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Reduce Stress When Cooking For Crowds
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Marking the holidays with food, family, more food and more guests is usually enjoyable for the guests, but it can be a hassle to the hosts.
Cooking for a crowd is not a task for the faint hearted. Menus must be carefully planned, entertainment coordinated, guest lists drawn up and accommodations arranged. While a primary concern often is how to do this without blowing the budget, a secondary concern is how to do this while staying sane.
Jen O'Brien and Amy Warren, Mississippi State University dietetic interns and Extension graduate assistants, offered tips on how to make entertaining easier.
O'Brien suggested planning the entire menu first, then the rest of the details. She recommended following the practice of food service professionals by planning the main dish first, then soups, sandwiches, vegetables, salads, dessert, breads and beverages last.
"Planning around the bigger parts of the menu makes it easier to ensure your whole meal goes together," O'Brien said.
Once the menu has been planned, see if the costs fit in the budget. Ways to provide a nice meal at a reduced cost include buying a smaller cut of meat and serving canned or frozen vegetables instead of fresh, which also cuts preparation time.
Expense is not the only consideration when cooking for a group.
"Consider how big your kitchen is and how many people you will have helping as you decide when to start cooking," O'Brien said. "Make sure you have the proper equipment to cook the meal you have planned, and that you have sufficient refrigerator, oven and stove top space. It often helps to cook in smaller dishes rather than one large batch."
Looks are also important. Serve foods of different colors and textures to provide variety, but don't choose a big gathering as the time to try a new dish.
While Southern cooks tend to rely on tradition to dictate what they serve, Warren suggested keeping guests' preferences and culture in mind when creating a menu.
"Look for basic staples to serve in meals with guests of different ethnic backgrounds," Warren said. "Use a variety of spices to satisfy different tastes."
Warren suggested hosts limit seasonings and accommodate guests' allergies, such as peanut or seafood allergies. Another smart precaution is to prepare a hearty vegetable dish for vegetarians, and if there's turkey, cook at least one pan of dressing without meat juices.
She also recommended choosing foods that are not runny or those without a lot of crumbs to make clean-up easier. Consider using service plates under dinner plates for less mess, and keep garbage containers handy and empty. Designate a place for soiled napkins, another easy way to limit messes.
There is much more to entertaining than planning a menu and setting a budget. O'Brien reminded guests to think of the children.
"Cook something you know the children will like," O'Brien said. "Allow children to sit together at their own table with a chaperone, but don't put your best tablecloth on the kiddie table."
And because spills are likely, she suggested serving light- colored drinks that don't stain as badly.