I love cooking because it allows me the opportunity to relax, unwind, and think about the delicious food I’m about to eat. I also love talking about nutrition and sharing my knowledge and opinions with others who are trying to be healthy. So, cooking healthy food for a large group of people (all with very different food preferences) sounds easy and fun, right?
Well, yes and no. Cooking for a group can be super fun and satisfying, but it can also be a disaster (you’re stressed to the max and running an hour behind, you forgot about someone’s food allergy so they can’t eat anything, and no one actually enjoys what you made … sounds like a nightmare, right?) While I was on vacation in Colorado (which was only 1.5 weeks ago, although it feels like so long ago already!), we had either 4, 6, or 9 people for dinner every night. Given that I enjoy this kind of thing, I got the opportunity to cook for several of those nights, and I started thinking about tips to share with you. These tips can apply if you’re cooking for your own kids on a regular night, if you’re hosting a large dinner party, or anything in between. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments, too!
- Plan, plan, plan! I’m a planner in everyday life (I love my “to do” lists, and having a daily schedule makes me more relaxed), but planning becomes even more important when you’re cooking for a group. As you’ll see in the (well-loved and oil-stained) list below, I planned the nightly dinner menu on the left side of a legal pad, and the groceries we’d need for each dish on the right side of the pad. I made sure to take into account the various dietary preferences of the group, included a healthy dose of vegetables at each meal, and looked for some variety (resist the urge to serve a different version of chicken every night if you’re cooking for a week!). Once we arrived at each day, I made a schedule for the cooking process, to ensure that I’d have dinner on the table at the time people were expecting it. I know that this might look a bit crazy to some, but it made the entire process so much easier – I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing at all times, I knew I wouldn’t forget anything, and the food was hot and on the table at the right time.
- Find something for your “helpers” to do. If you’re cooking for kids, or have kids in the house, you might think that they’ll just wind up in the way. But if you put them to work in a way that’s fun for them (and actually beneficial), your life can be so much easier! I had two sweet nieces to help me out in the kitchen, and each night I made a “sign up sheet” with tasks that needed to be done, so they got to choose what they wanted to do. Win-win situation: they had fun, and they took a ton of work off my plate! Depending on the age of your kids, you can have them set the table, put condiments on the table, take drink orders for the group, make name cards for the table, read ingredients from a recipe, and more.
- Add buffer time. Did you notice that on my schedule above, there’s a 10 minute “buffer” time? Everything always takes longer than planned, so be sure to give yourself a little extra time.
- Let people participate in the meal preparation. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need all 9 cooks in the kitchen (in fact, I really like to be the ONLY cook in the kitchen, just ask my mom :)). But allowing your guests to customize what they’re eating in a way that minimizes the work for you can make everyone happy. Ideas for this could be make-your-own salad bar, taco night, or make-your-own mini pizzas. Since the weather was gorgeous and we took advantage of grilling almost every night, I put a spin on this concept … make your own veggie packs! I cut up a bunch of vegetables (mushrooms, zucchini, squash, snap peas, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, and onions) and laid out a bunch of spices. Then, each guest grabbed a large piece of foil, dropped in the veggies they liked, added some seasoning, and sealed it up before my dad tossed the veggie packs on the grill! The foil packs were my mom’s great idea, but you could also do this with veggie kebabs on the grill. (As a somewhat-related side note, serving things buffet-style makes it a lot easier for you, and allows each guest to choose what they want on their plate).
- Know everyone’s dietary preferences/ needs in advance, and have options, but don’t make a separate meal for each person. You definitely want to be sensitive to everyone’s needs, but if you have a large group, you can’t make every dish perfect for every person. Among our group, we had several vegetarians, several people who do not recognize food as a meal unless it includes meat, at least one who believes that anything green is poison (oh, 12-year-old boys :)), and at least one (guess who?) who doesn’t recognize food as a meal unless it includes something green. And that’s just the beginning of it! I tried to have a few options for each food group, without making a custom meal for each person. For example, one night we had protein choices (barbecued chicken, herbed tofu, or veggie hot dogs), pasta choices (handmade sweet potato pasta from the Farmer’s Market or classic mac ‘n’ cheese), my Summer Vegetable Bake, roasted broccoli, and watermelon. Just look at the variety of plates that resulted from this meal! I had tofu, vegetable bake, and broccoli (and later tried some sweet potato pasta!). Kevin had chicken, sweet potato pasta, and broccoli. My mom had tofu, sweet potato pasta, veggie bake, broccoli, and watermelon. My nieces had a veggie dog, tofu, watermelon, mac ‘n’ cheese, and veggie bake. The rest of the plates were equally as diverse! The point is – everyone had something to eat, and the choices were all nutritious.
- Accept that everyone may not love everything, and don’t let that hurt your feelings. If you’ve planned, and if you’ve considered everyone’s dietary preferences/ needs, then there WILL be something for everyone to eat. Sometimes, things don’t come out perfectly. I tried to make homemade black bean burgers one night, but I went a little crazy with the blender, so they weren’t that great. Still, none of the vegetarians complained – I think they appreciated that I considered their dietary needs, and they had the option to still have a burger without meat (and so did I!). I’m sure some of our guests would have rather been served steak and potatoes every night, but we are lucky enough that we don’t have to worry about anyone starving in our house – there is ALWAYS cereal or PB&J if someone didn’t get enough to eat at dinner. So just do your best, and serve with a smile – that’s ALL you can do!
- Sometimes you have to rely on convenience food – but do your best to “healthify” it just a little bit. One day, after a packed morning full of running and 4-wheeling, I realized that it was getting close to 1pm, and no one had started lunch. So, I threw in a few frozen pizzas, but I also added some colorful plates of fresh produce to the middle of the table. I asked each kid to try a little bit from each plate, and before I knew it, all the fruits and veggies were gone! If you make it fun, and don’t make healthy foods a “punishment,” getting kids to eat healthy is a whole lot easier.
Those are the 7 things that helped me out as I was cooking for a large group recently. So tell me in the comments … what are YOUR best tips for cooking for a group, keeping it healthy, and enjoying it?