Many people are intimidated by the idea of entertaining because they think it requires preparing extravagant foods and cooking for days on end. If you plan ahead and cut up the work into small tasks, cooking for a crowd can be entirely manageable.
Planning to Cook for a Group
Cooking for a crowd requires planning similar to that of preparing weekly meals for yourself (or your family), as well as some additional considerations:
- Stick with the tried and true: Avoid unnecessary stress by selecting a menu of dishes you already know how to cook well.
- Consider storage: Since you’ll be cooking more food than usual, make sure you have enough refrigerator space to store the food you’ll be preparing in advance.
- Know your budget: Calculate your food budget before you begin and see whether you can afford to supplement your cooking with store-bought prepared foods. Using even one or two prepared dishes will save time and won’t make the meal any less special.
- Find out about dietary restrictions: Before you plan your menu, ask ahead of time whether your guests have any dietary restrictions and adjust accordingly.
If you have enough chairs and table space to accommodate the number of guests you’ve invited for dinner, you’ll probably want to opt for a sit-down dinner. Sit-down dinners can use either formal table service or family-style service.
- Formal table service: Involves bringing each course to your guests sequentially, much like how restaurants serve meals. If you’re making dishes that benefit from creative individual presentations, or that would be difficult for your guests to serve themselves, formal table service is a good option. Once your guests are seated, you’ll bring out each course from the kitchen and remove plates as people finish their food. Using formal table service requires you to have enough dinnerware to serve multiple courses to your guests without interrupting the meal to wash plates.
- Family-style service: Involves placing the food on the table in large serving dishes or bowls and allowing your guests to serve themselves. Family-style service is a great option as long as you’re not serving dishes that are difficult for your guests to serve themselves, such as delicate fish fillets.
How to Set a Table
No matter how you serve the food at a dinner party, you’ll have to set the table. A setting for a fairly formal dinner party will usually contain the following items:
- Plate: In the center
- Dinner fork: To the left of the plate
- Salad fork: To the left of the dinner fork (unless salad will be served after the meal)
- Bread plate: Above the forks
- Napkin: On top of the plate or to the left of the fork(s)
- Dinner knife: To the right of the plate, with the cutting edge facing the plate
- Wine glass: Above the utensils to the right of the plate
- Water glass: Beside the wine glass
If your dining room table is too small to fit all your dishes, or you’re expecting more guests than you have seats for at the table, consider serving your dinner buffet-style. A buffet-style dinner frees you from having to serve and lets you focus on your guests. To serve a buffet:
- Set your dishes up in a row on your table, with plates and utensils gathered at one end.
- Allow people to serve themselves and find their own places to sit (or stand) as they eat.
If you don’t have enough seating for all your guests, it’s a good idea to use paper or plastic plates so that people don’t have to hold heavy plates while they eat.
If you want to host a dinner party but have no time to cook, hosting a potluck dinner is a great alternative. In a potluck, each guest is responsible for contributing a dish. As the host, you just have to make sure that your guests bring a diverse selection of food and that you have the proper serving dishes, bowls, and platters. Potluck guests usually appreciate a bit of guidance in selecting what dishes to make, so consider requesting that certain people bring appetizers, others entrees, and so forth.
Since they emphasize drinks and hors d’oeuvres rather than main courses, cocktail parties are a great way to entertain in a low-stress, informal atmosphere. The absence of a main meal allows you to get creative making small appetizers and finger foods. If you want to socialize with your guests once they arrive (as opposed to having to work in the kitchen), limit the appetizer menu to cold or room-temperature items that you can prepare in advance.
Since your guests will be holding cocktails, serve foods that can be eaten easily without utensils, ideally with one hand. Classic cocktail-party appetizers include:
- Deviled eggs
- Shrimp cocktail
- Stuffed mushrooms
- Cheese, olive, or fruit platters
Outdoor parties or events can range from picnics featuring cold precooked dishes, to hamburger-and-hot dog cookouts, to clambakes, to elaborate Southern barbecues. You may want to host an outdoor event in your backyard or in another location, such as a public park.
Many people give little thought to planning backyard events and end up ill-prepared and frenzied throughout their party. When hosting an outdoor event, follow these guidelines to make sure you’re prepared and able to enjoy the festivities:
- Prep space: Give yourself plenty of counter or table space next to your grill on which to prepare the food. A lack of space will slow you down and frustrate you.
- Food safety: Many people overlook food-safety issues when cooking outdoors, but outdoor cooking is actually when you should be most careful about handling and preparing food safely. Have separate dishes for holding raw food and cooked food. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Serve your hot food as soon as it’s ready, so that it doesn’t sit around for too long. Cold foods like potato salad should not stay at room temperature for longer than one hour. Consider placing bowls of cold food in slightly larger bowls of ice.
- Seating: Determine how your guests will be dining (sit-down/family style, buffet, and so on) and provide necessary tables and seating.
- Plastic tableware: Consider using plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils. It will make cleanup easier and enable your guests to stand and talk while eating since plastic plates are light.
- Preheat time: Grills take a while to warm up. Take the preheating time into account when timing your meal.
- Consider your cooking pace: Grills have a limited cooking area, so you’ll only be able to cook food at a certain rate. Plan to have plenty of additional food available for your guests so they always have something to eat.
- Lighting: If your event will run from the afternoon through the evening, make sure you have enough light.
- Insect repellent: Deter flies and mosquitoes with citronella candles. You may also want to invest in net coverings to protect food that will be sitting out for an extended period of time.
Outdoor Events at Other Locations
If you’ll have to transport food to a location that’s farther away than your backyard, consider the following:
- Plan a menu with food that can be stored safely in coolers during the trip to your destination.
- Keep food safety in mind when planning your menu. If the weather is very warm and you have a limited amount of ice or cooling packs, keep mayonnaise-based foods to a minimum—mayonnaise spoils quickly at warm temperatures. Focus your menu on foods that are dressed in vinaigrettes or marinades—their high acidity will help prevent spoilage.
- Freeze beverages the night before. They’ll thaw in your cooler, helping to keep other items cool as well.
How to Pack a Cooler
If you’re transporting food to a distant location or cooking in the backyard but don’t want to make several trips back into the house, consider using a cooler. To keep food in a cooler as cold as possible and to ensure that the raw food you’re transporting won’t contaminate the prepared foods, follow these guidelines:
- Pack full coolers: Make sure your cooler is an appropriate size for your needs, and be sure to pack it full—full coolers stay cold longer than half-empty ones.
- Place cooler packs or ice at the bottom: To fill your cooler to capacity, place ice or cooler packs on the bottom, taking care to create a level bed for your food to rest on. Cover this layer with foil.
- Separate raw and prepared foods: If you’re carrying raw and prepared foods in a single cooler, pack the raw food in tightly sealed containers so that it doesn’t contaminate the rest of your food. Always pack raw foods at the bottom of your cooler and keep cooked foods on top, or keep raw and prepared foods in entirely separate coolers.
- Open your cooler only when necessary: The more often you open the cooler and the longer it stays open, the quicker it will warm up.
- Don’t drain water: Water from melted ice will help cool your food and slow the melting of remaining ice. Draining it will warm the cooler more quickly.