Company's coming and you have a menu to plan. You've decided what to serve as the main protein, but you need to decide what vegetables to serve on the side. The trick to a no-stress dinner party is planning. Several days before your gathering, and after the kids are asleep, pour yourself a good cup of decaf coffee or tea and take 30 minutes to jot down your menu and make a list.
The most cost-effective way to plan the vegetable menu for your meal is to take a look at what's in season. One look through your grocery's circular, either in your local paper or online, indicates what's in season by what's on sale. Your county extension service might have a list of vegetables and fruits that are in season locally at any given time of year. Tomatoes and peppers are plentiful in the summer and mix well in a simple fresh garden salad tossed with a creamy dressing, or sauteed to form a beautiful base for a light pasta sauce tossed in oil and garlic. Root vegetables and squash varieties are more plentiful in the fall and winter. A heaping pan of roasted root vegetables or a winter succotash provides a hearty cool-weather side dish.
You spend less money if you incorporate what's in season in your menu and rummage through your pantry and freezer to take stock of what's already on the shelves. If you bought three cans of green beans the last time they were on sale, consider making a green-bean casserole or green-bean bundles wrapped in bacon. If you nabbed two large bags of frozen vegetables last time there was a buy-one, get-one sale, decide if a vegetable stir fry or a big pan of roasted vegetables accompanies your main dish. Use those packages of dried salad dressing and dip mixes you keep on hand to spice up your sides.
Whether you've invited two guests or 20, plan for a combination of healthy and indulgent sides. If you're serving your most-requested mac 'n' cheese, provide healthy options for those who need to watch their waistlines or their heart health. A green salad with nuts and berries served with light creamy dressing satisfies those who aren't able to eat foods rich in calories and fat. Zucchini and tomatoes lightly sautéed in olive oil with shallots pair well with a perfect platter of juicy roast beef. Think in pairs -- for every one rich, sinful vegetable or vegetable casserole, plan for one healthy option to balance it.
A roasted trio of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots can be prepared a day in advance, and then reheated and browned under a broiler. Sweet potato pies are more delicious when served the next day after flavors have time to meld. Chop your signature salad's vegetables the day before and then toss and dress them at the last minute. Steam broccolini a day ahead and toss it with warm pasta, shaved Parmesan and creamy Parmesan dressing. Rehydrate and reheat mashed potatoes with a little milk and add a touch of butter or oil to confetti corn or mixed vegetables right before serving. If you're mixing pasta with any dish, make sure you cook it within a few hours of the party so it remains fresh and not gummy.
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