HoppyCow

How To Make Dinner For A Lot Of People (when you’re not a professional chef)

Ski Trip 2012: Putting on the spice mix for the North Carolina pulled pork!

Ski Trip 2012: Putting on the spice mix for the North Carolina pulled pork!

Every MLK weekend for the last two years, Jared and I have joined a group of 30 friends on an epic ski trip weekend. Because we both like to cook, both years we’ve made Saturday night dinner for the entire group.

Cooking from scratch for 30 friends is a huge undertaking when you’re not a professional chef with professional equipment, but it’s totally doable. In the spirit of documentation, here’s what we’ve learned.

Step 1: Plan a Smart Menu

Know Your Scope: Ask ahead of time about the number of people, budget, dietary restrictions, and kitchen equipment. You don’t want to make a pork dish if many people are kosher, and at the same time, you don’t want to plan a grill-out if there isn’t a grill.

Time saving recipes are key: Seek out recipes you can make ahead of time. Both years we’ve used slow cookers to make the main protein portion of the dish. This means that the meat can be prepared in the morning, and is completely hands off until serving time. It also keeps the food warm until you’re ready to serve.

Keep folks at bay with appetizers: Despite all the planning, there will always be some last minute madness. Always have appetizers ready to go so that your starving friends can enjoy some munchies before dinner is served.

Go Buffet Style: Do not plan a meal that requires plating, like individual steaks. You don’t want to spend your night serving, and by the time you’re done plating the food will be cold. Buffet style is more efficient, and everyone gets to eat exactly what they want. .

Seek scalable recipes: You will most likely be doubling or tripling recipes. Make sure to pick items that can scale up. Avoid anything that needs to be individually made, like dumplings, samosas or biscuits. The time it takes to assemble these items will dramatically increase your prep time. A few trays of mac ‘n cheese, or two slow cookers of pulled pork can be scaled.

Use America’s Test Kitchen recipes: Sure, you might say I’m biased but these recipes WORK, and if 30 people are waiting on me for dinner I can’t leave anything up to chance. Both years we’ve used ATK’s tried and true recipes and it’s worked out great – they’re foolproof, and the cook times are exactly what they say they are. This year, we tried one recipe off the internet and the oven time was way off, which meant we had to serve it after the meal had started.

Prepackaged desserts are ok: By the time you’re done making the meal, you’ll be way too exhausted to want to make dessert for 30 from scratch. Either assign out dessert to a friend, or go with a boxed dessert – this year we went with Betty Crocker brownies and ice cream. No one minds brownies, cookies or cake from a box!

Step 2: Plan out equipment and cook times

Read your recipe: Read it carefully and read it three times over. Don’t leave anything to the last minute.

Plan out Cook Times: If something requires one hour in the oven, or 10 hours in a slow cooker, set deadlines (i.e. meat must be in the slow cooker by 9 a.m.). Also, whatever you can get done ahead of time, do. This year we picked an appetizer dip that could be made one day ahead of time, so that all we needed to do was pop it in the oven before dinner.

Make Sure You Have Equipment: For these ski trips, we’re cooking in houses entirely foreign to us, so we have to bring all the equipment we need for dinner. Be sure to think about items you need to prep (peelers, measuring cups, strainers, prep bowls, knives, cutting boards, don’t forget paper towels!), to cook (roasting pan, dutch oven, slow cooker), to serve (disposable trays, serving spoons, large bowls, paper plates), and to store (foil, plastic wrap, tupperware). However, be prepared to send someone out on a last minute grocery run. You will always forget something (this year it was paper plates).

Rationing Equipment Space: If you have multiple dishes that require the stovetop, but only have 4 burners, use your space wisely. Also, if you have multiple dishes that require the oven, carefully plan out oven space, oven cook time, and what temperatures you should pre-heat to. Appetizers like guacamole are great because they require no cooking space.

Get Machines To Help: Food processors are amazing time savers. If you don’t have one, borrow one from a friend. By using a machine, you’ll cut down prep time from 2 hours to 20 minutes. No one wants to spend an hour chopping onions. Also, if you’re baking, you might want to consider a stand mixer.

Step 3: Grocery Shopping

The grocery cart this year was so epic, we both had to stop to take pictures.

The grocery cart this year was so epic, we both had to stop to take pictures.

Make a shopping list: Since you’ll likely be doubling or tripling recipes, use a spreadsheet to tally up the quantities you’ll need to buy. If you’re really into planning, you can even split up your list into categories like produce, meat, pantry, and frozen for easy access at the grocery store.

Don’t Go Alone: When you are buying a few hundred dollars worth of food, you’ll need a friend to help push the cart, carry bags.

Know Your Fridge: If you’re shopping a day or two ahead of time, make sure your have enough space in your fridge or pantry to hold the epic amounts of food. For us, we were lucky that it was cold enough outside that we could leave most of it in the car.

Don’t Forget The Basics: When you’re cooking for 30 people, you will need an extra bottle of cooking oil, box of salt, package of paper towels, box of foil, etc.

Get Perishables Last Minute: Need to get ice cream, frozen veggies and other things that will melt? Put them on a separate list to pick up last minute. Also, if you’re making guacamole, get your avocados ahead of time so that they have time to ripen.

Use Extra Money Wisely: We had about $30 left over in the budget. We used it to buy beer for everyone.

Step 4: Setting Up

Unloading the car: When you’re sharing a kitchen space with 30 people (like in our ski house), make sure to put away all the food in designated locations. No one wants to waste time searching for ingredients come dinner time.

Clearing the Kitchen: To the best of your ability, clear and sanitize all the surfaces before you start. Then start setting up, creating stations for different recipes and putting ingredients near the station.

Designating helpers: We assigned 4 people to help us cook a week ahead of time, and each of them were responsible for a recipe. We sent them instructions and recipes ahead of time.

Recipe Sharing: We printed out multiple recipe packets (i.e. all 8 recipes in one stapled booklet) so that folks helping out could have their own copy, instead of everyone crowding around one book.

Ask People To Help Later: People love congregating in the kitchen. But, when space is limited and you’re making food for 30, it’s frustrating to have lots of extra people in the kitchen. Ask folks to hang out in the living room (with those lovely appetizers you’ve already prepared!) and if they wander in asking to help, tell them they can help you do dishes later.

Step 5: Cooking

Mies En Place: Measure all the ingredients, chop all the veggies, and heat up the oven before you start cooking. Don’t try to chop veggies or measure stuff out while you’re cooking — the ingredients won’t be ready when you need them.

This Part Is Easy: With all the planning you’ve done ahead of time, you should have everything you need and this part should be the easiest to do. Chit chat with your friends, drink a beer, and have fun while you cook!

Step 6: Serving

Take it easy and enjoy dinner with friends!

Take it easy and enjoy dinner with friends!

Setting up the table: Set up the buffet the way a restaurant would: plates on one end, followed by starters like rice or cornbread, followed by the main, then the sides, then the toppings and sauces. Tell people which way to line up.

Ask for help with dishes: When you announce dinner, be sure to ask for help with dishes. We learned this the hard way — the first year we made dinner, we forgot to ask for help and after dinner, everyone peaced out, leaving us with a few friends to do dishes. This year, everyone pitched in and cleanup was a breeze.

Celebrate: You’re done! Time to eat and enjoy the company of great friends.

To help with your planning, here are our menus from the past two years:

Ski Trip 2012
20 people, $200 budget

Mains:
North Carolina Slow Cooker Pulled Pork (2 slow cookers, from Slow Cooker Revolution)
Macaroni and Cheese (3 trays, from Cook’s Illustrated)

Side:
Cornbread (3 skillets, from Cook’s Illustrated)
Green Beans (2 trays, just made it)

Dessert:
Assigned out to a friend

Ski Trip 2013
35 people, $350 budget

Appetizer:
Mexican Spinach Dip (2 8×8 pans, from Cook’s Country)
Homemade Guacamole (20 avocados, Jared’s secret recipe)

Main:
Slow Cooker Smoky Shredded Chipotle Beef Filling (2 slow cookers, from Slow Cooker Revolution)
Veggie Fajitas (4x recipe, just made it)

Sides:
Mexican Rice (2 pots full, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)
Mexican potatoes (2 trays, Nourishing Gourmet, *beware: cooking time will vary)

Storebought sides:
Lettuce, Cheese, Sour Cream, Beans, Salsa, Chips

Dessert:
Brownies (3 boxes)
Vanilla and chocolate ice cream (4 tubs)

A big thank you to Jared for being the best co-chef on the planet. :) 

56 comments

  1. Crystal

    Getting ready to do a rehearsal dinner for 50 people, so thanks for the post. Thinking about doing brownies and ice cream for dessert. How big were those tubs of ice cream that fed 35 people, and did you buy the family-size brownie mix, or did you use a larger size?

    • Good luck! We got 3 regular-sized brownie mixes, and brownies were pretty much demolished. We also got 3 1-gallon tubs of ice cream (2 vanilla, 1 chocolate), I think that folks only got through half of a vanilla and half of a chocolate.

      Make sure you get disposable aluminum trays to bake the brownies in, and scoopers for the ice cream (a cup of hot water to put the scooper in doesn’t hurt either).

      • Crystal

        Thanks. :-) It’s a few months away, so I’m in the planning stages right now. I’ll keep these things in mind.

  2. I’m not a professional chef either, but I grew up cooking for a family of 10 and large groups in between. Fabulous advice here – especially buffet style serving! :D Enjoyed reading how you all do it.

  3. Great advice! We have done sit down dinners for 10-12 people, and made dessert. I agree meticulous planning, and friends who are willing to help with last minute tasks, and plating up, are invaluable. Oh, and alcohol for the “chef” was definitely welcome, after we plated up the main course!

  4. Good job. I cooked professionally for a while years back and will always cherish those skills. Though I prefer to cook for two or four I do enjoy the challenge of cooking for large groups too. Timing is everything. Cheers

  5. Excellent write up! I always try and make sure that the fussiest eaters are catered for. It’s not easy when you’re cooking big family style meals! Generally, I try and have only 1 meat dish (like your pulled pork). That way, vegetarians only miss out on 1 thing.

  6. This is awesome! So glad I read this. My husband and I cook for our family lots of times. While we have a wide range of fools allergies to keep an eye for this I believe would make it easier to do.

  7. For a big crowd, my family often makes something you can pick and choose – such as a taco bar, potato bar, burger bar, etc. That way, it accommodates multiple food allergies, dietary needs, etc.

  8. Well done!! Growing up with 5 brothers and 3 sisters, you did a good job. Now if I can only learn how to cook for a small crowd (of 3) when you have learned to cook for 10 or more! Lol

  9. Having worked in a kitchen as a sous chef, I can say that I love all of your ideas. You’ve covered it all, from getting help INTO the kitchen, while keeping the crowd OUT of the kitchen. You also mentioned one thing that most people overlook, and that is the timing. One single ill-timed dish could really damage a meal. Some things I’ve done in the past is anything that requires the diners to actually cook part of their own meal. Whether it is a fondue style thing, or Korean BBQ, with a little gas grill for every 4-5 people. I like the idea of the pulled pork. Other no fuss deals would be something like tacos or falafels, or anything that the diner would construct themselves. But I think this article should be posted in all the major newspapers a few weeks before Thanksgiving next year, and every year after. You could save many people from a lot of stress and heartache. Thanks for sharing….

    • Aw, what a nice comment, thank you! I was surprised to see all the feedback from folks, and so happy that I could actually be helpful. You’re right, maybe I should pitch this piece to newspapers for Thanksgiving!

  10. Thanks for the advises! Nice topic! I usually cook some things that I can put in the freezer, or prepare the night before, it’s helpful! I love cooking for many people but it can be messy sometimes! :-)

  11. good article, thanks! one thing i don’t agree with is that nobody minds if you serve packaged dessert… I would never even dare to serve packaged dessert, and if I have not time, I can be sure that most of my friends are more than willing to bring one… people love desserts made my different people, as it brings alot of diversity into you dessert buffet! And: There are lots of desserts you can prepare ahead, so why buy mass-produced desserts?

    • Haha, yeah, you’re right. If you can get a friend to tackle it, why not have them make something delicious?

      We were just so overwhelmed with trying to make dinner (and setting up in a foreign kitchen) that a boxed brownie mix was all we could pull off for dessert. They were warm and gooey out of the oven — and once topped off with ice cream, I don’t think our friends minded.

      Maybe next year, dessert from scratch! (I think we get more ambitious every year) :)

  12. Josephin

    Really enjoyed reading your post! I get already scared cooking for 10 people… However, love your ideas and might invite soon all my friends for a nice dinner party :)

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