We often talk about how to whip up healthy meals at home. But what about cooking for a crowd? While it’s one thing to cook for yourself, it’s quite another to keep it healthy for a large group. That’s where our chefs come in! They cook for a crowd every day of the week, and, whether for a dinner party, weekend brunch, birthday, or holiday, you can, too.
Even though you have what feels like an army on the way, you still can serve a nutritious, delicious meal. In his role as an Aramark Regional Executive Chef, O’Brien Tingling knows just that. He oversees culinary operations for professional and college stadiums, arenas, amphitheaters, and convention centers. Chef Tingling has served thousands of people at a time, so he’s just the person to show us how to get all that food on the table without sacrificing healthfulness, quality or taste.
Read on for tips that make cooking for a crowd a lot less daunting.
- Know your audience. Design a menu that suits your crew. “I always start with things like age, style, where they like to dine out,” notes Chef Tingling. Some friends and family may look forward to traditional favorites like Grandma used to make. Others may prefer lighter, more creative foods—because for them, food is truly a form of entertainment. You know your guests best, so follow your instinct about what they will enjoy in a celebratory meal.
- Pick a serving style. There are so many ways to serve your spread: large buffet, separate stations, and individual plates, to name a few. Chef Tingling votes for family style: “When everyone is serving themselves out of the same pot or off of the same platter, it gives you this feeling of camaraderie,” he explains. And research shows eating as a family offers real benefits, especially for children. Bring out the folding tables and chairs!
- Break it down. You know that saying about eating an elephant one bite at a time? Planning a large meal becomes much easier when you separate it by course: appetizers, salads, mains, side dishes, desserts, and beverages. “It’s good to have variety in the course sequence,” says Chef Tingling. “Your focus may shift depending on the time of year—like having more than one salad in summertime, or more desserts around the holidays.” Need some inspiration? Check out our new recipe section, where you can search for entrees as well as sides and sauces.
- Get out of your comfort zone. This tip benefits you as much as it does your guests. Think beyond what you usually eat and strike a balance of tried-and-true and new recipes. Consider it a step in your journey to discover your own cooking style. Not only are you bound to fall in love with new healthy favorites, but your guests may wish to try them at home, too—and that fuels everyone’s potential. What’s more, special recipes will give your event that “wow” factor.“Try your hand at braising or roasting—especially if neither are in in your repertoire,” Chef Tingling suggests. Maybe branch out with a turkey meatloaf (topped with a refreshing chutney) instead of the traditional kind or a hearty warm salad in place of the usual greens. If you’re nervous about something going wrong on the big day, give those new recipes a test drive beforehand. Your family, coworkers, or neighbors will be happy to taste-test!
- Be seasonal. “Serving in-season produce ensures your meal is fresh, balanced, and nutritious.” says Chef Tingling. “You want to use healthy whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in as many dishes as possible.” It also tends to be easier on your wallet.That seasonal produce is brimming with both flavor and top-notch nutrition.Serve your guests the rainbow of summer colors and you’ll enjoy the disease-fighting benefits of antioxidants while also staying hydrated. Fall foods like pears, Brussels sprouts, and pomegranates are full of immunity-boosting vitamin C and filling fiber, among other nutrients. Winter produce is no slouch in the nutrition department, either—iron and fiber are two reasons we root for root vegetables. Bonus: If you get your food from local sources, you’ll have a story to tell, too.
- Ask around. Before you get too far with your planning, note anyone who has a food preference, allergy, intolerance, or any other dietary needs or restrictions. While some guests may follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, plenty of people are thinking more plant-forward in general. And for good reason: This growing trend is better for the environment and has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, all while making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.Come up with a mix of meat, poultry, seafood, and plant-forward offerings so every guest has a selection of dishes to enjoy. It’s a good idea to have at least one meatless main dish for guests who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are plenty of ways to get protein from plants—beans and nuts, for starters. “This may mean personalizing a plate for someone, so they don’t feel left out,” Chef Tingling says. “Your guests will appreciate the thoughtfulness.”
- Do the math. Err on the side of having a little too much food on hand. “For example, the usual recommended serving size for meat and poultry is 3 ounces, and 4 ounces for fish. But for a party I’d estimate 6 to 8 ounces of protein per person, so you don’t run out,” Chef Tingling advises. “Adding more side dishes is an easy way to stretch any meal for a larger headcount.” Our recipe section’s serving size adjuster takes guesswork out the equation; adjust the servings up or down for any recipe to fit your needs.
- Plan ahead. Think about what you can take care of in the days leading up to your event. Shopping is a no-brainer. Review all your recipes and check your pantry to compile one master shopping list before you even set foot in the grocery store. Again, buying in-season produce will help you save money, as will buying in bulk, which large parties often require anyway. Once home, take stock of your cookware and serving dishes, laying them out with sticky notes so you know which food will go in which dish.Even some food prep can take place in advance, says our chef: “You can freeze a pie to thaw and bake later. You can also blanch (partially cook) pasta, peel potatoes, and make some sauces the day before.”
- Stay safe. From kitchen to table, you want your home to be a safety zone. “Food safety is a high priority for any chef. You can’t be careful enough,” Chef Tingling stresses. Start by brushing up on those knife skills to help prevent any accidents. Thaw frozen foods responsibly, and keep raw meats and their juices separate from other foods. Make friends with your food thermometer to know whether dishes are at the right temperature (remember, cold foods cold and hot foods hot!) Blessed with leftovers? There are right and wrong ways to store those, too.
- Welcome helping hands (big and small). If someone offers to help in the kitchen or contribute something, take them up on it! Even kids can get in on the game: Let them toss a salad or handle washing the pots and pans. It’s one less thing for you to do as the host, and one more way to inspire their love of healthy home cooking.
Cooking for a crowd is manageable when you have the right game plan. The doorbell’s ringing. You got this!