How I Lifehack Dinner Parties Using a Trello Board

Photos from my dinner parties over the past few years

As a designer in the tech industry, I’m a big fan of utilizing visual planning methods to help teams work together more effectively. Kanban is one of my favorite systems for project management, mostly because it’s flexible and its visual nature makes it easy for people of different specialties to ramp up and engage with.

Kanban, which means visual signal or card in Japanese, was created in the 1940s by Toyota as a way to signal steps in the manufacturing process. There’s reasonable evidence that visual aids help people understand information better than straight text, and kanban boards capitalize on this by presenting complex processes in the form of cards and columns. Kanban methodologies were adopted by knowledge work in the 2000s, which resulted in the creation of digital project management tools like Trello.

Given that visual card systems are so helpful for product development, it makes sense that it can be applied to any sort of complex planning process. I’m a fan of not only using Trello for professional and personal side projects, but also for tracking goals, trip planning, and blogging.

After recently getting frustrated trying to wade through a series of disorganized Google Docs with old recipes and menu planning, I realized that Trello is a great tool for something else: dinner parties. Kanban got its roots in turning text-based planning into a visual system that is easier to understand and organize, which is exactly what I wanted to do with my Google Docs.

While I don’t need to adhere to a full kanban process for individual dinner parties — this feels too heavy handed when only one or two people are participating in the planning process — Trello’s visual card system is the perfect interface for planning meals, tracking to do lists, and storing inspiration.

In this post I will lay out how I use Trello boards to plan dinner parties.

Organizing Your Board

I started by creating columns for different types of dishes, including main dishes, appetizers, and desserts. Since most dinner parties need at least a couple of courses, this helps me quickly compare recipes side-by-side to start identifying what might go together.

In addition to course type, I have columns for my current and past dinner parties. I’ll go into these in a subsequent section.

I also have a couple of columns for items like homemade condiments, and a running list of recipe resources and blogs. I like creating columns as I find new items that are pulling my attention or that I keep referencing when planning meals.


I decided to set up various labels to make it easier to find specific dishes. These include:

Common allergens — My entire board is gluten free, and I’ve chosen a couple of top dietary restrictions to label. It’s really important to accommodate guests with food restrictions, because the point of dinner parties is for everyone to enjoy themselves! Creating labels makes it easy to identify options that work for everyone.

Season — I like cooking seasonally, especially for dinner parties. One of the easiest ways to make food really stand out is to use ingredients that are in season, because their flavor will be at its peak. Creating seasonal labels really helps me keep that in mind and find recipes that are appropriate for the time of year.

Have I made it before — I usually choose dishes I’ve made before for dinner parties, with one new dish thrown in.

This labeling system makes it easy to craft a menu based on guest needs, especially when I filter the entire board. Do I need dairy-free fall dishes? Vegetarian summer ideas? Filter!

Planning and Prep

When planning a dinner party, I pull potential recipes into a “current dinner party planning” column. I often use past dinner party menus as guides, which I can access in the “past dinners” column.

When I know what I want to make, I create a global card for that dinner party and start adding items to it. For instance, I copy ingredients for all recipes into one to do list and loosely organize the list by type. Veggies and other items I can get at a farmers market go up top, meat gets its own section, and condiments are grouped towards the bottom.

This helps me keep track when I’m shopping, especially because I can access the list from my phone and check off items as I go.

I also like to create to do lists with a timeline for specific items, like prep work you can do two days in advance or specific shopping trips to the farmers market. Planning ahead really helps reduce overhead and stress; this chocolate cake from Orangette is incredible, keeps for months in the freezer, and is so dense that you can easily spread it over multiple dinner parties.

Past Menus For Inspiration

Once a party is over, I usually copy all recipe cards into my main card and move it into the “past dinners” column. I like to take notes on anything that was important, including guest food restrictions so I can remember for any future dinners.

I reference past menus a lot when putting together a new dinner because they’re already tried-and-true. I’ve used this Cioppino recipe from Zenbelly in multiple dinner parties because it’s easy to throw together once items are prepped and looks really impressive. And this blood orange cocktail is my favorite drink, because I made it up!

Other Ideas

For more complex meals like a Thanksgiving dinner with multiple people participating, you could create a whole board just for one dinner and utilize standard kanban practices for the meal itself:

Columns —Organize columns into to do, doing, and done. Moving cards across columns will allow everyone to visually understand who is doing what, and what still needs to get done.

Assigning roles — Assign specific individuals to dishes or tasks, like picking up and prepping the turkey.

You could also use a Trello column to cultivate centerpiece inspiration. Below is a photo from my most recent fall dinner party. Can you tell I’m kind of a sucker for seasonal centerpieces?

Final Thoughts

The best part about using a tool like Trello is its flexibility. Identify common stressors and points of disorganization, and play with the interface to see if there are ways to reduce confusion in the process. At the end of the day, it’s all about improving your workflow so you can spend more time enjoying your guests and the food.