Develop the Gift of Hospitality: Cooking for a Crowd

Karen Ehman

First, and foremost, let’s just get rid of any notion that your food needs to be fancy and gourmet. Back to the grass roots. The gals in my survey responded that when it comes to feeling refreshed and welcomed at someone’s home, gourmet-type food only scored a 1.7 on the hospitality scale. Having simple, tasty food and plenty of it, on the other hand, received a rating of 9.1. Many women stressed that they felt uncomfortable if they had a large family or a few hungry teenage boys and a small casserole was placed on the table to feed so many mouths. Better to err on the side of too much. You can always utilize the leftovers for a few lunches that week.

Now, as you are going along, once you find a recipe that works wonderfully, a dish that is delicious, or an appetizer that is sure to please, write it down! This may seem elementary, but I know that if I use a recipe and add a few twists – less of this, more of that, a dash of something not called for – and then don’t write down what I did, it is nearly impossible to repeat the same dish.

Once you find several main dishes, vegetables, sides, and desserts you and your kin take pleasure in, begin to group them into menu plans. Grab some large index cards or a notebook. Decide which main dish goes with what sides and what sweet fare can round out the whole menu. From there, make a list of needed ingredients and their quantities. Then when company is expected, simply choose one of your preplanned menus to serve. This is so much easier than beginning from scratch. And if the dishes are tried-and-true hits with your family, company is sure to delight in them too.

Before planning and cooking for guests, be sure to find out if there are any special needs. Does anyone have allergies or sensitivities to specific foods? Are their children overly picky eaters? While we normally do not allow our children to be picky, we do try to accommodate guests. At the very least I try to leave certain "yucky" foods – mostly onions, green peppers, and mushrooms – in larger chunks so that they can be easily picked out. I let the children (or finicky adults!) know that it is just fine with me if they do so. Or I practice what my friend and fellow author Nancy Slagle of "30 Day Gourmet" freezer cooking fame preaches. It is a little concept she calls "health by stealth" She simply cooks and purees any veggie deemed "yucky" by her kids – onions, carrots, red and green peppers, and mushrooms, to name a few. Then she adds them to her sauces. Red, orange, and green vegetables hide easily in tomato-based sauces. Mushrooms and onions slip in undetected in white and brown gravies. Ta-da! Health by stealth! When your kiddos ask, "Are there onions in this?" you can boldly retort, "Do you see any onions?"

Try to keep in mind the time of day when you plan. Will it be mid-afternoon when a light salad-based menu will work? Will it be an unusually late dinner and the brood will be rather ravenous? What about the time of year? Will it be chilly outside? Opt for a hearty and warm "comfort foods" meal. Will it be so scorching hot outside that a steamy main dish will seem inappropriate? Opt for a crisp vegetable or cool pasta-based entrée instead. Will you want to have a theme or ethnic dimension to the meal? Try out several of these dishes too until they become a regular part of your repertoire. You will gain confidence each time you meet with triumph. Remember, practice, practice, practice!

What about keeping on top of your regular planning, shopping, and cooking so that having company every so often doesn’t throw you for a loop? A few ideas have worked well for me.

First and foremost, keep a pre-printed grocery list on your refrigerator at all times. You can make one on your computer or even I your sweet little ol’ handwriting. List what items you commonly buy for your family and stock your pantry with. Then arrange them in the same order that you will find them in the grocery store, leaving some blank space at the end of each section. Most stores have similar layouts: produce is first, followed by bakery and breads, canned and boxed dry goods, frozen and refrigerated fare. Train the members of your family who are old enough to read to help you keep this list up-to-date. When they use the last squirt of mustard, they circle the word mustard on the list. Pour yourself the final bowl of cornflakes? Grab a pen and circle!

When readying yourself to hit the grocer’s aisles, this preprinted list will have you already halfway home. Simply add any ingredients in the blank spaces for new dishes you will try that are not part of your regular inventory. If you hit more than one supermarket, accentuate the items that you will get at one store with a brightly colored highlighter. This way you can buy your meats and other ingredients where they are at the best price. Simply consult the store’s circular before heading off on your shopping excursion.

If you like to post your menu on your fridge or write it down in your planner, when you eat a meal, cross it off, but circle any items you did not use. For example, let’s say you planned a meal with steamed broccoli as a side, but you never got around to making it. Well, rather than letting it go bad, circle the word broccoli on your menu to remind you that you need to make soup out of that bunch or cut it up and serve it with dip for an afternoon snack. A great resource for using up these leftover and unused items is The Use it Up Cookbook by Catherine Kitcho. It lists recipes by grouping them according to single ingredients. Stuck with some leftover tomato? You’ll find multiple recipes to make with it. Stumped with what to do with that surplus of garden veggies? You’ll discover dozens of dishes here. This book is worth the price simply by virtue of the money you’ll cease wasting by cooking from it!

Cooking for a Crowd

Let’s face it, if you want to be well practiced in the area of offering hospitality to larger groups of people, you are just going to have to learn to cook for a crowd. Here’s how:

First, make friends with your Crock-Pot or slow cooker. Go buy one if you don’t have one. This is the single most important tool for making large and easy meals. I actually own three. I can make our main dish in one, peeled cooked potatoes in the second, and a dessert in the third.

Invest in some quality cookware: large roasters, cookie sheets, and jelly roll pans, a few good 9-by-13 pans, a couple large stock pots and soup kettles, etc. I prefer stainless steel or enamelware. Nonstick ones don’t last very long. And as with most things, you get what you pay for.

Forget the fine china. Invest in a nice set of Corelle dishes instead. They are inexpensive and lightweight, take up much less space than traditional stoneware, and come in many pretty patterns. Or try plain white so you can decorate your table around them no matter the season. My friend Carmen actually bought some clear dinner plates from the local dollar store to use for company. For added fun, she can place fall leaves, photographs, and other items underneath them to show through, adding to the décor.

Learn to make simple food, but plenty of it. Many gals in my survey stressed that fancy food was not important. But having delicious, simple food and enough of it to go around was.

Get kid-friendly. Find some recipes that will be hits with kids. Or if you insist on some fun, fancy fare for the adults, make sure you supplement it with something children will enjoy.

Think in themes. Theme dinners are usually a hit. Hold a Mexican night or serve Chinese. Cook several shapes of pasta and serve them with an assortment of sauces, a tossed saladl and bread hot from the oven. Give guests small plates to pour on olive oil, fresh grated garlic, and a little basil or oregano for dipping. Or have a 1950s night with burgers, fries, and malts or soda pop. Get creative!

Next time: Family First

Excerpted from A Life That Says Welcome (Revell) by Karen Ehman. © 2006 by Karen Ehman. Used with permission from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

Karen Ehman is a speaker for Hearts at Home and the coathor of the popular Homespun Gifts from the Heart and Homespun Memories for the Heart.