Whether you’re planning your own wedding reception, a fundraising event for your organization, or anniversary celebration for your parents, you have an incredible number of decisions to make including venue, theme, music, décor, and food. Planning the menu for your event might get overwhelming with all the choices you have available to you and all the considerations you need to take into account. Here are a few tips that will help you to have a good start in your planning process.

1. Set a budget.

Any professional catering company has a variety of menu options suitable for different budgets. Your caterer should be able to give a few menu suggestions that will maximize the use of your budget. Some items on the menu are more expensive due to ingredients used and the time it takes to prepare. You will save you and your caterer a lot of time if you have a clear understanding of how much money you’re willing to spend on food.

2. Know your audience.

It’s pretty obvious that the menu and the amount of food you serve at your teenage son’s birthday party would be quite different from the meal you offer to your book club. If you don’t know your audience well enough, variety is the key. Make sure you have a few options to choose from, don’t forget to offer at least one vegetarian item. If you know that children will be present, arrange some kids-friendly items on the menu. Inquire about special dietary requirements and allergies. Keep in mind that some foods, such as nuts and shellfish, can send your guests straight to ER.

3. Make sure that menu fits the theme of the event.

People sometimes ask if a buffet dinner is tacky for a wedding reception. It’s not a question of tacky or not. It all depends on overall style and theme of your event. If you are planning a formal, high-end wedding reception, then a buffet style meal might look out of place. On the other hand, if you have a hip and stylish party at the local art gallery, a “living room” style reception might be the best option. For a traditional Greek or Russian wedding, a family style dinner usually works the best. If your event has a particular theme to it, take it into a consideration while planning a menu. Also, make sure that your items go well together. You probably don’t want to mix fresh oysters with cheeseburgers.

4. Order the right amount of food.

You don’t want your guests to go hungry, nor do you want to go overboard with the amount of food and have excessive leftovers. Whenever possible, make your guests RSVP to your invitation. It will help you to stay within your budget, plan your menu accordingly, and order the right amount of food. Take into consideration the time of your event, the length, and the purpose. If you host your wedding reception between 7 and 9 pm, your guests will expect dinner. And if you don’t offer one, manage your guests’ expectations accordingly. Specify in your invitation what type of meal will be served (e.g. wine and cheese reception, cocktail reception, etc.). Read our article “How much food do I need for my catered reception?” for some guidance.

5. Don’t go by your personal preferences.

We all make this mistake. We assume that whatever we like, other people would enjoy as well. Don’t let your personal taste get in the way while planning the menu for your event. You wouldn’t want to serve a 100% seafood menu unless you know that everyone attending your function is as crazy about seafood as you are. And if you happen to be vegan and find pork chops appalling, there is a good chance that your guests will disagree with you and might prefer good old-fashioned steak over Tofu Cacciatore.

And a bonus tip – hire an experienced catering company! Do your research before you sign the contract. Read reviews, ask around, and schedule an appointment. The time you invest in looking for the right caterer will pay off. Take the stress from your event planning, hire a professional.