Cooking for a crowd doesn’t have to be stressful
Feeding a large group of people hot and delicious food can be quite the challenge. When you’re having a party, you don’t want to spend the entire time in the kitchen. You want to have fun and mingle with your guests. Throughout our marriage, Dinner Table Doctor and I have thrown several large celebrations for a variety of reasons, but mostly for family holiday gatherings. We love to entertain and take great pleasure in making guests feel welcome and well-fed. Each time we have a party, we hone our skills and streamline the preparation just a little more. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to help you throw a night to remember for a large crowd without stressing out so much that you can’t enjoy yourself.
Preparation is Key
Make a to-do list at least one week before your gathering. Specify everything that needs to be accomplished, including minor tasks, because you will share this list with anyone willing to assist you. So often I have had a family member ask, “how can I help?” It’s much easier to answer this while you’re feeling overwhelmed and in the middle of a million things when you can simply refer them to the list. Examples of tasks would be making a shopping list, doing the shopping, setting up tables and/or stations, decorating, cleaning, cooking, etc. The more specific you are with the list, the easier it will be for someone to pick a task and do it for you. “Clean the downstairs bathroom” or “get the folding chairs out of the attic” do not leave room for interpretation and can be accomplished by any willing participant.
Select Your Menu Wisely
When you are expecting a large group, you want everyone to be happy, but all your guests will have different tastes and preferences. That’s why I typically like to set up a buffet with a variety of selections. I have meat entrees as well as enough choices for a vegetarian to fill up on more than just a salad or crackers. We also sometimes include gluten-free food for our brother-in-law with celiac disease, and occasionally we even have vegan choices as well. Naturally this all depends on your guest list. If you’re hosting all family or close friends, you already know what will make them happy. If it’s an unfamiliar group, you just need a crowd-pleasing menu that offers basic choices. Does your party have a theme? If so, Pinterest is your best friend, where you can find all kinds of dishes to please even the pickiest eaters. (Don’t forget to check out the Dinner Table Doctor Pinterest page!)
Keeping Food Warm
If in designing your menu you selected foods that need to be served warm, chafing dishes are your other best friends. For example, my extended family loves pasta, so any large gathering involves serving at least two kinds of pasta. For our Christmas-season party, we have pasta with red sauce, pasta with squid sauce, and pasta with garlic/oil/anchovy sauce. To keep these warm and yummy throughout the party, since eating just kind of continues for several hours, we use chafing dishes and simply stir them every half hour or so. You can get “disposable” chafing dishes and fuel pretty cheaply online or at Costco or GFS. I put that in quotes because I wash and reuse them over and over again.
I cook my pasta al dente a day ahead of time. This is very important – you don’t want mushy pasta! If anything, you want it a little undercooked. When it cools, you mix it with s few tablespoons of olive oil and put it in an airtight container or Ziplock bag and store it in the refrigerator. Just before the party, you set up the chafing dishes (something that is on your to-do list) with the water in the bottom tray. Put the pasta in a colander and run it under super-hot water and then dump the pasta in the top container of the chafing setup. You mix in the warmed sauce you’re using and light the fuel under the tray. Cover the top tightly with foil. When the water heats up, the pasta will get hot as well. Stir it up occasionally, especially before serving, and periodically check the fuel. The food will stay hot for hours. You can do this with any hot dish or casserole and refill as needed. I sometimes keep items on warm in the oven and then refill the chafing dishes when we are running low.
Food and Drinks are the Main Attraction
My philosophy has always been that as long as people are eating and drinking, the rest will fall into place. Within minutes of your guests arriving, get a drink in their hand and show them where the nibbles are. Variety is key so that everyone will find something they can eat, and no one goes home hungry.
When I’m entertaining a large group, I like to divide the food and drinks into stations to help the crowd spread out. I will have one area for appetizers, one for the main meal, and one area for dessert. I also set up drink stations. Usually in one location I put the beer, wine, and cocktails plus a fun non-alcoholic drink for adults who don’t want alcohol but also don’t want to sift through the juice boxes and sodas for a drink. The sodas and other drinks for a younger crowd are in another area. Drink markers are handy so everyone can keep track of their glass and napkins are everywhere. DTD and I always set up a coffee station too, because we have family members who drink coffee at any time of the day. Cream and sugar and substitutes are all placed conveniently. Having things spread out disperses the crowd so everyone isn’t huddled around one table.
If you have a tiny home, no worries! Even when people can’t spread out, they will have fun as long as they are eating and drinking. DTD’s grandparents used to have family parties in a small home, and they were always a blast. I have also attended excruciatingly boring gatherings in large halls. Size isn’t an issue – a welcoming attitude creates fun automatically!
You Don’t Have to Do it All Alone
If entertaining a crowd seems too overwhelming or cost prohibitive, you can always ask guests to bring appetizers or desserts or side dishes. Often DTD’s sister will offer to bring some dishes that are gluten free since she is so used to cooking that way, and then we know her husband will be happy. It’s also perfectly fine to ask a close friend or family member to come early and assist with preparations. Don’t be afraid to request help! If you have the funds, get a caterer or buy everything premade at Costco to make your life easier. You could throw a party where guests make their own food, such as a taco bar or hotdog bar or make-your-own-pizza party and divvy up the ingredients so everyone brings something. There are plenty of options out there. Be creative and remember that most people are just happy to get together and can fill up on potato chips, ham sandwiches, and beer! You do not have to be a gourmet cook or have a big house or spend a lot of money to welcome the people you love into your home.
Small Touches Make a Big Difference
In addition to making food and drink readily available, little, easy touches help make guests feel comfortable and welcome:
- I am a huge fan of setting a mood through lighting and music. I make sure there is enough ambient lighting and I put a playlist on as background music, not too loud (My favorite Pandora station for background music is Madeleine Peyroux).
- We like to provide lots of extra tables and seating when we have a large crowd, so everyone can dig in without balancing a plate on their lap. This means we are pulling out little trays and tables and chairs that maybe don’t look great but are functional, and that’s what matters most.
- We try to take into account special needs and preferences such as dairy-free alternatives for coffee
- We place extra toiletries such as tampons in the bathrooms.
- We designate a bedroom and bathroom in a quiet area for someone who requires privacy (maybe they feel ill or are trying to get a baby to sleep, etc.).
- Lastly, I sometimes put out several takeout containers that I collect throughout the year, so guests can take home leftovers. DTD and I always cook way too much and are happy to send extra food home with guests.
Make Notes Afterwards
This is so important, but something I didn’t learn until my 40’s. It is easy to forget what worked and what didn’t when you go to throw the next party, often an entire year later. For our regular gatherings around the holidays, I started jotting notes the day after and putting them in my holiday recipe binder. As the season approaches, I’ll be looking in this book for the corn casserole recipe or the holiday punch, so the notes will be right there to remind me that “five pounds of pasta was a little overboard” or “more red wine is needed” — whatever I noticed from previous years to help make the party even better this year.
The reason you throw a large party is to have fun with people you invited and actually want to spend time around. If you are feeling too stressed, don’t do it! Alternatively, you could invite a small group, or you could meet out for dinner, so no one needs to stress over hosting. The point is that personal relationships and socializing are one of the keys to good mental health. You don’t have to be the host to make that happen. If you do decide to invite others into your home, just remember that they came because they wanted to spend time with you, so make them feel welcome and well-fed and your time together will be lovely!
Create Special Memories
If you have a regular gathering, it is so fun to see how people change throughout the years and to establish memorable traditions. My family has a Christmas party the Saturday before the 25th. Santa always makes an appearance and so does ELVIS! For several years Elvis has joined Santa to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and to pass out lottery tickets. They both pose for pictures with young and old alike. The children in my family know who Elvis is because he is “Christmas Elvis” which they believe is a totally normal part of the holiday.
DTD’s family gathers the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Frequently we have a theme that revolves around recent vacations family members have taken, so they can show us all pictures during the party and share stories about the trip.
Here are some photos of our large family gatherings through the years:
As you can see, throwing a large gathering can be a whole lot of fun! Just remember to relax and enjoy yourself. Do you have any tips for entertaining? Feel free to share in the comments and find me on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.