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Cooking for a Crowd

December 17, 2012

In the past, I’ve had the occasion to cook for very large groups; I cooked for 100-125 people per week each Wednesday evening at a church in the Ozarks. Most people would never have to cook for a group that size, but during the holiday season, you may find yourself cooking for a larger group. Let me share a few tips with you to make your experience go more smoothly. 

First of all, plan ahead. How many people are you expecting? How much money do you have to spend on food? What would you like to have on your menu for your group? Your meal doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be tasty. Think about the crowd you are preparing the meal for. Many times, your crowd may prefer a tasty "comfort food" meal rather than a fancy meal with unusual items. Think about the things that you would enjoy if you were attending someone else’s dinner party. Will children be part of your crowd? Or, do you have any picky eaters or people with food allergies?

I had 10 meals on my rotating menu when I was cooking for the church crowd. Here are four of those menus, which may be helpful as you plan for your group.  

Meal #1:
Ham
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Green Beans
Fruit Salad
Hot Rolls
Chocolate Cake

Meal #2:
Lasagna
Caesar Salad
Garlic Bread
Blueberry Salad
Ice Cream

Meal #3:
Sloppy Joes
Scalloped Potatoes
Lettuce Salad
Fruit Cocktail
Brownies, a la mode

Meal #4:
Baked Potato Bar (with various toppings such as butter, sour cream, shredded cheese, bacon bits, chopped green onions, or taco meat and salsa)
Salad
Peaches
Rolls
Strawberry Pretzel Salad

MCPL has many cookbooks available, including several on cooking for a crowd. Two books that can be used are Cooking for a Crowd: Menus, Recipes, and Strategies for Entertaining 10 to 50 and The Everything Slow Cooking for a Crowd Cookbook: Features 300 Appetizing Home-cooked Recipes. Once you have decided on your menu, multiply out how much you will need of each ingredient for the size of group you are serving. Is the recipe written for 6 people, but you are serving 30? If so, multiply each ingredient by 5. I would suggest writing out or typing out the recipes with those new amounts, so that you do not have to refigure the amounts as you cook. 

Next, you are ready to write out a grocery list to go along with your menu. Be sure to include plates, cups, napkins, and silverware if you are planning on using disposable items. Think about what you would like to serve to drink as well. Tea, water, and lemonade are always easy choices. If you serve tea, be sure to have sugar or sugar substitute available. Remember to buy some bags of ice, too. Will you need to borrow or buy beverage dispensers? Do you have enough pans and bakeware, or will you need to buy or borrow those? What about salt and pepper shakers? Tables and chairs?

If you are having an evening meal, I would suggest making your dessert first thing in the morning. Rather you are making cake, cookies, or brownies, you will need time for them to cool. Once they have cooled, I cut them into individual portions, place them on small paper plates, and cover them with clear cellophane. Be sure to wash the dishes as you go.

As your dessert cooks, you can set out your plates, cups, silverware, and napkins. I like to serve people buffet style; they can pick up their plates and walk through the line to choose their food. This saves you the time of putting out each place setting at a designated location, and the people can sit where they like.

Next, you can make your beverages and place them in the serving containers. You can add ice just before your guests arrive so that your drinks will be nice and cool.   

Next, you should cut up any items you will use in your salad. I like to buy the prepackaged salad when I am cooking for a large group. Toss in a few tomatoes, add some croutons, and salad dressing, and you are good to go. Put the salad in the refrigerator to stay cool until just before your guests arrive.

Think through how much time you will need to make each menu items that will require time on the stovetop or in the oven. Prepare each item ahead of time, so that it will be finished soon after your guests arrive. If you are serving rolls, buy the prepackage rolls that you simply can heat up in the microwave. A mere 50 seconds in the microwave will heat up a package of 12 rolls nicely. I do this just before I serve the meal. The Hawaiian style rolls are especially tasty.

If you choose to make the baked potato bar as your meal, recognize that an oven full of baked potatoes will take longer to cook than just a few would. I would allow 100 minutes for 30 baking sized potatoes to cook at 350 degrees. Also, my secret recipe for my green beans is to add some beef bouillon cubes, salt, pepper, garlic salt, and bacon grease as flavoring. (Trust me, it’s really good!) Let me know if you would like any of the recipes for the menu items mentioned.

That’s all there is to it! With a little preparation ahead of time, you can cook for a crowd and look like a pro. I hope you have a wonderful time entertaining this holiday season.

Janet B.
Raytown Branch

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