As I have gotten more experience in the kitchen I find that entertaining for a large group is actually a joy rather than a chore. I simply love doing it! I know it can seem very intimidating to cook for 20 or 30 or even 50 people, but trust me, it’s not so bad once you get the hang of planning. Here, I’m going to share my tips for entertaining a crowd.
Plan, Plan, and then Plan a Little More
The reason I am rarely stressed out about entertaining large groups is because I plan every detail down to the letter. This takes laying things out on paper and really defining what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it. I keep checklists of things to buy, and things to do, and I religiously add to those lists as I think of things that will be needed.
My favorite app for list making and checklists is Wunderlist, by the way. It’s free and it’s a life saver for event planning!
Define “A Crowd”
How many people are you entertaining? I recommend if it’s your first time to cook for a crowd that, if at all possible, you stick to a group of 10 to 15 people. Of course, you may not have that luxury–your boss has just nominated you to host the office Christmas party for 40 coworkers? Jump on in, the water is fine! But, if you can get some practice with a smaller group first, you’ll have a chance to build your confidence. No matter what, you need to have an idea of the maximum number of people you could end up with at your event.
I recommend taking the maximum number of people and then figuring on about 60 to 75% of that number realistically showing up to the party. Unless you have very firm RSVPs from everyone on your list, you’ll find that people forget to show up, they have other things come up, they get sick, etc. When I plan on 50 people I almost always, without fail, end up with about 30 people. I still plan on food and beverages for 50, but I make sure that all the food and beverages are things that I like and will use the extras of after the party.
Getting the Equipment You Need
A lot of people are intimidated by entertaining a crowd because they don’t have enough chairs, tables, dishes, etc. Don’t let that stop you! You can rent virtually anything you need!
Google “party and tent rentals” in your hometown and you’ll find the place that rents everything. You can rent tables, chairs, chafing dishes, popcorn makers, cotton candy machines, and just about anything else you can think of! As you start planning your event, find the rental company and get their number in your phone so you can call with questions and get prices on what you need to rent.
The rental companies will deliver, by the way. Delivery costs extra and is typically about $50 to $75, but it’s really worth it unless you have someone in your life with spare time on their hands and a large truck to haul things. You’ll be glad you paid for delivery when, the day after the event, you watch the rental company drive away after picking up all their stuff.
Unless you are purposely trying to get people to stay only for a few minutes and leave, you need a seat for every person. You can beg and borrow from friends to have enough chairs or you can rent them. Renting is easier and more reliable than hoping people will remember to bring chairs to your event!
Most chairs are about $1.50 each to rent, but fancier chairs can run $2.50 to $4 apiece. In the photograph you’ll see white chairs that were $1.50 each to rent. I could have gotten black ones for .75 cents each, but I wanted the look of white. Tables are usually $10 to $15 each.
You can also rent table cloths in a myriad of colors for any theme. In the photograph you’ll see I have five different colors of table cloths to go with a Mexican Fiesta party theme. Each table cloth was $11 to rent.
If your party is going to be outdoors, watch the weather at least a week in advance. If it looks like rain, call that rental place back and rent a tent! Get sides (walls) on the tent, too, if the weather looks severe. There is nothing worse than having everyone huddled under a tent with wind-driven rain pouring in underneath–trust me on this one! You will need a tent that can accommodate all the tables and chairs, plus tables for serving food. If you want dancing at your event you can even rent a dance floor to go in that tent! The rental company can help you determine which size tent is best for your event. Just remember that larger tents are fewer in numbers and may book up in advance, so you’ll need to make the call about a tent several days in advance of your party.
Hot Food Hot, Cold Food Cold
A disposable chafing dish costs about $10 or $15.
Unless you want food borne illnesses to go home with your guests, you will need to keep foods at their proper temperatures. Hot foods need chafing dishes, cold foods need to sit on top of ice.
If it’s a fancy formal event you’ll want to rent “real” chafing dishes from the rental company. Otherwise, most warehouse clubs and party stores sell disposable chafing set-ups that work just fine. Just make sure you buy extra cans of fuel to power them and keep things warm. You can reuse the wire frame on these several times and buy replacement foil pans very inexpensively from that warehouse club.
To keep things cold, I like to find a large container that I can fill with ice and then put the dishes on top of the ice. My favorite containers for this are from Oriental Trading Company. They sell what’s called an “inflatable buffet.” They cost about $10 each and if you’re gentle with them you can reuse them a time or two before they spring a leak.
Inflatable buffet from Oriental Trading Company.
Be creative with your ice containers! A big galvanized tub, a large deep serving bowl, and just about anything that won’t leak can be used as long as it’s clean and fits with your party theme. The rental company may have options for you, too, so be sure to ask.
Speaking of keeping things cold, you are going to need beverages. If it’s a casual event you can use clean coolers you already have. You can probably borrow coolers from friends, too. The rental company will likely have large coolers or containers that you can rent if you need them. Just be sure to choose containers that go with the style of your event. If it’s a casual outdoor barbecue then good ‘ol coolers are fine. If it’s a formal event, you will want to find a more elegant option.
Portion Sizes: Food
Determining how much food to buy is probably the single biggest concern when entertaining a crowd. You want to have enough, but you don’t want to have so much that you are eating leftovers for weeks.
For appetizers and finger foods, figure on about two or three pieces of each item per person.
Bloody mary shrimp shooters are kept cold on a tray of ice.
For veggie and dip platters I plan not per person but by the size of the bag that items are sold in at the warehouse club. One bag of carrots is usually enough for any size crowd, as is one container of celery, one package of cucumbers, etc. If you are buying pre-made trays that really will depend on the size of the tray you are buying–most grocery stores that sell these will tell you approximately how many people each tray will serve. Unless you’re entertaining a bunch of vegans no one is going to complain or be upset if the vegetables and dip run low so don’t stress about this one too much.
The most expensive option on your menu will be meat and protein. If you are serving an actual meal, figure on about one pound of meat feeding three people. If you are entertaining 30 people, then you need about 10 pounds of steak or chicken. If your crowd will be all or mostly male, a safer rule of thumb is one pound of meat for every two people, in which case you would want closer to 15 pounds of meat for a crowd of 30. When in doubt, err on the side of having a little too much. If your event is a mid-afternoon event or a cocktail party that does not involve a full meal, I would figure on five people per pound of meat.
Here’s a tip about meat–I marinate meats two days in advance to make sure they get maximum flavor. Gallon ziplock bags are my best friends when I’m entertaining and I make sure I have plenty on hand. I put about three pounds of meat in each bag and add marinade. I keep those bags in a cooler with ice. I don’t like to put them in my refrigerator in case a bag leaks. Just before the party I grill up what I think I will need and transfer the prepared cooked meat to the chafing dishes. If we start to run low I grill a little more. Any leftover bags of meat are saved to cook a fresh family meal with the next day.
Portion Sizes: Beverages
If your event is alcohol-free, figure on two cans/bottles of soda per person. If you’re using 2 liter beverages figure on 16 ounces of soda per person.
Since most people like to bring something to a party, I usually make all my parties “BYOB” and that way each person gets the beverage they want and I don’t have the worry or expense of providing alcohol. But, if I’m going to provide alcohol I have to take into consideration the crowd I’m entertaining. Typically a worst-case scenario is four beers or glasses of wine per person. Most people won’t drink that much, though. And, some people will drink no alcohol, so it kind of balances out. The best tip I can give you for stocking alcohol for a party is this: only buy things that YOU like and will drink later. This way if you buy too much it doesn’t go to waste!
Dishes and Serving
I have a wide selection of lovely party plates and platters. I have mexican-themed terra cotta dishes for serving salsa, and I even have tropical-themed serving platters in the shape of–yes–Hawaiian shirts. They are all so much fun and I am glad I have them. I also never ever use them. After I entertain 30, 40 or 50 people, there is one thing I can tell you for sure: I am tired. The last thing I feel like doing is hand washing all those dishes! My experience has been that disposable plates, cups, etc., are a lifesaver in this regard because all I need to do is grab a couple of large trash bags for clean up and I’m done in short order.
If I were hosting something really fancy, like a wedding reception, I would probably not go the disposable route. I would rent plates, cups, etc., and let the rental company worry about washing those dishes after they have been used! But, to date I have never hosted anything that fancy and I probably never will. Even if I do, there are still some really nice disposable options out there.
I planned to cater my own wedding reception back in 2013, and in the process I found some neat disposable options. First, I discovered the Webstaurant store online. They have so many lovely disposable plate, cup and silverware options that look really nice! The other place I found was the local Dollar Tree store, which typically has a wealth of disposable serving options that look lovely and won’t break your budget. Finally, my local warehouse club has some pretty nice looking disposable plates and silverware that are also viable choices. I literally had the entire wedding reception planned out and ready to go using all disposable items! It was a really cool plan if I do say so myself–too bad I picked the wrong person to marry. hahah
By the way, I mentioned before that you can buy the disposable chafing dish pans. These are outstanding options to use for baking up hot appetizers and foods! Instead of using your cookie sheets or other pans, use the disposable ones. You’ll be so glad you did when you have fewer dishes to wash after the event! If you don’t have those disposable pans, at least line all your cookie sheets and other pans with aluminum foil to make cleaning up after the event just a tad bit easier.
Please see my post on how to host an event that entirely “throwaway” in terms of plates, cups, etc. for more specific.
Now Back to Planning
I know I’ve already said this, but planning is really critical to making your event a success.
You need a firm menu on paper that you’re committed to serving. I’ve written about this subject before. From that menu, create a shopping list. Make sure at least two weeks in advance you have ordered any supplies you need to order from online.
Choose a day to do your event shopping, and prepare a careful shopping list before you go. Plan out every dish and make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need. Do NOT go shopping without that list or you’ll come home with a bunch of stuff you don’t need and you’ll have to make at least one more trip to the store to get all the stuff you forgot about!
Do as much food prep as you can before the day of the event. That is the single most important tip I can give you! It will keep you from being completely stressed out and exhausted for your shindig.
Recently I hosted a fajita night at my home on a Friday evening. I did all the food prep I possibly could on the Wednesday before the event. I chopped, diced, mixed, etc., and got everything done that could possibly be done that day. All the salsas and dips were made. All the meat was put in marinade. All the vegetables were prepared. It literally took about six hours to do all that, and everything was stored away in those gallon ziplock bags for easy access on Friday.
Why Wednesday? I didn’t want to have to spend six hours the day of the event doing all that work, and, I wanted time to get the house clean after I made all that mess in the kitchen. I had my house keeper scheduled to come in Wednesday evening! So, all the messy prep work was done when she got there and I was left with a sparkling kitchen and all the labor-intensive work out of the way. Friday, I spent most of my time simply assembling things and putting them on platters rather than doing all the mundane chopping.
Have helpers the day of the event! You’ll have lots of running around to do–last minute trips to the store, tables and chairs to set up, etc. Extra pairs of hands are good things to have. Don’t be a hero and try to do it all by yourself! The same goes for clean-up that night or the day after–schedule some helpers to be there for you.
One Final Note
I hate to be the one to tell you this, but something probably is going to go wrong with your event. You’ll run out of something, something won’t turn out as you planned, etc. Just relax and roll with it, and don’t look back! Your guests will take their cues from you on how to deal with the various circumstances surrounding the party. If you get upset? They’ll be uncomfortable. If you handle the bumps in the road with grace and poise, they will be at ease and have a much better time.
When I was in graduate school I was hired to bartend a private party at the home of the dean. I will never forget watching the dean’s wife walk down the staircase with a plate of food in each of her hands when her skirt just fell off her body. Apparently the zipper on it was loose and had worked itself free. She was rather barrel-shaped so instead of it getting caught on her hips, the skirt instead just hit the floor. There she was with her hands full, she couldn’t grab the skirt, and on the staircase there was nowhere to put the plates of food. I was thinking how mortified I would have been when she died laughing. She got someone to take the plates of food out of her hand and and she gracefully put her skirt back on and came on down the stairs. She did not let that incident ruin her party nor did she dwell on it. Classy and graceful!
Good luck to you with your party and event planning and if you learn any valuable lessons along the way, please drop me a line and share them?