“Cooking for a Crowd: How to Be an Instant Expert,” Ensign, June 1979, 64
Managing a meal for large crowds—whether a brunch, banquet, or family reunion—can be a smoothly operating function or a frightening, exhausting ordeal. Even though we may be efficient managers in our own homes or businesses, we are often at a loss when asked to cook for a crowd—simply because we lack know-how. The following suggestions can help the prospective expert turn his or her planned dinner into a smooth-running success—no matter what the occasion:
1. Select a chairman and/or chair committee. This general chairman meets with the bishop or person in charge several weeks in advance to determine how many people will be served, what type of service is desired, how much money can be spent, and what facilities are available for preparing and serving the food.
General chairmen with enthusiasm have often produced unusual and exciting events. For example, the North Shore Ward in Chicago staged a formal, adult dinner with bone china, fine crystal, and linens on loan from members. The Bountiful Thirteenth Ward Relief Society, Bountiful Utah North Stake, invited members and their partners to an evening of “Ye Merrie Olde England,” complete with old-time menu (see “Some Group Menu Ideas” at the end of this article), costumed serving girls, Shakespearean readings, and medieval music. The elders quorum in Canyon Rim Second Ward, Salt Lake Canyon Rim Stake, dug a barbecue pit in a member’s yard and cooked beef for a chuck wagon dinner; round tables amid bales of hay, scarecrows, and a fifteen-foot teepee set a western atmosphere for the evening (see “Some Group Menu Ideas”). The list of ideas is endless as members of the Church around the world plan, cook, and serve food for crowds.
2. Choose committees. This is the job of the general chairman and/or committee. Assigned committees plan the menu, buy the food, supervise the cooking, set up the dining room, serve the meal, and clean up.
3. Survey facilities. The general chairman and committees involved in the menu planning and food preparation should survey refrigerator space, ovens, surface burners, and counter space before planning the menu. Since many ward and stake meetinghouses are not equipped with facilities for cooking on a large scale, some of the cooking can be done in homes. See if you can borrow portable roasting ovens to cook the food or keep it hot during service. To expand counter space, set up tables in adjoining rooms. Large aluminum cooking pans, scoops, and ladles can often be rented or borrowed.
Make use of facilities in the community. In the Cincinnati Ohio Stake, Page Busken, a commercial baker, provides his baker’s oven for barbecuing spareribs for stake dinners. He points out that this is an ideal resource for expanding banquet facilities and can be used to cook large quantities of lasagna, hams, turkey, chicken, as well as pies, rolls, and bread.
4. Plan the menu. Since cost is a major factor, plan the menu around foods that are plentiful at the time of the dinner. Foods that can be prepared in advance will save last-minute confusion in the kitchen. Plan for eye and appetite appeal and include an attractive, edible garnish.
Use the special skills of members, especially those who are good at making breads, cooking meat, or creating unusual ethnic dishes. Foods prepared in homes will cut costs, involve more people, and ease the work load on committee members. When making such assignments, distribute recipes, give plenty of time, and specify whether they should bring the food or have it picked up.
5. Buy the food. (See suggestions below.)
6. Use standard recipes. Multiplying stew, soup, sauce, and casserole recipes generally works out well, but it is not safe to try to double or triple recipes for yeast breads, cakes, or muffins. It is better to have several members make up a selected recipe, or use one developed for large quantities.
7. Be sanitary. Helpers preparing the food should wear clean clothes, scrub their hands, and clean their fingernails before starting any food chore. Remind workers not to lick their fingers or to test food with a utensil and use it again for stirring. Hair nets or scarves are recommended, particularly for those with long hair. Never allow anyone with a skin infection or a cold to handle food. Keep work surfaces and utensils clean.
Keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees F.). Bacteria grow best in lukewarm foods. Keep protein foods such as fish, poultry, and cooked meats hot until ready to serve. If serving buffet style, use an electric warming tray, chafing dish, or roasting oven.
Keep cold foods cold (below 40 degrees F.). Cream pies, pudding, seafood salads, potato salad, and many other dishes made with eggs, milk, fish, meat, and poultry need to be kept cold to prevent dangerous bacteria from growing. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. If serving buffet style, serve only what is needed and replace often to keep foods as cold as possible.
Do not stuff turkeys, but bake dressing in a separate, shallow pan. Dressing may be contaminated in preparation or by contact with the inside of the turkey and is particularly susceptible to bacterial growth. It is particularly dangerous to stuff a turkey and leave it in the refrigerator overnight before cooking.
8. Post a work schedule. On the day of the dinner, a list of jobs to be done by the kitchen work crew helps preparation run more smoothly and makes the supervisor less bossy. For instance:
Place hams in oven; cook potatoes
Make cheese sauce; combine potatoes au gratin
Cut pies and place on plates
Place salads and butter on salad plates
Bake potatoes au gratin
Place salads on tables
Fill water glasses
Serve main course
Remove main course and serve dessert
Begin to clear tables
9. Allow for emergencies. One Relief Society president always takes a canned ham with her when she’s involved with group dinners. It’s a comfort to her to know she has something to fall back on if the meat runs out. And any excess need not be wasted, as most foods can be frozen for later use.
10. Dish up quickly. If serving from the kitchen, show helpers how much to serve on each plate. Ladles and ice cream scoops help control the size of each serving. For instance, a no. 6 ice cream scoop holds six ounces and is ideal for serving casseroles or potatoes. A no. 8 scoop (4 oz.) is good for vegetables, desserts, etc. A two-ounce ladle or one-fourth cup is a good measure for gravy. Slotted spoons are excellent for serving vegetables.
11. After it’s over. Make a written record of your undertaking. Include your plans, committee assignments, expenditures, and recommendations. State the number of people served and the amount of leftover food, if any. Attach a copy of the menu and recipes used. Keep a copy of the report with your organization’s records and one in the bishop’s or branch president’s office, so that the next banquet chairman can benefit from your successes and failures.
The team effort of planning and cooking for a crowd is a challenging and satisfying experience. It’s a fellowshipping tool for dinners, banquets, and family reunions. Use it to teach young people how to manage, organize, and develop leadership qualities. Keep it economical, not expensive; nutritious, not just filling; fun, not frantic.
Remember, food is friendship!
Don’t expect to buy food for a crowd like you’d buy for your immediate family. Services available in many urban communities will make buying in large quantities easier. For instance, if you can buy premixed tossed salad in ten-pound poly bags, a problem is solved. Canned foods are available in no. 10 institutional sizes. Bakeries can make tart shells, small rolls, or sheet cakes on special order.
Here are some more tips to make buying for a crowd easier:
1. Contact local food stores and wholesalers and ask them to donate or give a special price on food items for a fund-raising event.
2. Church groups are often exempt from food taxes, but you may need a tax-exempt number for identification.
3. When buying bulk canned goods, ask if unopened cans may be returned for a refund.
4. Compare prices—especially when buying meat. Use the telephone and check neighborhood food markets as well as wholesalers. Ask if they will cut meat in pre-portioned sizes, slice roasts, or debone chicken.
5. Use restaurant supply outlets for buying paper products and institutional sizes of canned goods.
6. Make a careful shopping list of food items and quantities needed.
7. Take advantage of free delivery services.
8. Some meat companies have facilities for cooking meat. Compare this cost with doing it yourself, considering time and energy used.
9. Don’t waste costly leftovers. Divide them up among committee members or sell at cost. Provide suitable containers to take food home safely.
10. Don’t guess when deciding how much to buy for a crowd. Instead, refer to a table that shows approximate amounts to buy, or call a consumer service for this information. Many government and private agencies, such as county extension services, utility companies (gas and electric), and food industries (including supermarkets) offer consumer services and the help of home economists. (Consult the yellow pages of your local telephone directory for help in these areas.) Also, your local library may have cookbooks with buying guides for large quantities.
Two specific printed helps are: Food Buying Guide for 50 Servings (bulletin no. 5-2111), Extension Service, University of Wisconsin, Agricultural Bulletin Bldg., Madison, Wisconsin 53706 (65¢ a copy); and Cooking for Small Groups (Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 370), Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402 (30¢ a copy). Those outside the United States should contact their government agricultural and food agencies which provide consumer help.
Following is a list of some foods commonly served at group dinners:
Canned vegetables (no. 10 can) 2 1/2 cans
Frozen vegetables (40-oz. package) 4 packages
Broccoli 15 to 17 pounds
Brussels Sprouts 12 1/2 pounds
Carrots 12 1/2 pounds
Potatoes, broiled or mashed 13 pounds
Potatoes, baked 18 to 20 pounds (or by count)
Carrot sticks 2 1/2 pounds
Celery sticks 2 bunches (4 pounds)
Lettuce garnish 2 to 3 heads
Lettuce, wedge 8 to 10 heads
Lettuce, tossed 4 to 5 heads
Canned fruit (no. 10 can) 2 1/2 cans
Strawberries (for shortcake or sundaes)
Fresh 6 to 7 quarts
Frozen (40-oz. package) 4 packages
Fruit cup 6 quarts
Pies, 6 slices per pie
9 8-inch pies
Angel food cake, 17 slices per cake
3 10-inch cakes
Oblong cake, 12 to 15 pieces per cake
3 1/3 9-by-13-inch cakes
(Same for set gelatin salads)
Ice cream or sherbet, 1/3 cup per serving
Toppings, 2 tablespoons per serving
1 1/2 quarts
Smoked ham 3-oz. serving 15 pounds (boneless), 20 pounds (with bone)
Beef roast (sirloin, boneless)—15 to 18 pounds
Cubed steaks (4 to a pound)—13 pounds
Ground beef 3-oz. serving 13 to 15 pounds
Pork chops—3 to a pound 17 pounds
4 to a pound 13 pounds
Chicken, fryers—For 1/2 bird servings, order 25 pounds or by count
Turkey, roast, ready to cook—27 pounds
Beverages, 6 to 7 ounces per serving 3 gallons
Butter, 1 1/2 pats each 1 1/2 pounds
Dinner rolls, 1 1/2 each (some will ask for seconds) 6 dozen
Whipping cream, for garnish 1 1/2 pints
Ice for water glasses, 10 pounds
INVITATION: Please share with us any unique experiences or solutions you’ve had in cooking for a crowd. Submit them to the Ensign, Random Sampler Department.
Occasion/group served __________
Type of service __________
Number of people served __________
1. Preparation and buying
2. Dining room
5. Advertising and tickets
Menu (attach recipes)
Profit or loss
Boar’s Head (Roast Pork)
Lamb and Vegetable Kabobs
Fresh Fruit Platter
Pit Barbequed Beef
Dutch Oven Potatoes
Cowboy Baked Beans
Mixed Green Salad
Hot Apple Crisp and Ice Cream
Fruit Pick (strawberry, pineapple, melon)
Asparagus Spears, Ham Slice, and Cheese Sauce
Bran Muffin Honey Butter