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How to Cook for a (Summer) Crowd Without Going Crazy

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More really is merrier when it comes to meals, but that isn’t to say that cooking for a crowd won’t cause you to feel a little crazy at times. Fortunately, we have a few strategies to help you control that chaos that comes with having many mouths to feed. These ideas include some of the best party food for large groups and are practical, do-able, and ensure there will be enough food to go around while also allowing you to spend a majority of your time hanging with your guests instead of standing stoveside.

Form a Battle Plan, Early

My regular Sunday ritual involves pulling out cookbooks, opening saved online recipes and reaching for the notebook where I always have three lists on the go: meals to make Monday through Thursday, fun food ideas for the weekend, and a shopping list for the farmers’ market, grocery store and Costco. I keep up the same practice throughout the summer, and  use this time to plan what I’m going to cook for any expected guests who may be stopping by for a weeknight dinner or crashing at my place for a few days over the weekend.

Make Ahead, Make Ahead, Make Ahead

I’m no stranger to having a lot of mouths around my table, but unlike an ordinary Friday when I don’t mind spending time in the kitchen cooking for my kids and their friends, I don’t want to be standing over the stove (or grill) the entire time my guests are around. Instead, I prefer to spend as much time with them as possible, while still feeding everyone really well.

The easiest way to do this is to prep a few things in advance so that meal making is really more like meal assembling. The more cooking you can do in the days leading up to your guests’ arrival, the happier you’ll be.

Salad dressings and sauces can be made a few days ahead of time. Braised meats, baked beans and soups usually taste better on the second or third day, and our chicken enchiladas are a must-make as they can be frozen weeks in advance. Twice-baked potatoes are a crowd-pleasing side that can be frozen until needed. Fruit can be cut up, cookies dough balls prepped and scones placed in the freezer for easy baking.

Big Batch and/or Store-Bought Desserts

When it comes to making desserts, choose something that scales up well. Look for a recipe that can be made in a sheet pan or 9 x 13-inch casserole dish so you’re sure to have enough to feed your crowd. Seasonal cobblers and crisps work really well, as do slab pies and sheet pan treats. Alternatively, you can purchase oversized store-bought ice cream sandwiches to pass out to everyone, adults included (we just did this and it was a massive hit). If your budget is a little more generous, you can hire an ice cream truck to show up in your driveway at the end of dinner, providing both dessert and some easy entertainment. Side note: I’ve been to a party where this was done and the cost was (surprisingly) not nearly as much as you would expect.

The DIY Anything Bar

Long-time readers know I’m a H-U-G-E fan of any DIY-type of an event when hosting a get-together. It can be a taco bar, burger bar, cold spring roll bar, bagel bar or bruschetta bar. Setting out the components and letting your guests help themselves is fun, interactive, and it works well for picky eaters and those with dietary restrictions. Plus, from the host’s point of view, it couldn’t be easier to execute. If you have guests staying for a few days, be sure to include at least one of these types of meals in your planning.

Let People Pitch In

This is the feed-a-crowd strategy that uses the most common sense but is often the hardest to execute. But I promise you will never regret asking people to pitch in for a meal. I like to take care of the main meat or course and ask guests to supplement with the salads and sides, but if you prefer to have more control over the full meal, ask your friends to bring a bottle of wine or a dessert. Easy peasy for all involved!

Appetizers: Remember the KISS Rule

When it comes to appetizers, don’t forget to Keep it Simple, Silly! Cheese and crackers or veggies and dip are nice but not always heat-friendly. Instead opt for chips, cheese puffs, nuts, olives and maybe a bowl of French radishes with a side of butter and sea salt. For our happy hours, I love nothing more than to serve glasses of cold rosé alongside a bowl or two of potato chips and usually opt for something a little more gourmet (kettle chips) in an interesting flavour. No one is ever disappointed in this, and really what could be easier?

Don’t Be a Bartender

Being a bartender is both a time consuming and expensive endeavour. Instead, if you’re serving cocktails mix up something in a big batch (sangria is a classic) and serve it in a pretty pitcher, punchbowl, or large drink dispenser alongside plenty of ice and glasses where guests can serve themselves.

P.S. Don’t forget the cold brew! Keeping containers in the fridge will impress your guests and make coffee duty a cinch!

Tell us, do you have any tried and true tricks for hosting a crowd in the summer? We’d love to learn more about your strategies for controlling mealtime chaos!

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