Ridiculously Easy Meal Ideas and Cooking Tips for Large Groups
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Cooking for a social event, fund raiser, or large group isn't as easy as cooking for a small or average family. In addition to handling large amounts of food, you have to stay mindful of safety precautions. You will need to:
- Plan ahead.
- Make sure the location meets the needs of your guests.
- Check out the refrigerator and counter to ensure there is plenty of space.
- Correlate cooking times.
Juggling all there is to do can create quite a bit of stress.
Luckily, the principles I learned from working in several group homes can be used to cook several cheap recipes that will feed a crowd of people, as well as a large family. Some group homes have nutritionist-approved menus you must follow exactly, which eases the burden of having to design menus yourself, but the first group home I worked for used a restaurant-supply delivery service.
Initially, the owner ordered for both of her homes. My task was to create menus out of what arrived, cook and delegate. Later on, I did the ordering, menus, and cooking myself.
Another boys home had me create menus from scratch, shop at the local Walmart, and cook within an extremely tight budget. To succeed at that group home, I had to search out economical recipes, shop, and create meals that would stretch to feed a crowd.
What I Learned Cooking for Two Group Homes
When cooking for more than eight, it can feel intimidating, even for an experienced, confident cook. Each residential home for troubled boys taught me something different about cooking large quantity recipes. While I had raised four boys and had experience with creating filling casseroles, tasty salads, and simple desserts for potlucks and large family gatherings, working in a group home was more involved than just cooking for eight.
I suddenly found myself caring for 15 to 20 boys, plus adults. But that was only the beginning. The number quickly grew to 24 once the home was almost filled to capacity.
What I learned:
Cooking cheaply for a crowd wasn’t as simple as just tripling a recipe. While that might work for cookies or loaves of banana bread, if you're doing holiday baking, it won’t work well for casseroles, cakes, or oven-fried potatoes because the timing and seasoning will be off. Although several 9 x 13 pans will work for a:
- birthday party
- small barbecue gathering
- single special event
if you’re consistently cooking for large groups, you need appropriate cookware coupled with affordable food ideas to make feeding a crowd quick and easy.
Since my most recent boys home experience required me to stay within a strict budget, I had $300 a week to cook for 20 teenage boys, plus staff. Budget included three meals and three snacks per day. When the numbers grew to 30 or more, my budget did increase, but not by much. It had only gone up to $350 by the time I left.
Although that was several years ago now, I was able to feed that hungry crowd for about $10 to $12 per meal and $12 to $15 per day for three snacks.
What's the Best Sized Pan When Cooking for a Large Group?
I spent the first two weeks brainstorming ideas.
With the playing field so new, I realized that a more organized approach would be best. Instead of searching for specific recipes that could feed 24 to 30 people, I browsed through standard:
- casserole ideas
- cake recipes
- potato dishes
- rice mixtures
- simple pasta meals
That exercise taught me what was affordable and what was not. I next took a trip to our local Walmart and spent several hours browsing the aisles to get a better idea about costs and availability. I looked at everything the store had to offer.
What helped me the most was flexibility. When you need to cook affordable meals and snacks for a large amount of people, the best recipes will be those you can easily adapt to fit whatever is on sale or what you still have on hand that week. By using recipes that don’t require specific ingredients, you can easily substitute whatever you have.
In the beginning, I used four 9 x 13 pans per meal, but that quickly became a hassle. Cooking for large groups is much easier when your kitchen is set up properly, and you have the best supplies. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I purchased two heavy, nonstick roasting pans specifically designed for turkeys. They were the perfect size to feed 12 to 15 people each, and the handles made them especially convenient.
In fact, when those turkey roasting pans went on discount after Thanksgiving was over, I went back to Walmart and purchased two more because they make nice serving dishes as well. Although I purchased mine locally, you can find them at Amazon or cooking-supply websites at any time of the year. They even come in Caphalon now.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new variations and combinations to come up with your own economical recipes. Just because I used a giant-sized can of chili beans, which was available locally, that doesn’t mean you have to. You can use any type of beans in the Tamale Casserole you like. You could substitute hominy for the frozen corn, dump in some canned Rotel tomatoes or leave out the bell peppers or onions. Don’t confine yourself to these exact recipes. Experiment with what you already have.
Through trial and error, you will come up with your own best combinations for large-group cooking, but these are the top 5 recipes I created that the boys and staff kept asking for again and again.
5. Tamale Casserole
Photo Credit: James, flickr.com, license CC BY 2.0
This casserole split the kids in half. Some wanted cornbread cooked on top of the chili, and some wanted the bread served on the side. You can make it either way. Since I was cooking for so many, I did both.
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 1 chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped bell peppers
- large can red enchilada sauce
- 2-pound bag frozen corn
- institutional-sized can chili beans, including liquid
- store-brand crushed corn chips, slightly crushed
- 8-ounces grated cheddar cheese
- 2 small boxes Jiffy cornbread mix
- 2 small box Jiffy white cake mix
In a large soup pot, brown ground beef along with onions, celery and bell pepper. If the pot isn't non-stick, you can spray the bottom with a some non-stick cooking spray to keep the meat from sticking. When the beef is no longer pink and the onions and peppers are soft, stir in the enchilada sauce, frozen corn, and chili beans, including the liquid. Alternately, you could use 4 to 6 small cans of beans or even make your own.
Simmer everything together for several minutes, then dump in a bag of store-brand, slightly crushed corn chips and gently stir. If you're throwing a party, you could use flavored Doritoes and toss in some sliced olives.
Pile the mixture into 2 roasting-sized pans, well-greased if non-stick, and sprinkle the top with grated cheese. If you’re cooking cornbread on the top of the casserole, simply combine the cornbread mix and cake mix together, following the directions on the back of both boxes, and then pour the batter over the top. If you’re not, then cover the casserole with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
I served this with the cornbread, a lettuce salad and fresh fruit.
4. Thai Chicken Stir-Fry
Photo Credit: Wojtek Szkutnlk, flickr.com, license CC BY-SA 2.0
Stir-fries are extremely flexible. You can use any type of meat and vegetables you like, but the chili sauce really gives the chicken a nice flavor. I used frozen chicken breasts because they were cheaper than fresh ones at that time, but that isn’t true anymore. Today, the fresh ones at Walmart are cheaper. Baking soda causes the chicken to foam, so you can skip that step if you like, but it results in the same meat texture that Chinese restaurants have.
- 3 pounds skinless, boneless, chicken breasts
- vinegar to taste
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 to 2 packages frozen Chinese-style vegetables
- bottle of Thai sweet-chili sauce
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and place in a bowl that's large enough to hold all the chicken. Sprinkle with a little vinegar and the baking soda. Stir well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook. The baking soda needs at least a couple of hours to soften the chicken breast.
At the boys home, we had a grill built into the top of the stove. The staff threw the marinated chicken onto the grill along with a little oil and the frozen Chinese vegetables, stir-frying it all together. You can do the same thing in a large wok, frying pan, or heavy non-stick soup pot.
Once the chicken cooks, toss in the whole bottle of sweet chili sauce and stir well. You can find the sauce in the oriental section of any grocery store. Continue stir-frying for another couple of minutes and serve over hot, steamed rice.
I usually added fresh fruit and some type of cake to the menu.
3. Lo Mein
Photo Credit: Sean-Franc Strang, flickr.com, license CC BY 2.0
This is also an extremely economical dish. You can use any type of meat or vegetables you like. I’ve done this with:
Cabbage is traditional, but not essential. For a Vietnamese version, leave the cabbage and soy sauce out, use chicken and shrimp, lots of real butter, and add a little bit of clam juice and spicy chili flakes to flavor the noodles at the end. It makes a great party dish!
- 1 to 2 pounds meat, poultry, or shrimp
- 1 to 2 pounds carrots, diagonally sliced
- several stalks of celery, diagonally sliced
- 1 sliced onion
- 1 pound mushrooms, sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- small head sliced cabbage or bok choy
- 1/2 cup butter
- soy sauce, to taste
- 3 pounds angel hair pasta or thin spaghetti
- cajun spices, to taste
Cut the meat or poultry into thin strips. Sprinkle with a little vinegar and the baking soda. Set aside to marinate for several hours. If you're throwing a party or using this for a large family and want to use shrimp, you can skip this step.
Simmer or steam the carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, and garlic. Use can also use 1 or 2 bags of frozen Chinese stir-fry vegetables, or any other type of steamed Oriental veggies you like. When cooked through, add your cabbage and continue cooking until wilted. Drain the vegetables well.
In a large saucepan, stir-fry the meat in butter and season with soy sauce. I know this sounds like a lot of butter, but you're going to use all the drippings, so the butter makes the sauce. Meanwhile, boil your angel hair pasta until cooked, drain, and rinse. Thin spaghetti will also work, but if you're going to use thicker noodles, you’ll need to buy an additional pound or two of pasta. Combine the meat, vegetables and pasta, season with additional soy sauce, and some Cajun spices or dried red chilies to taste.
I served this with a lettuce salad and day-old French bread.
2. Chicken Alfredo
Photo Credit: mroach, flickr.com, license CC BY-SA 2.0
Alfredo is one of my favorite meals, but making it for a crowd can be rather expensive, so I created this cheaper version that the kids and staff absolutely loved! If you’re using it for a quick-and-easy summer entertaining feast, you can add shrimp and asparagus to make it more festive. The nice thing about this dish is you don’t have to cook the chicken first. It simmers right inside the sauce.
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 quart of half-and-half
- 1 quart milk
- 1/2 large can dried Parmesan cheese
- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed or sliced thinly
- 1 to 2 pounds frozen broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus
- 4 pounds linguine pasta
In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Whisk in flour until well combined. Slowly stir in the half-and-half, milk and dried cheese. If you're having special guests, it's fine to use freshly grated Parmesan, but you won't want to add it to the sauce until after the children is cooked.
Stir and cook everything together until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Add the raw chicken pieces and frozen vegetables. Continue to cook and stir until the chicken is cooked through. If you're using fresh cheese, add the cheese and stir until melted and smooth.
While the sauce is cooking, boil up your pasta until it's as tender as you like, Drain and rinse it well. When the sauce is finished, serve it over the pasta. I always served this with a lettuce salad and garlic bread.
1. Penne Pasta with Italian Sausage
Photo Credit: dlglpam, flickr.com, license CC BY 2.0
Almost all kids love spaghetti, but this pasta dish made with Italian sausage and Penne was requested more than any other recipe. I used to make it whenever Walmart marked down their Italian sausages, so I could afford to use two packages. Although you can cook it using ground beef, the Italian sausage is what makes this recipe special.
- 10 Italian sausage links, cut into coin-sized rounds
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped bell peppers
- 3 large cans tomato sauce
- 1 large can chopped tomatoes, including liquid
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons Italian seasonings
- seasoning salt, to taste
- 5 to 6 pounds of penne pasta
- Parmesan cheese, for the topping
Toss the raw sausage rounds into a large soup pot, along with the onions and bell pepper. Once the sausage begins to sizzle a bit, add tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, brown sugar, garlic, and Italian seasonings. Seasoned salt also works well in this.
Simmer everything together for 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, adding more water as necessary. If you're not pressed for time, you can simmer it longer than that if you like. As the sauce simmers, cook up the pasta in another large pot. When as tender as you like it, drain, and rinse thoroughly.
When ready to serve, toss the sauce with the pasta. I served this with a lettuce salad, garlic bread, and plenty of Parmesan cheese.
Additional Tips and Recipes for a Crowd
Scouting out your own locality is the best way to discover what will work best for your area. You won’t know what’s available if you don’t take the time to look. Day-old French bread can often be half the price of fresh. Think in terms of costs per meal rather than cost per pound. If you consistently cook for large groups, you might also want to consider purchasing a bread maker. While a ham steak costs more per pound than a bone-in ham, one steak makes enough for a large batch of Alfredo.
Cake mixes will be more economical if you substitute the oil with applesauce and cook them in a pan that’s larger than a 9 x 13. Whip up your own fluffy homemade frosting using powdered sugar, butter, vanilla and just enough milk or juice to make it spreading consistency. Adding mashed banana or strawberries to white frosting, instead of milk, makes a nice twist. Homemade cake also makes a hearty snack.
Photo Credit: Rose, flickr.com, license CC BY-SA 2.0
Another inexpensive idea is to take any muffin recipe for 12 and cook it in a 9 x 13 pan. You can also double the recipe and bake it in your roasting pan. It makes a great side dish or snack and is easier than cooking individual muffins. Sprinkle the bread with a little powdered sugar for a more festive look. Zucchini bars were the top snack both kids and staff asked for. You can do the same thing with cookies. Instead of baking several batches of individual cookies, press the dough into your roasting pan, bake and cut them into bars.
I also used a lot of Mexican food because tacos, enchiladas and fajitas work well when cooking for large groups. So does a large pot of Mexican soup. Baked potato bars, Chinese haystacks, lasagne, main-dish salad bars, and subway-type sandwiches that everyone puts together themselves can make serving fast-and-easy.
Start looking at recipes from a different point of view. With a little thought and imagination, you can whip up cheap recipes for a crowd that will keep everyone begging for more!