Your mission, should you choose to accept it: A meal for 50 women. You will be expected to provide a salad, a main dish, a side dish, and a dessert. You have 4 weeks to prepare and several kitchens to use, plus a large staff of helpful (sometimes too helpful) hands. No problem, right?
But what if your budget for food was just $100?
I heard that little choking sound. Believe it or not, though, it’s totally doable. I’ve done it 3 times this year (it would’ve been four, but we opted for a fondue dessert bar one night). In fact, I think I once did it on $60–although I admittedly skipped dessert that time.
Anyway, if for some reason you’ll be cooking for a large crowd on a small budget, here’s some tips:
1. Pick your main dish carefully. It needs to be something inexpensive and easy to prepare, unless you really want to invest a lot of time. The first time I did this, I made chicken cordon bleu and it was great! However, I was also pregnant and supposed to stay off my feet so I had a lot of time on my hands to wrap the chicken.
For recipe ideas, check out my favorite site here, or just go take a look at my “Recipes” tab.
2. Gather all your recipes at least 2 weeks in advance and make a list of exactly how much you’ll need of each item, and I do mean each. Even those things you usually have hanging around, like flour and butter, you may find you don’t have enough of. Trust me, you don’t want to be sending your poor significant other to Walmart at ten o’clock at night for a missing ingredient (Guilty!).
3. Find someone who belongs to a warehouse store, like Sam’s Club or Costco. You’ll want to shop for your meats, pastas, breads, dairy, and/or salad green necessities here. (Side note: I strongly recommend a potato dish of some kind for your side, as potatoes are inexpensive–especially in bulk–and most potato dishes are hard to ruin, always a good thing when you’re cooking like crazy.)
4. Look for sales in your area. It’s worth traveling to a different store than you usually use if their sour cream is at half price the week you’re cooking.
5. Take a calculator with you when you shop to help keep you on track. Then you can decide if you really can afford to add those craisins to your salad.
6. Find creative solutions to pricey ingredients. It’s actually fairly easy (and much cheaper) to make your own croutons. Same holds true with tortilla chips, salsa, salad dressing, and rolls.
7. At the risk of revealing how much of a control freak I am, I advise you to keep as much of the work in your own hands as possible. If you must farm out the cooking (and please do if you need to!) buy the ingredients yourself and drop them off to your helper. Do not trust anyoneelse with your budget! They won’t be able to make decisions about which things can be dropped or substituted if necessary.
8. Prepare what you can ahead of time. Chicken cordon bleu, for example, can be frozen ahead of time, then defrosted and cooked the day of. Desserts are often fine made a day or two before. Salads, on the other hand, should be saved for last minute.
9. Always toss the dressing with the salad; don’t allow your guests to serve themselves dressing. I promise if you do this you’ll save yourself oodles of money and bother. One bottle of vinagrette dressing will cover 3 pounds of salad, which is plenty for 50 people. However, if 50 people get their own dressing, one bottle won’t even get you halfway.
10. On that note, make plans to serve the food rather than a more buffet-style setup. Arrange an assembly line in your kitchen, with one person dishing up each food and servers to take plates to your guests. Again, people tend to take more than they need or will actually eat. I’m not suggesting lilliputian-size servings, but be judicious and you’ll cut down on cost and extra waste (and waist, for that matter).
11. Be Type A about as much of planning as possible, but Type B when the time arrives. You’ve done all you can, and being relaxed will allow you to find creative solutions should any problems crop up.
12. Make sure to enlist help for clean up. Nothing worse than working like crazy to feed everyone, only to be left with a gigantic mess to clean up. You’ll be tired (and rightfully so), so ask around to see if those to whom you denied shopping privileges will be willing dish washers.
If you have any tips to make cooking for a crowd easier, or great recipes I can post just because they’re great, let me know. Life is learning, after all!