One of the most challenging things about entertaining guests is knowing what to serve them. There is a tendency to try and be all things to all people, and make too much of everything. This ends up wasting time, money and food.

The most important decision to make when entertaining is this: what type of evening are you planning? If it is a sit down dinner, the menu will be different than if it is a cocktail party, where guests will likely carry around a small plate of eats while chatting with the other guests.

The cocktail-style party is the easiest to plan, but can be the most challenging to prepare for. The food is typically a selection of appetizers and finger foods. Most of us have one or two signature dishes of this type…those dishes that we have perfected, that we take to all the potlucks, and we are known for them. Don’t make them all for the same event. Plan a menu around one of them. If you decide to make your Mexican-style appetizer that everyone just loves, plan a Mexican menu. Or plan your menu theme around a holiday. Whatever theme you use, limit what you serve to how much food you will need-a party can be successful without cooking everything including the kitchen sink.

One rule of thumb is to assume that every guest will have three of any given appetizer. Three cocktail meatballs, three truffles, three buffalo wings. Determine the approximate number of guests, then multiply accordingly to determine how much of each dish to prepare. I always plan for 2-3 extra guests in my computations. Things tend to average out nicely.

Another important rule is to serve a variety of foods. A few guests will likely prefer vegetarian dishes, others will seek dishes without cheese. Still others will head straight to the veggie platter. Planning a party with 12 total attendees, I might make six appetizers; two meat based, two dips (only one with cheese), one veggie/fruit tray, one dessert). It might seem like a small spread, but people will eat what they are served, and by the time the drinks go on the buffet table, and all the plates and napkins, and what the heck, throw in a few bowls of mixed nuts, your table will be rich and full, and no one will leave hungry.

A final bit of advice is this: if you are planning on serving a dish (or dishes) that you have never prepared before, do a trial run before the party. Most of us tend to fine tune recipes to suit our tastes, and reading a recipe in a magazine or online is a far cry from actually knowing how it tastes, or how well it stands up to the other dishes you will be serving. Take the time to fix it once for your family, and make adjustments to personalize it for your party. No one wants to be your test kitchen, and you don’t want to serve something you feel you need to apologize for.