Before kids, meeting out at bars and restaurants or hosting dinner parties were the ways that my husband and I most often socialized and we loved it. When kids came along, however, something changed: somehow meeting friends at a restaurant with toddlers in tow just wasn’t as relaxing. Similarly, intricately planned three or four course meals that I cooked over a day or two just weren’t realistic. So we made a shift—we started hosting family gatherings at our house.
These informal get-togethers were meant to give kids the space to run around and parents the time to actually catch up. But as the kids have gotten older this has also come to mean cooking for 15, 16, or even 20 people, which then begs the question: what do you cook if you have to feed a crowd but don’t want to order pizza?
After years of trial and error, great successes, and some stressful failures, I have learned a great deal about how to make feeding a large group of people as simple as possible. Read on to discover what I’ve learned, some tricks to make the planning and execution easier, and a collection of recipes that have worked well for me over the years.
How to Feed a Crowd Without Ordering Pizza
For me, when I’m planning out how to feed a large group of people I have two priorities: 1) keep it simple and 2) stay within budget.
Keep It Simple
I love feeding people and I love feeding them well. So I tend to want to go big and memorable when it comes to hosting. But after a number of times making extravagant meals for large groups and being both exhausted by it and dismayed when my over-the-top meals met with reluctant small-person audiences, I was reminded of advice my husband and I received when we were planning our wedding: at big parties, guests will only remember the food if it’s really terrible, so serve solid good food and you’ll be fine!
Ever since that breakthrough moment, whenever feeding a large group I have opted to make one big main dish and then accompany it with various sides or toppings so that everyone can make the meal their own, even the picky ones.
Feed a Large Group for Cheap
Let’s be honest, when you’re feeding a large group of people, the food costs can get pretty overwhelming very quickly. Here are some ways to try to feed a large group on a small budget:
- Go vegetarian. Not only is it usually cheaper to skip the meat, but you also can make just one meal that will include vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, which makes your life easier.
- Grains are your friend. Hearty and easy to make in bulk. They will fill bellies without breaking the budget.
- Legumes for the win. Beans, beans, beans! They provide great protein, are very filling, and are SUPER cheap.
- Don’t make meat the main event. Don’t want to go vegetarian? Instead of serving meat as the main offering, consider using it to add flavor to your meal. Examples include, a stew with more vegetables than meat, a pasta sauce or casserole that uses half the called for amount of meat, chili where you’ve got beans to cut the amount of meat needed, etc.
- Use cheaper cuts. If you want meat to be the main event, consider a cheaper cut of meat that you can prepare ahead of time. Cheaper meats tend to need low and slow cooking to make the most of them, so pull out your slow cooker or get started the night before.
Let’s be honest, though, even when you keep the meal simple and the budget in check, hosting a large group of people is still a lot of work. So I would strongly encourage you to get help when you’re trying to feed a large group of people. Here are some ways you can get help.
Let People Bring Dishes
You know the standard question you always get asked, “what can I bring?” Have an answer! Ask someone to bring a salad, another to bring a dessert, and another to bring a tasty appetizer. Then, all you are responsible for is a main dish and maybe some sides.
Or, if you are reluctant to share what you need (I know, asking for help can be hard), the other option is to make the event a potluck and let people just bring what they want. Sure you may end up with more cookies than you need, but at least there will be plenty of food for folks to enjoy.
Everyone Pitches In
As you are getting ready for your visitors, ask your family for help. Here are ways they can do that:
- Meal prep– from washing lettuce to measuring ingredients to making a dish on their own, there are lots of ways your family can help with the cooking.
- Cleaning the house– vacuuming, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, and picking up toys are all ways your family can take some of the load off of your shoulders.
- Set up– setting up tables and chairs, putting out plates and utensils, filling water pitchers, are all great options for helpers.
- Setting up outside– if you’re hosting outdoors, your family can help by mowing the lawn, putting away toys, and setting up tables and chairs.
For years I insisted on only using real plates, glasses, and utensils, and for groups up to 15 or so, I still do that. But when we host a large group, I now have learned that it is wise to opt for disposable plates, cups, utensils, and napkins. It reduces the dirty dish piles in the kitchen and makes clean up so much easier. To help to mitigate the environmental impact, I like to use compostable options.
What to Feed a Large Group
Now that I’ve share some tricks and tips for how to keep it simple, save money, and get help, I wanted to also share some ideas of what to feed a large crowd.
As I mentioned before, I like to serve one simple main dish and then accompany with toppings or sides so that people can personalize the meal to fit their needs and desires. For the main dish there are three categories of food that I turn to when I am planning on feeding an army:
- soups or stews
These are all fantastic options because they can be easily made in bulk and relatively inexpensive. Here are some of my favorites that fit into each category:
Beans or Legumes
Brazilian-Style Power Bowls: Prepare the components and let everyone build their own bowl.
Red Beans and Rice Burritos: Make the fillings for burritos and then let everyone fill and wrap their own.
Lentil Stew with Honey Ginger Yogurt: A big batch of this will fill hungry stomachs. Serve some yogurt plain, just in case there are any guests who might be overwhelmed by a flavored yogurt. And if you want a hearty side to add to the mix, consider making this version of Gordon Ramsay’s mashed potatoes, which some consider to be the best mashed potatoes recipe.
Fiesta Casserole with Cheddar Cornbread Crust: Serve this crowd-pleaser with a big salad on the side or extra veggies, grated cheese, and salsa to use as toppings.
Baked Pesto Penne with Italian Sausage: This dish always gets raves and is simple to make vegetarian by either using meatless sausage or mixing in some sautéed mushrooms for a meaty texture. Serve it with a green salad and you are done!
Soups or Stews
Classic Gazpacho with Diced Avocado (Cold Vegetable Soup): This summer classic can be made ahead of time and pull out of the fridge whenever people are ready to eat. Serve it with crusty bread and some cheese and everyone will be happy!
Soup-er Easy Black Bean and Corn Soup: As the name implies, this simple-to-make soup is a great one to prepare either ahead of time or at the last minute. Serve it with tortilla chips and guacamole and salsa, or even nachos.
Tuscan Farro, Vegetable, and White Bean Stew: Make this one ahead of time, but keep the farro separate until serving so that it doesn’t soak up all the liquid. Everyone will love the creamy texture paired with the chewy farro. Serve it with a big green salad and savory muffins or a crusty bread.
Like these recipes? Check out The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans to see just how simple getting dinner on the table can be!
Need more hosting inspiration, check out my post on how I overcame my fear of entertaining.
Do you have favorite dishes you use to feed a crowd? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.