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Tips and tactics for feeding a crowd

Our experts share their tips on cooking for large groups so you can have a stress-free holiday season.

  • Plan your menu well in advance. Choose recipes you feel comfortable with, and keep it simple – choose no more than one or two complicated recipes and balance with easier dishes such as boiled new potatoes, steamed asparagus and baby peas.
  • Sort out your pantry and do a stocktake. Stock up with non-perishable items such as nuts, dried fruit, glazes, fruit mince, cranberry/mint sauce and other sauces. Get in early before the supermarket rush.
  • Test-run new recipes so there are no surprises on the day! Copy all recipes and put them together in a folder along with your shopping lists. Divide your shopping list into three categories: ‘non-perishables’, ‘few days before’ and ‘last minute’. Purchase non-perishables well in advance.
  • A week or so before Christmas, make up marinades, vinaigrettes, barbecue rubs and spice mixtures. Keep these on hand to dress up simple meats and salads.
    Make large quantities of burger patties and freeze for times when friends drop in unexpectedly. Serve with buns, salad and sweet chilli sauce or other sauces you have in your stores.
  • Buy steak, chops or chicken portions on special, marinate and freeze. That way, when friends drop in, or you want an easy barbecue, you have the makings all ready to go.
  • Be prepared – know people’s dietary requirements beforehand. You will make them feel at ease and you won’t have gone to much trouble to make sure that they have food to eat too.
  • Get your herb garden going early with plenty of parsley, basil and mint, or buy pots of these. Keep capers in your pantry and you have the makings of Salsa verde, a delicious, easy way to jazz up chicken, fish or meat.
  • On the day, make a list of all tasks involved, right down to the flowers, plates, music and decorations. Delegate if you can – family members and close friends are usually only too happy to share the work. If you find that people sit back and relax while you run yourself ragged, make a game of it. Write individual tasks such as pouring drinks, greeting guests, doing dishes and gathering discarded wrappings on pieces of paper and place these in a hat. Ask people to pull out their ‘duty of the day’ and watch as others make sure they do it!
  • Keep it simple – the bigger the group, the simpler the menu. Most people will want to taste each dish, so do bigger quantities of the dishes rather than lots and lots of smaller dishes which might not go around everyone.
  • For buffets and parties include lots of carbohydrates – serve bread with dips to start, and prepare spuds, couscous, rice and pasta salads. Carbohydrates are filling, inexpensive and help absorb alcohol.
  • Individual serves are appealing and good for portion control. Mini pavlovas, individual quiches, muffin pan frittata, wraps, skewers – they take a little longer to prepare but each one is a serving in itself, so everyone’s portion is equal.
  • If seafood is your tradition, make a little go a long way by preparing as a salad with asparagus, avocado, mango and snow peas. Add a tasty dressing (that you’ve prepared or purchased in advance), add your cooked seafood and the result will stun the crowd!
  • Cook a large quantity of chickpeas. Divide into portions and freeze. You now have the makings of hummus (whiz up with lemon juice, garlic and a little tahini) or salad (eg. with tomato, feta, cucumber and lemon dressing). Chickpeas with cooked pumpkin cubes, lots of minced garlic and puréed sun-dried tomatoes make an amazingly tasty accompaniment to barbecued fish or meat.
  • Feed the kids first – hungry kids get grumpy and fractious. If your party includes kids, have some easily identifiable, filling food for them, so they can eat before the adults. An ice cream in a cone before adults have dessert will keep them occupied, leaving more of the good stuff for the grown ups.
  • Keep ingredients for a couple of quick, simple dips on hand for short-notice nibbles: a can of chilli beans whizzed in the processor makes a great spicy dip with crudités or chunks of crusty bread, or mash an avocado with natural yoghurt and a dash of sweet chilli sauce.
  • Make a batch of spicy meatballs and freeze. They can go on the barbecue, be served as nibbles with a dipping sauce, tucked in a flatbread, tossed through pasta, rice or couscous, threaded onto skewers or served with tomato sauce for dipping to keep the kids happy in front of a DVD.

Contributors to this article: Niki Bezzant, Sophie Gray, Rebecca Heslop, Bronwen King, Sarah Swain

Pro secrets!

  • Scoop ice cream or frozen yoghurt in advance onto foil-lined baking trays and return to the freezer until needed for easy, no-mess serving.
  • If you are concerned about quantities, plate the meals yourself rather than letting people help themselves. The food will go a lot further. Leave serving dishes out for seconds.
First published: Dec 2009



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