(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

The holidays are fast approaching and you are bound to be entertaining. Parties and gatherings mean food, so you will have to plan a menu. Whether you are planning a formal sit-down or a casual cocktail party, it’s important to plan ahead. Here are some great menu planning tips from Chef Kate Cunning, culinary commentator for the East Coast Wine Geeks Podcast.

Kate Cunning
East Coast Wine Geeks Podcast

Kate Cunning is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. She’s a co-host and the culinary commentator for the East Coast Wine Geeks Podcast where she gives listeners food choices for every wine. Kate has a passion for 18th century reenacting and historical event planning and especially enjoys cooking Scottish and Irish traditional dishes.

Plan the formality of your event

Are you planning to have a sit-down holiday dinner or a cocktail party? It is important to plan for what guests will be doing while eating at your party. If it is a sit-down dinner, by all means plan a meal with turkey and all of the trimmings, a roast or a hearty pasta dish. If it is a cocktail party, make sure that your dishes are easy to handle and can be easily eaten with fingers or a fork. Do not plan anything that requires a knife for this type of party, unless you want to end up with food all over your floor. Bite-sized appetizers or small sandwiches with minimal sauces are your best bet.

Plan time to enjoy with your guests

Planning ahead is a very important part of your holiday entertaining. Don’t make three or four dishes that require baking in the oven or they will never all be hot. Prep ahead of time and try to use a variety of heating elements. Go with one baked dish, one dish prepared on the stove and perhaps something that can be made in the crock pot. Make your cold dishes well ahead of time so you are not stuck in the kitchen preparing everything at the last minute.

Plan for people wanting to help

Plan your menu with a minimum of dishes, because it is likely that guests will ask if they can bring something. Have in mind what you would like guests to bring or post your menu on the party invitation, so that guests can plan to bring dishes around what you are already planning to make. If it is a family gathering and you know that many guests will want to pitch in, assign them something to bring so that you have a balanced meal and less stress for yourself. Be sure to have serving platters, bowls and utensils ready as your guests are unlikely to bring these items with them.

Related: Best Champagne Drinks From Pittsburgh Mixologists

Plan a beverage and dessert

You don’t need to have a full bar available to satisfy everyone’s thirst at your get-together. Plan one signature drink or serve a red, white and blush house wine for guests to choose from. Have a few soft drink choices available for designated drivers and guests who don’t drink. Don’t forget about dessert. Even if you are having a cocktail party, some sweets are always appreciated. For a sit-down dinner you can plan to serve cake, pie or cobbler. If you are having a cocktail party, easy-to-munch sweets such as fruit, chocolates or cookies are great.

Recipe: Hot Smoked Salmon Crepes

These tasty crepes are great at a sit-down meal or cut in half for a cocktail party.


  • 14 oz hot smoked salmon
  • 1 pkg cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup scallions chopped
  • 1/4 cup capers, drained

How to make it:

If you have a favorite crepe recipe, prepare 12 crepes. If not, buy frozen crepes, it is a great time saver and the crepes come out perfectly. Thaw the crepes or allow them to cool if you make them from scratch. In a large skillet, combine the hot smoked salmon and cream cheese on medium heat until the cream cheese blends with the flaked salmon. Add the scallions and cook until the scallions are tender and well blended. At the end, add the capers and blend them in. Next, fill the crepes with the salmon mixture, roll them up and place them in a greased baking dish. If you are making cocktail-sized crepes, cut the crepes in half first and then fill them with the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes until the edges of the crepes are crispy. The crepes are best served hot, but can also be served as a cold appetizer.

Related: Best Pumpkin Treats In Pittsburgh

Head to CBS Pittsburgh’s Best Of page for more local tips on family fun, shopping, nightlife, food, culture and more!

Jennifer Stockdale is a native of the greater Pittsburgh, PA area. She is a restaurant marketer and wine enthusiast and one of the hosts of the East Coast Wine Geeks Podcast. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.