today we’re doing something a little bit different: rather than a recipe, we’re going to chat about what i learned cooking for a crowd. tips, tricks, suggestions, special considerations, all that good stuff. but not many pictures, because i was too busy chopping 15 zucchini…
as i mentioned recently, i catered a family party for 35 people over the fourth of july weekend. as i usually cook for, oh, 2 people, cooking for a crowd of 35 was a bit of a change. and i learned a bunch from the experience. that said, i’ve cooked for a large group…not so many times, so please jump in to the comments below and share your tips with me us!
there’s a lot here so we’ll break things up in sections: planning a menu to feed a large group, getting ready to cook for a large crowd, and cooking for a crowd.
planning a menu to feed a large group
ok, first up, the most basic (and the part where i’m a hypocrite):
don’t try out new recipes:
now is the time to stick with tried-and-true. the dishes that you can practically make without looking at the recipe. the things you’re nearly sick of. and since i’m totally guilty of not following this, i will add a further note: if you *are* going to try something new, make sure it’s from a source that you’ve cooked from before and trust and read the comments, if applicable, to get a sense if this recipe works well for most who tried it.
in unrelated news, keep an eye out for 2 new recipes coming here soon…
think about what vegetables and fruits are in season:
in-season fruits and veggies will be yummier, cheaper, and easier to find. sustainable table has a seasonal food guide that i refer to all the time. all of my recipes are categorized by season so you can also go to the navigation bar, click ‘recipes’, hover over ‘seasonal’, then select the season that matches your party date.
consider ingredient prep when picking menu items:
think about how many steps there are to prepare a particular ingredient when selecting recipes. for example, blueberries: rinse aaaand done. compare this to strawberries: rinse, cut the tops off, cut into halves or quarters or… what’s manageable when dealing with a quantity that feeds 4 can quickly get nutty when working with a quantity that feeds 25…
one is better than many:
along similar lines, 1 galette is better than 12 shortcakes. 1 pan of brownies is better than 24 individual cookies baked on 2 – 3 cookie sheets. any time you can do something once, shove the whole thing in the oven, and move on, you’re on the right track.
consider serving temperature and oven/stove/grill size and time limitations:
the freezer can be your best friend when cooking for a crowd, but if you plan to heat up 4 different large dishes while cooking 2 big meats (i’m thinking thanksgiving/christmas here…), you better have the world’s largest home oven (or 3…). don’t plan to stuff your oven full of dishes or everything may come out a bit wonky. think about what tastes good cold/at room temperature (green salads, grain salads, some vegetables, bread/rolls, pasta salads) and make sure to include a few of those dishes in your menu plan.
steer clear of recipes that require lots of last minute fussing:
sorry, stir-fries and homemade pizzas. you’re delicious and, in many cases, not super great when made in advance and served later. casseroles, soups, salads (dress at the last minute), bread/rolls, roasted vegetables – all of these dishes tend to be low key at the last minute, requiring little to be ready for serving.
scaling up and quantity:
figuring out how much food to prepare was definitely the area where i struggled most. in the end, we had a lot of leftovers. like, a lot a lot. if a recipe says it serves 4 and you have 40 people coming, multiplying the recipe by 10 may result in way too much food. all recipes has a guide to estimating how much food you’ll need, but a lot of it depends on your guests, the time of day, whether food is the point (thanksgiving) or just also happening (a baby shower), how many different things you’re serving, the phase of the moon, and a bunch of other factors that make this one tricky. if you have tips, please share with us below!
write out the new measurements on the recipe:
anyway, once you’ve figured out how much to scale up each recipe, write out the new measurements on the recipe. don’t rely on your memory to double everything in the cookie recipe. if you find that all of a sudden you’ll have to measure out 12 tablespoons of something, google “unit converter” and a fancy little box should come up in the search results. change the dropdown to “volume”, then plug your annoyingly large number of tablespoons in on the left and have it spit out the cup measurements on the right (adjust the drop downs to select what you’re converting from and to). faster and less prone to error when you get distracted and can’t remember if you put in 7 or 8 so far…
have a plan for leftovers:
just in case you wildly overshoot the mark like i did, bonus points if you have a plan in mind for large quantities of leftovers. if it’s an informal gathering, one easy option is to get some small, disposable take out containers and send anyone who wants them home with leftovers (assuming they haven’t sat out at room temperature for long enough to be dangerous – 2 hours, according to official types who make these rules). local rules will dictate what kinds of organizations may accept donations so it’s worth calling in advance to ask. a friend who used to work for a professional caterer said that the fire station near the catering kitchen was always happy to accept leftovers so you could always give your local fire department a call and ask…
make a schedule for each day leading up to the big day:
how large your crowd is (and what you’re serving) will dictate how far in advance you get started. break out a schedule by day and mark up your recipes so you know what you plan to do when. go totally type A on this, with color coding, charts, checklists, whatever you can think of to break everything down into little tasks that you can track.
know that trimming 10 pounds of green beans takes a lot longer than trimming 1 pound (obvious, and curiously easy to overlook). and that you can’t cook 5 pounds of pasta all at once in one pot, so you’ll need to account for batches.
also write out a schedule for the oven/stove/grill so that you can see that you have 6 things that need the stove and only 4 burners sometime before you’re 30 minutes away from serving and 90 seconds away from a meltdown. and it’s never too early to gather serving pieces, take inventory of paper goods, and make sure table linens are clean.
don’t plan to reuse serving pieces in back to back courses:
speaking of serving pieces, be realistic about how quickly you’ll be able to turn them around between courses. i think a good rule of thumb is to allow at least 1 course between uses, so you could use a platter for an appetizer and a dessert, but not a dinner item and a dessert. it just creates more stress than necessary, trying to find a new home for the leftovers, wash the piece, dry it, then arrange the next course on it.
you still have to eat:
bad news friends – you’ve spent the *entire* day cooking, you’re starving, aaaaand have “nothing to eat!” don’t let this happen to you! whether it’s easy-to-heat-up leftovers, takeout, or a quick-to-assemble sandwich, have a plan for how you’re going to stay fueled throughout the day so you don’t have to subsist on stuffed mushrooms and cookie dough. it’s not nearly as glamourous as it sounds…
i’m going to return to this one again but start delegating early and often. when planning your menu, include the dishes that others volunteered to bring (that you graciously accepted their offer). if you’re close with your neighbor and she offers to let you use her oven because she knows you host a big group for thanksgiving and her family goes to a relative’s, say thank you and take her up on that!
getting ready to cook for a large crowd
clear all non-essentials out of the kitchen:
everything. seriously. i’m pretty strict about not having anything non-cooking related in my (very small) kitchen on a regular basis but it’s even more important when you need all the counter space you can get. also, things that are a little bit annoying when cooking for 4, like wiping sauce splatters off the stack of cookbooks that always seem to be perched on the corner of the counter, become much more annoying when cooking for a crowd.
clear out the fridge and freezer:
obvious, but worth mentioning. get rid of not only the terrifying science experiments long forgotten at the back of the fridge but also the leftovers that realistically no one’s going to eat. also, if you’re like me and store lots of flours, nuts, seeds, etc. in the fridge/freezer to keep them fresher for longer, think about whether they can move to room temperature storage in another room for a day or two.
large storage containers and foil/plastic wrap:
you need more large storage containers than you think and more foil/plastic wrap to cover them than you think. thank you costco for selling disposable foil pans in a larger quantity than i *thought* i needed. when selecting containers, i was glad i had opted for the “half” size, given that i was prepping, storing, and cooking food in a household kitchen, rather than one with an industrial size fridge and oven.
tape and sharpies to mark containers:
grab a roll of thin masking tape and some sharpies to label all of your delicious creations, along with any toppings or accompaniments that go with them. label the top and at least one side so that you can see what’s what when things are stacked up in the fridge.
use flat boxes for transport:
if you’re bringing the food you cooked somewhere else, whether as a caterer or for a potluck, if you shop at costco or another bulk store, grab a few of the large, flat tray style boxes they have available by the cashiers so that you can support the bottom of the foil trays and keep your car clean.
i promised we’d talk about this one again. cleaning out the fridge, tracking down sharpies, and carrying things out of the kitchen and dumping them on the dining room table all seem like delegable tasks, no?
cooking for a crowd
my largest mixing bowl is my stock pot. or, my stock pot is my largest mixing bowl. however you look at it, as someone who doesn’t routinely cook for 20 people and doesn’t feel the need to buy and store ginormous mixing bowls, i had to look around and get creative, repurposing some things.
clean as you go:
this is the most important “while cooking” tip. i’m fortunate to have a small kitchen that strictly enforces this. unlike when i whirlwind dinner together every night, when cooking for a large group, i was under no illusion that i could multitask or do more than one thing at a time and clean up after it before moving to the next item. #1 sanity saving tip during the actual cooking process. for serious.
you knew this was coming. when cooking, if you have anyone at home who can help, enlist them! during the party or event, accept offers of assistance. i got better at this as the party went on and more things needed to get done at the same time. transferring leftovers to storage containers, washing serving pieces, transferring the next course into serving dishes, bringing platters out to the table… no one person can do it all. helpers like to help; let them. smile, say thank you, and give them a job.
you may have noticed, and it’s not really by accident, that the planning section is waaay longer than the doing section. partly that’s because there’s more of a difference in planning for cooking for a large group compared to the difference in cooking for a crowd so there’s more to talk about (you still chop the carrots the same way. but you have to have planned for it to take way longer.). but it’s also because planning is super essential and, not to be melodramatic about it or anything, will likely make or break the experience.
in other words, channeling abe lincoln here, we’re sharpening our axe for the first 4 hours of our 6-hour timed tree felling test. you may be eager to get in the kitchen and get going, but pleaseplease allocate enough time to planning. it will set you up for success by avoiding pitfalls and, equally importantly, give you confidence that you can accomplish this successfully. which you totally can. i mean, i did, and i usually cook for 2 so you’ve got this. high fives!