Guest Series: Cooking for a Crowd – Menu Planning & Shopping

If you missed last week’s post, go check it out here to find out why the heck I’m talking about cooking massive quantities of food. Just as a tiny disclaimer, there is SO much content I could cover, but for this series I am doing a quick and dirty primer! If you want to continue the conversation – I am on Twitter and Instagram @ajmilad. Sarah can confirm – I can talk for days!

You’ve just been asked to cook dinner for 50, maybe 75 people. Never done it before? Don’t sweat it. Let’s talk about how to make it happen.

First step: MENU!

There are endless possibilities when it comes to menu planning for a large group. Your preferences, access to equipment, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds will help you decide what direction to go, but today I am going to talk about two of my favorite types of meals to make that are easily customized: braised meats and the toppings bar.

Allow me to sing some praises for braises. They use inexpensive cuts of meat, they can cook for a long time while you prepare the rest of the meal; they are warm, hearty, and easy to scale up. The basic idea is a protein that has a bit of fat on it (so it can handle low and slow cooking without drying out) seared, nestled into a bed of sauce and vegetables, and popped into an oven to cook all afternoon. Some of my favorites are pot roast with potatoes and carrots, bratwurst with sauerkraut and apples braised in beer, or a Mediterranean chicken with olives and tomatoes. With an extra side of roasted vegetables, a salad and (maybe – or maybe not) a starch, these proteins make a delicious and easy meal.

The other tried and true meal is the toppings bar – namely tacos and baked potatoes. Both can be vegetarian or carnivorous, and you can add store bought toppings to some homemade ones. I won’t tell a soul if you buy pre-shredded cheese. Promise. Just cook up a protein – ground beef, slow-cooker BBQ chicken, even chili for the potatoes –   add an assortment of toppings: chopped herbs (scallions, cilantro, dill), cheeses, sour cream or Greek yogurt, bacon bits (homemade please!), and steamed or roasted vegetables. The possibilities are endless with the toppings bar! Make a side salad and you have a delicious meal!

Quantity: For braises, I aim for about a half pound of meat per person. If that seems a bit high, it is, but I always allow for both super-hungry people and leftovers. For the toppings bars I usually aim for closer to a quarter pound per person.

Now that you have your menu, it’s time for a shopping list! If you are a member at a big box store like Costco or Sam’s Club, now is the time to head there. If you aren’t a member – find a friend who is one. It’s perfect for high-quality meat, some vegetables, and starches. To make my list, I like to write/print out ALL my recipes, browse my pantry to see if I need more olive oil, salt, pepper or other spices, as well as paper goods and utensils to serve the meal, then go through each recipe and write out the ingredients and quantities. Then I organize the list by section – meat, vegetable, dairy, freezer, pantry etc. I always start with Costco, then go to the grocery store for any ingredients they either didn’t have, or I need a smaller quantity of. This is a GREAT time to bring a friend and promise them a post-shopping coffee or glass (read: bottle) of wine. Depending on the size of your group you may need two shopping carts.

If you are only going to be cooking for a large group once or twice, don’t worry about special equipment. We can make it work with whatever is in your kitchen, but if you plan on doing this on the regular, now is a good time to invest in a few extra pieces. If you are cooking for a non-profit you can get a day pass to Restaurant Depot or another restaurant supply store to help out with this. If not, Amazon has a ton of options. My favorites are 30 quart metal mixing bowls for serving salad, hotel pans, ALL THE TONGS (for cooking, serving, scaring people out of the kitchen), and a 20 quart pasta pot.  

If possible, do your shopping a day or two before the big meal. It’s exhausting, especially if you have to go to multiple stores, and if you’re anything like me you’ll need a nap after shopping and putting everything away. And speaking of putting everything away, if you have access to a large kitchen where you’ll be cooking, pretty please make sure the fridge and freezer work BEFORE you shop (Yes, I am speaking from experience. I really hope you finished reading this before going to the store.)! If you are using your home fridge and freezer, make sure you have enough room to store the perishable goods.  

We’ll go into depth for cooking next week, here’s one more pro-tip for shopping day, especially if you are cooking the next day. If there are cold things you are making that get better with a little time in the fridge – pasta salad, salsa, marinated vegetables – make those things now! You’ll need to crank up the tunes to stay peppy, but it will make the big cooking day so much better if you know you have a little bit ready.  

Next week you’ll get some tips and tricks for cooking and serving, so it’s time to send out that evite for your entire contacts list. You’re having a PAR-TAY!



Amanda is a wife, dog mom, and avid home cook. She loves the outdoors, books, and would always rather be at the beach.


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