guest list ready and your menu planned, it's time to turn to the details of party planning. Match your desired party style with appropriate decorations, dinnerware, serving items, and seating plans.

  • Go buffet style: If you're planning a sit-down dinner, consider serving buffet or family style rather than plating the meal for each diner. That way, guests will take only what they wish to eat. Estimate that half of your guests will desire seconds and plan accordingly.
  • Plan drinks: Establish a beverage station or bar in a convenient space away from the food prep area. Guests are likely to linger after they help themselves or are served. Use our free Beverage Quantity Chart, available below, to estimate what you'll need.
  • Prep the details: Finish nonperishable party decorations a week or so before the party and tuck them away until needed. Purchase flowers and other fragile decorating elements a day or two before the party.
  • Ready the dishes: Make sure dinnerware, glassware, serving dishes, and utensils are ready to use.
  • Work the flow: Plan extra seating and open spaces to create a comfortable flow as guests mingle through your home.
  • Choose the music: Create a playlist that suits your party's style and theme. Adjust the music's tone and volume to mesh with different activities during the event.
  • Time your day: Use our free Party Timeline Checklist, available below, to schedule all the elements of your party preparation. The checklist suggests timing for shopping, food preparation, serving table setup, and decorating to ensure a stress-free party.

Editor's Tip: Serve dinner promptly. Allow about one hour for before-dinner appetizers and beverages, but not much more -- you don't want your guests famished by the time they sit down to dinner.

Get our Beverage Quantity Guide.

Get our free Party Timeline Checklist.

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