It seems like we’ve been opening up our house to large groups more often of late — and with that comes the expectation of making food, too.
And so it seems people ask me all the time: Why do you cook so much? Why don’t you just let someone else host– or just set out some crackers and cheese?
A little background. I grew up in a house in Connecticut in which we entertained a lot. Our family always seemed to be hosting someone, whether it was for birthday parties, neighborly shin digs or our annual Christmas Party for a hundred-plus people. We had sleepovers and bake sales and school meetings all at our house, and I never once remember hearing no when it came to offering up our house — it’s just what we did and everyone seemed to really enjoy it.
Keep in mind it was all modest stuff, really; we were firmly middle class in the midst of a very privileged town but it didn’t matter. Entertaining and hosting is what everyone did. Because it was fun.
People in Portland get it.
It wasn’t until later, in college and beyond, that I realized that this scale and frequency of entertaining wasn’t necessarily the norm. I had friends who told me they weren’t from that kind of house; either money was an issue, or their setting was too urban — or too rural– to support easy get-togethers. Or maybe they had parents who didn’t really enjoy hosting others in the house, so they didn’t — or did so only rarely.
When I had kids, I wanted to continue that tradition of hospitality and let my kids enjoy that same open door policy. Moving to Portland when Oliver was still a toddler made it even easier — people were friendlier here and parking was rampant. People stopped by often, and invites were widely accepted.
It seemed like everything was worthy of celebration.
Consequently, we’ve hosted more parties, potlucks and picnics than I can remember.
I’ve hosted kid play dates — often at the cocktail hour with great snacks. I’ve had girlfriends over for dinner. My kids knew their friends were always welcome at our house.
We hosted many family get togethers. I invited friends of friends over for sandwiches. I had neighbors over for brunch.
You get the idea.
It’s been a rotating door — and an endless parade of offered food.
Now that my kids are older, I thought that so many of those bigger parties were a thing of the past; our life was morphing such that instead we mostly hosted smaller, more intimate soirees, and often they’ve been kid-free.
But when Oliver reached high school I realized that the pool of parents who are willing to host gaggles of teenagers for club activities (or anything really) shrinks dramatically.
And so this fall when Oliver’s Mock Trial group needed a place to gather a couple times a week at night during the dinner hour, I offered our house as much as the group needed — which meant that at least once a week it seemed like I was cooking for 18-22 people (in addition to my own family).
Now I recognize that many would stress out about making that much food (sometimes with just a day’s notice– or less), but I’m here to tell you it’s really not that hard to cook this kind of quantity– especially when your audience is mostly avid, grateful eaters (teenagers).
So now, having made so many many dishes these past six months, I offer up some tips for making tasty food for a crowd– without breaking the bank or losing your cool (trust me, I’ve had to learn this the hard way).
ONE. Be sure you have the all supplies and containers for serving/delivering the food and drinks hours or the day before your gathering.
I sometimes serve food on regular plates (like these breakfast toasts)
sometimes on cute plastic/Melamine plates
and if it’s a really big group, I’ll use nice paper plates or take out containers.
How I serve the food depends on my mood, the effort I want to expend on clean up and size of the crowd (in other words, totally random).
Whatever or however you do it, just set it all out and organize it before you cook! You do not want to find out at the eleventh hour that you can’t find enough glasses for those Rhubarb Bellinis or you don’t have as many over-sized bowls as you thought you did for that homemade pho.
TWO. Know your audience– and lower your fancy expectations.
Sure, I’ve done parties like this one for years.
But just because I can doesn’t mean that I usually do entertain this way. And let’s be real; most of the people coming to your house aren’t going to expect this kind of detail and expense.
Save this kind of extravagance and labor for small get-togethers, preferably with your gal pals who will appreciate it and step in and help.
(For more details on this kind of party and appetizers, check out my previous post How to Host an Appetizer Party: MY Top Tips).
So unless you’re hosting a really really special event with a small group of people, don’t try to impress that crowd with fancy or super-intricate dishes.
THREE. Whatever you decide to make, create a thorough shopping list and don’t forget to make a count-down timetable of what needs to be done at certain times in order to serve all the food and drinks at the same time.
I always write these details down so if I’m running behind I know it — and this prevents me from getting distracted and then running late or panicky about all the things I have to do.
This kind of list makes sure dishes like these– shredded pork, mango salsa and black beans — are all ready for the crowd at the same time (and you haven’t pulled your hair out trying to make that happen).
FOUR. Consider making your favorite comfort foods– and making them just a bit more lux than usual.
Some of my biggest crowd pleasers have been the simplest.
Mac and Cheese — with five cheeses.
Or all the times I’ve made a big vat or two of soup.
Soups are so perfect because they’re usually economical, healthy (even when paired with grilled cheese)
and can be so delicious– especially if you make more than one kind (usually one vegetarian or vegan and one really meaty) and offer lots of toppings or breads alongside.
I’ve served Black Bean Soup like this
alongside other foods to friends one time and the containers they didn’t get to weren’t wasted– they all wanted to bring them home for later.
And these containers were ready for that– be it for my friends’ freezers or fridges (and labelled appropriately for later usage).
And always, always, any kind of noodles are a hit with crowds — and easy to make in big amounts.
Here’s another kind of bowl I’ve made en masse.
In this instance, I just put out all the ingredients (pork meatballs, chicken, mango and honey roasted peanuts along with rice noodles) and let people make their bowls to their liking.
And just last night I hosted another huge group of Oliver’s friends — enough food for 25 in all.
I made peanut noodles, grilled chicken with lemon and sesame, basmati rice, honey lime tofu and ginger broccoli — and served it all family style.
It was a huge hit — and we had the leftovers tonight with the last being saved for more soup-making effort tomorrow.
More soup. Is it time for another party?
And lastly, FIVE. If possible — send your guests home with leftovers or a little thank you.
One time I made Breakfast for Dinner for a group (Scrambled eggs, Chicken Sausages, Hash Browns, Fruit Salad and Banana Muffins) and I left out boxes for everyone to take leftover muffins for the next morning.
It helps that I stock up on supplies at Target and a local restaurant supply store so I always have what I need to package food up for people.
Not only is it nice to pass on homemade goods to a greater circle of folks,
but it also means that in doing so you are making your guests happier long after they’ve left your home.
Off to make that soup. Ciao, my lovelies!