How to Host a Successful Luncheon

An elegant little luncheon like this will leave guests feeling charmed.
An elegant little luncheon like this will leave guests feeling charmed.
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Many people think of dinner as the meal most conducive to entertaining. Evening is, after all, party time, and with the possibility of four or five different courses in a single sitting, the food itself can serve as a central focus.

Lunch, however, is sometimes a more natural fit for some occasions, with its easygoing feel and lighter fare. Baby and wedding showers, for instance, are more often centered around lunch than dinner, with finger foods allowing for constant mingling and games.


The luncheon is more versatile than that, though. It can be a pretty formal affair -- just witness the annual White House luncheon, which has been around since 1897; or the Pulitzer Prize luncheon at Columbia University each year; or the star-studded Oscar-nominees luncheon that hosted 150 Oscar nominees in 2012.

If you've got plans to host a daytime soirée, you'll need to plan just like you would for a dinner party, with an appropriate menu, décor, and maybe even a theme -- otherwise, your luncheon is just lunch. Here, steps you can take to make your luncheon a hit, beginning with a consideration that will frame all others: What's your setting?


Luncheon Styles

Consider the style and feel of your soirée, but also practicalities like budget and service.
Consider the style and feel of your soirée, but also practicalities like budget and service.
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Themes, entertainment and décor are important (and fun) aspects of any luncheon, but first things must come first: What are you realistically capable of doing?

Before getting into the details, figure out the practical guidelines -- those will steer the rest of your decisions and prevent any logistical nightmares that could torpedo your lovely gathering. These practical concerns include:


Budget: How much can you spend? Do you have the money for an outside venue and/or caterers, or will you host your luncheon at home and do all the cooking?

Space: Will this be a mingling luncheon, or do you expect your guests to be seated the entire time? If it's the former, you should have enough space for people to move around without bumping into tables, chairs and each other.

Food preparation: If you'll be doing the cooking, you'll need to work within the confines of your kitchen. Be realistic about your oven/cooktop space, and plan the hot/cold proportions of your menu accordingly.

Food restrictions: Do any of your guests have food allergies? Anybody vegetarian or vegan? If at all possible, make sure you have at least one option for everyone, and omit any foods that could lead to anaphylactic shock -- never a pleasant event at any meal.

Purpose: Is this a party just for fun? A baby shower? An awards luncheon? This will help you determine how formal you want your event to be and whether a fun theme would support or distract from the central focus. (For instance, "Mexican fiesta!" is entirely appropriate for a casual wedding shower but might seem out of place at a fancy awards lunch.)

With these practical concerns in mind, you're ready for the best part: the food. A luncheon isn't a luncheon without it!


Luncheon Menu Ideas

Planning the menu for your luncheon can be both fun and nerve-wracking. This is, after all, an event revolving around food, so your choices can make or break the day.

It's not really that complicated. The food should look good, smell good and taste good. It should fit the feel of your luncheon (fancy or casual? mingling or sit-down?), and if you have a theme your menu should further it (if you're draping the buffet with Mexican blankets and hanging piñatas, you should probably serve queso dip, not brie).


The options are endless, limited only by your imagination -- and possibly your cooking ability. You might decide what your best dish is and then build the menu around that; or you might just start from scratch. If it's the latter, be sure to cook and taste everything well before the date, so you can make changes if any dish doesn't work out.

Need some ideas to get your creative culinary juices flowing? Check these out:

Mexican Fiesta

  • Appetizers -- guacamole roll-ups, salsa/cream cheese dip with tortilla chips
  • Main Dish -- Emeril's chicken-tortilla casserole
  • Sides -- Mexican slaw, fritters, fiesta corn salad
  • Dessert -- wedding cookies, rice pudding, Mexican coffee

New York Deli

  • Appetizers -- herring in wine sauce, potato latkes with apple sauce
  • Main Dish -- grilled Reuben sandwich, bagels and lox with capers
  • Sides -- potato knish, coleslaw (recipe is sized for a crowd!)
  • Dessert -- cheese blintzes, black-and-white cookies

Simple, Casual, Fresh

  • Appetizers -- Emeril's fresh vegetables with aioli, lobster cocktail, baked apricot brie
  • Main Dish -- honey-glazed pork, marinated citrus shrimp
  • Sides -- Parmesan potato wedges, raspberry-mango salad
  • Dessert -- poached pears with raspberry sauce, flourless chocolate cake

Fancy Foodie

  • Appetizers -- artisan cheese plate (with fruit and flatbreads), shrimp pâté
  • Main Dish -- prosciutto-wrapped chicken breasts
  • Sides – jicama-cucumber salad, sherried oyster and brie soup
  • Dessert – custard rum torte, strawberry crêpes, chocolate tiramisu cupcakes

All Finger Foods

  • Appetizers -- herb cheese twists, grilled red bell pepper dip with French bread, leek strudels, pesto-stuffed mushrooms
  • Main Dish -- shrimp toast, bacon-wrapped BBQ chicken strips, "meat sushi"
  • Dessert -- mini chocolate cheesecakes, hazelnut biscotti, strawberries with honeyed yogurt sauce

With the menu planned, your next job is a tough one: breathe. Whether you go fancy or casual, sit-down lunch or passed foods, theme or no theme, the most important thing is for you to stay relaxed and have fun. The host sets the tone, after all. With good planning and the right amount of help, your luncheon will run smooth enough for you to fix yourself a plate.

For more information on luncheons, party planning, and menus, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Cieply, Michael. "Year's Best Acting? Perhaps It Was Here." The New York Times. Feb. 6, 2012. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • Ladies Luncheon Recipes. Southern Living. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • Luncheon. Inaugural. U.S. Senate. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • Luncheon. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • Party Planning - First Things First. Chef Menus. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • Pulitzer Prize Luncheon. (Feb. 14, 2012)