12 Essential Tips to Cook for a Crowd

Scaling up recipes and cooking for a crowd can seem daunting, but these tips make it easier and more affordable. Here are my essential tips for delicious quantity cooking for a crowd of 100 or less.

Church suppers, charity parties, DIY wedding receptions, family reunions. There are times we want to cook all the foods. But How? And How Much do I need of everything? I’m here to help.

fresh caprese salad with sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and drizzle of balsamic syrup

How to Cook for an Army

I have cooked for years all kinds of parties and holidays and such, but never more than a usual number of people. Then I volunteered at church and you know how THAT goes – the next thing I knew, I was sitting with a calculator estimated ingredients for 80 people! I was scared to death.

But it all worked out then, and it has continued to work out. As of this writing, I have now cooked meals for 50-100 people, including two, full-on Thanksgiving dinners, 22 times with not one single failure.

…no failure other than not making gravy at Thanksgiving in 2019 but I fixed that in 2020 so we can let that go now. [I still get grief for it, not gonna lie.]

So! I’m feeling now with my track record like I know what I’m doing. And I’ve started getting questions from friends more for large scale cooking, so here I am to give you what I know.

Know the formula.

Formula! Yes, a formula. This is the formula I start with in planning all my dinners cooking for a crowd. If I am cooking for a party or some other function, then the formula does not apply, so I am just talking dinners here.

For a standard dinner, the essential formula is thusly:

  • Main dish.
  • Side dish 1, usually a vegetable.
  • Side dish 2, usually a starch.
  • Salad.
  • Bread or roll.
  • Dessert.

The main dish is just that… the main thing you are cooking and what everything else will center around.

Then the two side dishes complement the main dish. Generally, this is a vegetable side dish and a starch like potatoes, beans, or rice for the other side dish.

The exception is the following:  if my main dish is a pasta, then both side dishes are either vegetables OR I make one side dish (a vegetable) and with that I make a better, nicer salad (example, a Caprese salad rather than a generic side salad).

Using this formula as a staring block, and working from that is where I begin all my meal planning.

Know your audience.

My day job as a scientist involves a lot of public speaking and one of the rules is to know your audience and speak to that. The same goes for cooking… know your audience, and cook to it. Especially when you are quantity cooking. You are cooking to make everyone happy, and cooking for a crowd is harder but the rule still applies. So plan for differences.

Cooking for an older and elderly crowd is significantly different than cooking for teenagers. Older people eat less. It’s just a point of fact.

Many will only take one taco, even though you thoughtfully provided for two tacos per person. Teens, on the other hand, will swindle a third taco.

So also, it is a fact of life that even though I plan appropriate portion sizes and amounts of food, I know when I cook for elderly that I will have more leftover. Accordingly, it is good to have a plan, such as food donation to a local shelter, ready so leftovers are not wasted.

Onions! Many older people cannot do onions and I catch all kind of grief if I use them fresh in salad especially. So, go easy on the onion when cooking for elderly, and leave it out of salads completely. I slice up a red onion and keep it separate for people to add themselves to salad if they want.

women and volunteers around a table getting salad

Cook from scratch, but not everything.

When I first started cooking for a crowd, I made ev-er-y-thinggg from scratch. This is my business, after all I’m a food blogger and each dish I served had to be made by me. [insert eye-roll]

No, Erica, not everything has to be made by you. Best example: dessert. I do not have a sweet tooth and so there aren’t even that many dessert recipes on my site. And when I was making dessert, that was the thing that was the most time consuming for me to make.

Last year, I started purchasing dessert from the grocery store bakery (bakery sale items for the win!), and I have gotten Not One Complaint. Not one. That is the corner I cut all the time now.

Another one is salad dressing. If I am making a simple side salad, I have stopping making the dressing and purchasing Ranch and Italian dressing. The exception is if my salad is double duty serving as both salad and one of my two side dishes. In this case, I will make the dressing.

This all said, there are corners I never cut, especially when it comes to the ingredients for the Main dish.

If I am making spaghetti or ziti, I make the marinara. Making Homemade Marinara Sauce is relatively easy, definitely cheap, and tastes light-years better than anything from a jar. So, I make the sauce.

Another corner not to cut is fresh herbs. Fresh herbs brighten up the entire world and must be used every time. Especially as garnish. It literally does not matter how simple a dish is, but if you throw a bit of fresh green herb on, it becomes instantaneously no longer a simple dish. It becomes special.

Know your ovens.

I cook in a large church kitchen with three gas ovens and each has their own personality.

Two of the ovens take like a week to cook anything it seems, and the heat is unevenly distributed. Something in the back will be done, but we’re still all raw up front. Breakfast casserole that takes 30 minutes for me to cook at home takes 2 hours there, even at only a doubled size.

The third oven is convection and it is a beast. If I don’t watch that one, it will scorch the hell out of everything, and quickly. But, on the plus side, it will perfectly roast a vegetable medley (starting from frozen veggies) in 7 minutes flat.

So, if you are planning to cook someplace unfamiliar to you, try to get there ahead of time with a thermometer and get a read on the ballpark accuracy of the ovens and how they operate.

The First Time I went to cook, I thought the ovens were malfunctioning and had to waste time getting maintenance help when it was just that I didn’t know how to turn on the gas hoses to the stoves. Then I had to crunch because I had lost a bunch of time, and that’s stressful.

Also, talk to people that have cooked there before for their experiences. One of our regular church bakers warned me that the beast convection oven needs to be set 25 degrees lower than what I think I want, and she literally saved me.

cupcakes in their pans; arranged back to front, light to dark in doneness of cooking

Season to taste.

Seasoning with salt is as important in quantity cooking as it is cooking small scale. Pepper too, but really it’s about salt. We need to taste our food and get the seasoning right.

I am a heavy salter in general, and I do back off the salt a bit when cooking for older folks. But I still salt, and only use kosher salt.

When scaling up ingredient quantities, don’t just multiply the salt by “# however much”. What I mean is, if I am making 10X a recipe, I don’t 10X the salt. I’ll 5X or 6X the salt, and then adjust the rest by tasting.

The reason is because other ingredients – e.g. cheese, bacon, spice blends, vegetables – contain salt on their own and that salt accumulates as we scale a recipe up.

And you can’t ignore the salt because seasoning properly is one of those key things that distinguishes great cooking from okay cooking. And I know it sounds totally pretentious or preachy for me to say it that way. But it’s true… don’t think salt and pepper shakers on tables will let people get it right for themselves. You salt it how it should be salted!

Add a people cushion.

There is no way the cooking for a crowd portions ever work out perfectly, and it is always better to have too much than run out. Generally, over 50 people, I add a 10-person cushion at the very least. Under 50 people, add a 5 person cushion.

When I cook church suppers, we have volunteers and we comp them their meals in exchange for volunteering. The goal I have each time is to have the cost of those paying (~$7.00) cover ALL of the food so the church doesn’t bleed money for it. I bring this up because in my planning and budgeting, I factor in covering the meals for volunteers and I find it very achievable.

Keep at least half of what you are cooking SUPER easy.

When I quantity cooked Bacon and Boursin Macaroni and Cheese as my main dish, I served carrots and broccoli as my two sides – both of which are ridiculously easy to make so I could keep my attention on the mac and cheese.

Another time, I made “Breakfast for Dinner” with a cheesy sausage and egg casserole as the main dish. For a side, I had simple sliced melon with honey and mint. For salad, I made a nice salad with greens, blueberries, cashews, and cucumber. Then I got hash brown casserole, biscuits, and cornbread from a restaurant. Half cook, half cater!

This tip mirrors the “Cook from scratch, but not everything.” tip. The point is to strike a balance of easy and hard. On the one hand, build in some special components – homemade marinara or perfectly cooked pork loin or macaroni and cheese or a fantastic salad – but on the other hand, keep some things super easy. Or cater.

view into a hotel pan of canteloupe drizzled with honey and mint sprinkled over top. simple recipes like this make cooking for a crowd easier.

Sharp knives.

When I was first cooking for a crowd at church, there was always a bunch of stuff I brought from home. Cutting boards, knives, measuring cups and spoons. I was super precise about everything then too.

Now that I have done this a while, just like at home cooking, I can eyeball more. Also, I’ve gotten the church a meat thermometer, potato masher, cutting boards, and big metal spoons – things I consider essential.

One thing the kitchen doesn’t have, however, is good knives. These I still bring from home.

The importance of good quality, sharp knives cannot be understated, as well as knife skills. The reason I can knock salad for 80 people in 20 minutes, is by using a sharp knife on a decent FLAT cutting boards.

The other reason to use good sharp knives is 1) to prevent injury, and 2) heal better if you do get injured. If you are trying to slice up cucumber with a dull knife, it will A) take forever, and B) the knife is more likely to slip and cut you.

Keep meat and non-meat separate at all times.

Keep meat versus anything that isn’t meat, especially anything cooked versus not cooked, separate All The Time.

Playing my card here, but I have a Doctorate in Microbiology. I bring this up because when it comes to controlling microbes, preventing food-borne illness, and contaminating things with bacteria prevention, I Am Your Girl.

I will have much more on this in another post, but just keep meat away from everything else. And only use cutting boards for meat that can go through the dishwasher.

When I get to the kitchen, the first thing I do is put all the dessert and salad stuff on one side of the kitchen, and everything that is going to be cooked on the other. Complete separation and hand washing in between, and we’re good.

Don’t do a buffet.

I will keep this brief: if you plan a buffet, you will either run out of food because people take too much or go over budget because you will make too much food anticipating for the fact that you are serving a buffet.

If you are cooking for a wedding, that is a whole other thing. Plan 2X the amount of food.

But for anything else, it is reasonable for people to stick to a prescribed portion size. So make that, add your people cushion (see above), and drive on.

Embrace Walmart Pickup.

Sunday afternoon, I plan everything out for a meal in a spreadsheet and check what is on sale at the grocery store (especially in the bakery, since I hate making dessert). I get the final ## number of people on Monday, finalize the math, and put it all in for Walmart grocery pick-up. Tuesday, I drive up and they load it in my car. Wednesday, I cook.

I don’t have a Cosco or Sam’s Club near me, but I have Walmart thank you JeSUS.

Do I shop at Walmart normally.. NOOO. Do I for church suppers? Yesss. The money savings and easiness of it trump any inner turmoil I would otherwise have.

Then after I leave Walmart, I proceed directly to my grocery store for whatever it was Walmart didn’t have (which is surprisingly common) or what I knew I would not want from Walmart (like salad greens) in the first place.

One caution, if you are shopping to cook for a church or charity, Walmart Grocery Pickup won’t let you pay tax exempt (churches and charities are tax exempt and I bring the paperwork). For example, premade sweet tea and lemonade are taxable, so I get my beverages from the grocery store where they can process off the tax at checkout.

Cooking for a crowd gets easier!

As I gain more experience cooking in quantity, I have gotten faster. I plan faster, calculate faster. I now cook in a couple hours not the whole day like I was when I started. So I can keep volunteering to cook the large meals I do, which makes me happy.

The more experience I get cooking for a crowd, the more I refine my planning and process. The more I know what will take too long, and when to say No. The more I know what will work and what won’t. And the more I can see in terms of “a hotel pan serves 20 for that, so I should make 4 pans” mentality.

The more I enjoy the process. Cooking for a crowd IS daunting and scary at first, but it is not as hard as you think and it is absolutely rewarding.

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