Allison Thorp is the maven of cooking for a crowd! I asked her to give us some help as we homeschool moms launch into the holiday season. This is an update of Allison’s classic post.
Tips for Cooking for a Crowd
I have been asked to share some advice on cooking for large family gatherings.
Although I am certainly no expert, I have had a fair amount of experience with this over the last 25 years as I have hosted family and church dinners in my home and participated in a “dinner co-op” which entailed my making dinner for five families at a time once a week.
I’ve made my share of mistakes and earned more than a few gray hairs from the panic that accompanied them, but in the process I have learned some ways of making this task more manageable. I hope this will be a help to some of you who may not have tried your hand at a large meal yet.
1. Make a Menu –
Do this well ahead of time and put everything on it, even dishes that others are bringing. Keep a list where you will not lose it to make sure you don’t forget anything.
2. Smart Shopping –
Use your menu to make a comprehensive list of items you will need. Don’t forget to list any staple items you are low on. You don’t want to be in the middle of making pumpkin pie when you find you are out of sugar. Staple a copy of your menu to your grocery list when you go shopping just to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything you need. (Cool tech idea: download the Favado app free on your smartphone. You can use it to find the best prices for particular items you want at the various grocery stores in your area!)
3. Food with Forethought –
Choose as many dishes as possible which can be prepared ahead of time. You may be surprised at how many dishes not only work when made ahead, but are even better that way.
Cook turkey the day before, slice when cold, lay in pan with gravy, cover with foil, and reheat the next day. Ham works well this way too.
Make mashed potato or sweet potato casserole the day before. All of the labor intensive, messy work will be done and cleaned up and you will only have to heat the casserole in the oven.
If possible, choose baked vegetable dishes (i.e. broccoli casserole, green bean casserole) that do not require you to cook vegetables on the stove at the last minute.
Make gravy ahead of time and reheat just before serving. Gravy is too risky to be making at the last minute. You can even use canned gravy and skip the prep altogether.
Prepare any cold dishes the day before, place in serving dishes covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator. They will be ready for the table without any more work.
Desert is one part of the meal that should be easy to do ahead or farm out to someone else.
I struggle with this one, because I like pies the day they are made, but no one else seems to care.
4. Designate your Dishes –
Make sure you have enough pans and casserole dishes for everything you are cooking. Whenever possible cook items in dishes which look nice enough to place on the table. This saves you a lot of cleanup and keeps the food hotter for longer. If a casserole dish is too hot to pass at the table, try setting it in a basket. Also, make sure you have leftover containers readily available to make the clean-up go smoothly.
5. Corral Your Crock Pot –
Use your crock pot to free up oven space. Many dishes work well in the crock pot and fit with the “make ahead” rule. You can do baked potatoes or baked sweet potatoes, mashed potato casserole, and even stuffing in a crock pot. Most any casserole-style vegetable dish will also work well in a crock pot. Ham works if you have a large crock pot.
6. Coordinate Chores –
Look over your recipes and separate the steps to make the job as efficient as possible. For instance, if you have to chop vegetables for several different dishes do that all at the same time before beginning any of the specific recipes.
7. Terrific Timing –
Work backwards to plan when various dishes need to go into the oven or begin cooking on the stove. You may have to adjust cooking times if you are putting a number of different things in the oven at the same time. Usually, a general temperature of 350 to 375 will work for anything, you just may need to keep a dish in longer than the recipe calls for.Remember, if you have made casseroles ahead and they have been in the fridge you will need longer to get them heated through, usually 1/2 again as long as the recipes states. It is also wise to set them out of the fridge 1/2 to 1 hour before you put them into the oven to bring to room temperature.
8. Question Quantities –
Use quantity guides to determine how much meat you need for the number of people you have. Other recipes usually tell you how many they serve. Remember, though, if you are having a big meal with a lot of different dishes people will not eat as much of each one.Take into account what you know about your family or guests. When making large quantities of casserole-type dishes, remember that they will take longer in the oven. The denser the food, the longer it will take to heat or cook all the way through. Consider doing two regular sized dishes instead of one giant one. They will heat better and you can leave one in the oven on low until the other dish has been emptied.
9. Share the Suffering –
If you have others who are willing to take care of some of the dishes, let them, but choose what will actually be a help. Dessert is an easy thing to leave to someone else as it can be transported in its finished state. If you farm out the side dishes, make sure that they are being brought ready to eat.If someone shows up 10 minutes before the meal with cold green bean casserole which needs to be cooked and your oven is full, you are likely to panic. If your guests are unreliable consider asking them to bring bread and butter, tossed salad, drinks, whipped cream for the dessert, etc.
Most importantly, remember that the real point of the meal is sharing it with those around you. Don’t let the stress of making the dishes perfect keep you from enjoying your time with others.
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