How To Make Dinner For A Lot Of People (when you’re not a professional chef)

Ski Trip 2012: Putting on the spice mix for the North Carolina pulled pork!
Ski Trip 2012: Putting on the spice mix for the North Carolina pulled pork!

Every MLK weekend for the last two years, Jared and I have joined a group of 30 friends on an epic ski trip weekend. Because we both like to cook, both years we’ve made Saturday night dinner for the entire group.

Cooking from scratch for 30 friends is a huge undertaking when you’re not a professional chef with professional equipment, but it’s totally doable. In the spirit of documentation, here’s what we’ve learned.

Step 1: Plan a Smart Menu

Know Your Scope: Ask ahead of time about the number of people, budget, dietary restrictions, and kitchen equipment. You don’t want to make a pork dish if many people are kosher, and at the same time, you don’t want to plan a grill-out if there isn’t a grill.

Time saving recipes are key: Seek out recipes you can make ahead of time. Both years we’ve used slow cookers to make the main protein portion of the dish. This means that the meat can be prepared in the morning, and is completely hands off until serving time. It also keeps the food warm until you’re ready to serve.

Keep folks at bay with appetizers: Despite all the planning, there will always be some last minute madness. Always have appetizers ready to go so that your starving friends can enjoy some munchies before dinner is served.

Go Buffet Style: Do not plan a meal that requires plating, like individual steaks. You don’t want to spend your night serving, and by the time you’re done plating the food will be cold. Buffet style is more efficient, and everyone gets to eat exactly what they want. .

Seek scalable recipes: You will most likely be doubling or tripling recipes. Make sure to pick items that can scale up. Avoid anything that needs to be individually made, like dumplings, samosas or biscuits. The time it takes to assemble these items will dramatically increase your prep time. A few trays of mac ‘n cheese, or two slow cookers of pulled pork can be scaled.

Use America’s Test Kitchen recipes: Sure, you might say I’m biased but these recipes WORK, and if 30 people are waiting on me for dinner I can’t leave anything up to chance. Both years we’ve used ATK’s tried and true recipes and it’s worked out great – they’re foolproof, and the cook times are exactly what they say they are. This year, we tried one recipe off the internet and the oven time was way off, which meant we had to serve it after the meal had started.

Prepackaged desserts are ok: By the time you’re done making the meal, you’ll be way too exhausted to want to make dessert for 30 from scratch. Either assign out dessert to a friend, or go with a boxed dessert – this year we went with Betty Crocker brownies and ice cream. No one minds brownies, cookies or cake from a box!

Step 2: Plan out equipment and cook times

Read your recipe: Read it carefully and read it three times over. Don’t leave anything to the last minute.

Plan out Cook Times: If something requires one hour in the oven, or 10 hours in a slow cooker, set deadlines (i.e. meat must be in the slow cooker by 9 a.m.). Also, whatever you can get done ahead of time, do. This year we picked an appetizer dip that could be made one day ahead of time, so that all we needed to do was pop it in the oven before dinner.

Make Sure You Have Equipment: For these ski trips, we’re cooking in houses entirely foreign to us, so we have to bring all the equipment we need for dinner. Be sure to think about items you need to prep (peelers, measuring cups, strainers, prep bowls, knives, cutting boards, don’t forget paper towels!), to cook (roasting pan, dutch oven, slow cooker), to serve (disposable trays, serving spoons, large bowls, paper plates), and to store (foil, plastic wrap, tupperware). However, be prepared to send someone out on a last minute grocery run. You will always forget something (this year it was paper plates).

Rationing Equipment Space: If you have multiple dishes that require the stovetop, but only have 4 burners, use your space wisely. Also, if you have multiple dishes that require the oven, carefully plan out oven space, oven cook time, and what temperatures you should pre-heat to. Appetizers like guacamole are great because they require no cooking space.

Get Machines To Help: Food processors are amazing time savers. If you don’t have one, borrow one from a friend. By using a machine, you’ll cut down prep time from 2 hours to 20 minutes. No one wants to spend an hour chopping onions. Also, if you’re baking, you might want to consider a stand mixer.

Step 3: Grocery Shopping

The grocery cart this year was so epic, we both had to stop to take pictures.
The grocery cart this year was so epic, we both had to stop to take pictures.

Make a shopping list: Since you’ll likely be doubling or tripling recipes, use a spreadsheet to tally up the quantities you’ll need to buy. If you’re really into planning, you can even split up your list into categories like produce, meat, pantry, and frozen for easy access at the grocery store.

Don’t Go Alone: When you are buying a few hundred dollars worth of food, you’ll need a friend to help push the cart, carry bags.

Know Your Fridge: If you’re shopping a day or two ahead of time, make sure your have enough space in your fridge or pantry to hold the epic amounts of food. For us, we were lucky that it was cold enough outside that we could leave most of it in the car.

Don’t Forget The Basics: When you’re cooking for 30 people, you will need an extra bottle of cooking oil, box of salt, package of paper towels, box of foil, etc.

Get Perishables Last Minute: Need to get ice cream, frozen veggies and other things that will melt? Put them on a separate list to pick up last minute. Also, if you’re making guacamole, get your avocados ahead of time so that they have time to ripen.

Use Extra Money Wisely: We had about $30 left over in the budget. We used it to buy beer for everyone.

Step 4: Setting Up

Unloading the car: When you’re sharing a kitchen space with 30 people (like in our ski house), make sure to put away all the food in designated locations. No one wants to waste time searching for ingredients come dinner time.

Clearing the Kitchen: To the best of your ability, clear and sanitize all the surfaces before you start. Then start setting up, creating stations for different recipes and putting ingredients near the station.

Designating helpers: We assigned 4 people to help us cook a week ahead of time, and each of them were responsible for a recipe. We sent them instructions and recipes ahead of time.

Recipe Sharing: We printed out multiple recipe packets (i.e. all 8 recipes in one stapled booklet) so that folks helping out could have their own copy, instead of everyone crowding around one book.

Ask People To Help Later: People love congregating in the kitchen. But, when space is limited and you’re making food for 30, it’s frustrating to have lots of extra people in the kitchen. Ask folks to hang out in the living room (with those lovely appetizers you’ve already prepared!) and if they wander in asking to help, tell them they can help you do dishes later.

Step 5: Cooking

Mies En Place: Measure all the ingredients, chop all the veggies, and heat up the oven before you start cooking. Don’t try to chop veggies or measure stuff out while you’re cooking — the ingredients won’t be ready when you need them.

This Part Is Easy: With all the planning you’ve done ahead of time, you should have everything you need and this part should be the easiest to do. Chit chat with your friends, drink a beer, and have fun while you cook!

Step 6: Serving

Take it easy and enjoy dinner with friends!
Take it easy and enjoy dinner with friends!

Setting up the table: Set up the buffet the way a restaurant would: plates on one end, followed by starters like rice or cornbread, followed by the main, then the sides, then the toppings and sauces. Tell people which way to line up.

Ask for help with dishes: When you announce dinner, be sure to ask for help with dishes. We learned this the hard way — the first year we made dinner, we forgot to ask for help and after dinner, everyone peaced out, leaving us with a few friends to do dishes. This year, everyone pitched in and cleanup was a breeze.

Celebrate: You’re done! Time to eat and enjoy the company of great friends.

To help with your planning, here are our menus from the past two years:

Ski Trip 2012
20 people, $200 budget

North Carolina Slow Cooker Pulled Pork (2 slow cookers, from Slow Cooker Revolution)
Macaroni and Cheese (3 trays, from Cook’s Illustrated)

Cornbread (3 skillets, from Cook’s Illustrated)
Green Beans (2 trays, just made it)

Assigned out to a friend

Ski Trip 2013
35 people, $350 budget

Mexican Spinach Dip (2 8×8 pans, from Cook’s Country)
Homemade Guacamole (20 avocados, Jared’s secret recipe)

Slow Cooker Smoky Shredded Chipotle Beef Filling (2 slow cookers, from Slow Cooker Revolution)
Veggie Fajitas (4x recipe, just made it)

Mexican Rice (2 pots full, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)
Mexican potatoes (2 trays, Nourishing Gourmet, *beware: cooking time will vary)

Storebought sides:
Lettuce, Cheese, Sour Cream, Beans, Salsa, Chips

Brownies (3 boxes)
Vanilla and chocolate ice cream (4 tubs)

A big thank you to Jared for being the best co-chef on the planet. :)