How to Keep Your Cool When Cooking For a Crowd

There’s nothing like a full house of happy, well-fed people, but cooking for a crowd can be daunting, even for the most experienced host.

Lisa Cericola
The City and The Country Mac and Cheese
Photo: Hector Sanchez

1. Plan Ahead
Hosting a party should be just as much fun as attending one, right? That often requires a little planning. Make as much of the meal ahead of time so you can enjoy the party, rather than being stuck in the kitchen. The best thing you can do is choose a freezer-friendly main dish, and prepare it ahead of party time. Most casseroles, baked pasta dishes, and slow cooker soups and stews freeze beautifully and feed a large crowd. Appetizers, like dips, can be made beforehand, and ingredients for side dishes and salads can be washed and chopped in advance. And don’t forget the table: Pull out your serving platters and set the table the night before and thank yourself later.

2. Whip Up Big Batch Cocktails
If you’re serving cocktails, don’t play bartender. Mix up a big-batch cocktail in a pretty pitcher, punchbowl, or large drink dispenser and let guests serve themselves with plenty of ice and glasses. Try these colorful, fruity party punches, a Bloody Mary Punch for a daytime gathering, or set out a few bottles of chilled sparkling wine and fresh juices, like orange, grapefruit and cranberry, for pour-your-own mimosas.

3. Simplify Appetizers
Welcoming everyone with a drink and a delicious snack sets the tone for a fun night ahead. Anyone who has scrolled through Pinterest knows that it’s easy to get carried away with cute, bite-sized appetizers. But unless you’re hiring a caterer (or enjoy playing one), large amounts of mini food can create a huge amount of stress when you’re hosting a hungry crowd. Skip the fussy finger food and set out large trays of cheese and crackers, dips and crudités, and spiced mixed nuts.

4. Pull Out Your Slow-Cooker
Your slow cooker might not get as much love at parties as your punchbowl or favorite serving platters, but it’s just as useful when you’re feeding a crowd. Use it to serve big batches of warm appetizers like dips or chicken wings, or to keep side dishes hot. It’s also great in the winter for serving big-batch warm cocktails like spiced cider or mulled wine. (Click here for more unexpected uses for your slow-cooker.)

5. Pick Pasta
Pasta is a smart main dish choice because you can feed a large group without emptying your wallet or spending hours in the kitchen. You can’t go wrong with a simple baked pasta dish like a lasagna, macaroni and cheese, or baked ziti, which can be adapted to suit just about any crowd, from vegetarians to meat lovers.

6. Serve Family or Buffet-Style
Part of the fun of a large gathering is passing dishes around the table. Instead of dishing out dozens of portions in the kitchen, serve everything in large pans and platters and let guests serve themselves at the table or in a buffet line. You’ll save yourself time and energy, and everyone will be able to choose exactly what, and how much, they want to eat.

7. Make Dessert in a Sheet Pan
It’s not a party without a great dessert, and a sheet cake is the smartest way to go when you’re cooking for a crowd. Sheet cakes are easy enough for the most novice baker to prepare and most recipes feed 12 to 15 people. Get creative with our fun cake and topping combinations—try Strawberries and Cream in the spring, Sweet tea and Lemonade in the summer, or a fudgey Texas sheet cake in the winter. If you’re looking for something more portable, a big batch of brownies or bar cookies is a great option for picnics and potlucks.

8. Let People Pitch In
Of course we want our guests to sit back and relax. Ouf course we can all use help. Chances are, at least one of your guests (if not all of them) will ask at some point, “Is there anything I can do/bring/help with?” Don’t shoo them away with a cocktail. Accept their help. This can mean asking your amateur bartender friend to serve drinks, letting someone help set the table, or allowing everyone to bring a dish to pass.