Are you a little freaked out because it’s your turn to host the extended family for dinner? Does the thought of feeding 30 plus people put you into the fetal position? For your event, do you want to be relaxed, with a clean kitchen, and as cool as a cucumber (within the realm of possibility, anyway)? If so, you have come to the right place. I will share some best practices gathered through the years that will help you provide a great experience for your guests without losing your sanity.
My First Dinner Party
I heard once that everyone’s first dinner party is a disaster. Mine was no exception. I was in grad school and had three friends over. That’s right, only four of us total. I made cinnamon rolls and forgot the finer details of how to proof dough (let it rise). I ended up with a giant crusty ball that was totally raw on the inside. I started over. Then the ham began smelling shortly after I put it in the oven. I realized that it needed water so I poured some into the glass pan. Do you see where I am going with this? Glass can only handle so much so it cracked in the oven. (I am not sure that it was Pyrex.) Enter pan number two. Next, I burned the top of the pecan pie. If memory serves, I tried to camouflage it with more pecans. I burned them too. Fortunately, I was feeding poor university students so they were not terribly discriminating and still scarfed it down.
I have had lots of practice since then leading people to ask me how I prepare food for large groups. I’m not going to lie; it’s work. A lot of work. But I enjoy blessing others through hospitality so the effort is totally worth it.
As with most things in life, planning is key. I will take you through the steps of my process which will hopefully help you feel comfortable entertaining big groups. This could be a lot of information, so my sister suggested that I break it up into separate posts where you will learn about choosing the menu, food prep, table decor, party day, and the wrap up. For this installment let’s begin with the first topic on the list.
CHOOSING THE MENU
Everyone has their own style of entertaining. For some, it’s a big pot of chili and corn bread, for others, it’s on the level of Beef Wellington and Asparagus Charlotte. I like both and everything in between, depending on the occasion and crowd size. But one thing that is consistent for me when serving a full meal is that I don’t make a ton of different things, although there is nothing wrong with that. Instead I make large quantities of a few things. If I am trying to cater to special dietary needs then I may add more options.
A Good Guideline:
- 1-2 Appetizers
- 1-2 Proteins
- 1-2 Carbs
- Green vegetable
- 2 Desserts
When deciding what to prepare, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the occasion, season, and audience?
- What tastes great, is doable, and affordable?
- What can be done in advance and will hold well after it is prepared?
- What doesn’t take much mental energy so you can talk with guests?
- What will not make a mess of your kitchen the day of?
A Kerith House Staple
When serving a crowd of kids and adults, one of our go-to meals is smoked pulled pork. It has universal appeal, works with any season, in Georgia, anyway, can be made in advance, freezes well, and only takes reheating on the day of the event. I try to stock up on the meat way ahead of time when it is on sale to make it affordable.
Once you have the main dish decided, it’s time to fill out the meal with sides dishes. Use color, flavor, and complexity as your filters.
Color-According to my mom you should cook by color. For example, if you are serving baked chicken and mashed potatoes, be sure you have something bright like carrots or peas. You don’t want the plate so bland looking that it resembles prison food.
Flavor-Think about the flavors and what goes together. If serving something spicy, have something that cools it down like slaw. If serving a meat with a sweet sauce, use sides that are also a little sweet. If making a particularly ethnic dish, prepare a side from the same culture, for example: Carne Asada with Mexican Street Corn. Yum!
Complexity-Combine pre-packaged food with easy recipes and more complicated ones. Don’t make every dish a challenge. It’s okay to experiment with one or two recipes but not everything. You could be asking for trouble. Remember, sometimes the simplest dishes can be the most delicious.
For the sake of example, with our pulled pork, we make chicken because some people do not eat the former. Since we are in the south, macaroni and cheese is our standard accompaniment. If adding another carb, it is either potato salad (from Sam’s) which adds a cooling effect or baked beans whose sweetness goes well with barbeque.
Then I add a salad, that has sweet and salty, again to complement the meats, plus an easy vegetable, like canned green beans, embellished with bacon or ham. For bread, we either serve the traditional good old sliced white sandwich bread or frozen yeast rolls. With this meal, there is no need for anything more complicated. When it comes to dessert, chocolate in some form is always a fan favorite so most recently I made paleo “Twix” (mainly for me). But I like to embrace our region too, so we also served pecan pie bars and banana pudding. Can’t get much more southern than that.
Notice that this menu included homemade and pre-packaged food, simple recipes, and more complicated dishes. It had color, universal appeal, was affordable, and audience appropriate. Parts could be prepped ahead, food could hold well, and most of all, it tasted great!
There is no doubt that it could take you quite a while to sort out the menu. You may pour through volumes of cookbooks, interview friends and relatives, and peruse Pinterest. But once you nail it down, you have won half the battle. It's like planning a trip. Once you get the airline ticket and the hotels booked, you can relax (a bit). After that you can make a plan for preparation, which I will talk about in the next segment. This is the first baby step. You can do it!