Cooking For A Crowd Without Losing Your Ever-Livin’ Mind

I’m not an expert on anything. That’s why you rarely see any how-to posts in this little neck of the bloggy woods. Oh, I could probably score pretty high on some sort of Bravo reality programming quiz, but as you might imagine, the demand for how-to posts on that particular skill is practically nonexistent.

(FINGERS CROSSED, though, that my running mental list of the Real Housewives’ finest moments will come in handy one day. Maybe I’ll get to provide the correct spelling of Bethenny’s name in a heated round of Trivial Pursuit. As Ramona would say, I’d be all over that like white rice.)

(I fear I’ve shared too much.)


Weekend before last we went to my hometown to see the family and celebrate my parents’ birthdays. Sister and her hubby were planning to be there, too, and I thought it might be fun to cook a big birthday supper. Without going into all the details of what’s been going on with our extended family over the last few months, I’ll just say that so far 2010 has been a HUMDINGER, and given that, Mama’s and Daddy’s birthdays seemed like a great excuse to get the cousins together and eat and laugh and trust that better days are ahead.

And that is exactly what we did.

I am notorious for wanting to cook 15 different dishes when I’m cooking for company, but I really tempered that tendency for the birthday dinner because 1) I wasn’t cooking at my own house and 2) I tried to do as much as I could ahead of time so that I could actually talk to people and lo, maybe even enjoy myself. And do you know what? The plan worked beautifully.

So here’s what we had for supper. There were probably about 25 people by the time a few latecomers stopped by.

Asian Pork Tenderloin
Shrimp and Wild Rice Casserole
Party Salad (it doesn’t have a name – it’s just what I throw together when we have company)
Ree’s Rolls (I used dill instead of rosemary)
Pound Cake with Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Fresh Strawberries

And because I did everything in stages, it wasn’t stressful AT ALL.

(Disclaimer: before you read this next part, you should know that I recognize that there was probably a better, more efficient way to pull off the dinner.)

(Perhaps my crippling lack of confidence is yet another reason why I never write how-to posts.)

(Also: I feel like I need to be giving away free chocolate to those of you who have actually stuck around long enough to read this thing.)

(Regardless, here’s my strategy. Though I’m sure there’s a better strategy, and it’s probably yours.)


Thursday afternoon I made a triple batch of marinade because I was cooking 6 tenderloins (I bought Tyson plain tenderloin 2-packs). I put 2 tenderloins in a gallon Ziploc, then covered with marinade. All three Ziplocs went in the refrigerator. Later that afternoon I made the first of two pound cakes.

Friday afternoon I made another pound cake. Then I made the shrimp and wild rice casserole (5 boxes of wild rice, cooked, 5 cups of freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese, 5 cans of cream of mushroom, 5 Tbs. Worcestershire, 2 lbs. of medium frozen shrimp, thawed). I divided the casserole into three Pyrex dishes, covered them, and put them in the refrigerator.

Late Saturday morning I packed everything in coolers – including the frozen roll dough. Sister was already at Mama and Daddy’s, so she went to the grocery store and got all the salad stuff (hearts of romaine, red onion, fresh broccoli, mandarin oranges, almonds and dressing), coffee fixins and ice cream.

Saturday afternoon we made it to Mama and Daddy’s. Two hours before supper, I put the roll dough on cookie sheets and let it rise in a warm oven. Then I chopped up everything for the salad. About 45 minutes before supper – when the roll dough was out of the oven – I cooked the tenderloins (they only take 25-30 minutes). Then I cooked the casseroles, which came out of the oven just as people were starting to arrive. Sister and Paige set out all the china and glasses and whathaveyou.

While everybody visited and watched Kentucky bust my NCAA bracket to pieces, I put the rolls back in the oven.

Once the rolls were ready, everybody served their plates buffet-style, and I sat outside with Sister and Paige and ate supper and visited. Paige helped me fix and serve dessert while Sister started to tackle the kitchen, and I think we made a good team. We actually cooked for a crowd and enjoyed ourselves, too.


By the way, here’s the birthday boy and the birthday girl.

And some sweet cousins.

And some of Mama’s daffodils, which really have nothing to do with anything, but they were blooming like crazy that weekend.

So. What about y’all? Any tips or tricks for staying sane when you’re cooking for a crowd? Any reliable, crowd-friendly recipes you’d like to share? Do you break out the paper plates or polish the silver? Do you cook everything yourself, or do you sometimes get a little help from the Colonel or Popeye’s?

Please note: I will always – ALWAYS – support getting a little help from Popeye’s.


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  1. No tips, but oh-my-word, your parents are precious! Whole lot of happy in that birthday group shot! (Last picture I remember seeing of your Mom was when she was laid out under the Christmas tree. Glad to see she is up and about. Must have been the call of Blue Bell ice cream.:) )

  2. That wasn’t borin’ at all :-) I love how-to’s like that (I realize that apostrophe doesn’t really need to be there but I needed it there or it would have looked funny and I can’t handle funny lookin’ words first thing in the morning).

    Anyway…I also think that’s a fabulous menu and am going to have to give it a try. Except I can’t get wild rice here; you reckon I can substitute brown?

    And I hate to gloat even a little but KENTUCKY IS MY TEAM. :-)
    (Even if we do live overseas where I can’t watch the games, I can still cheer them on.)

  3. I haven’t had a chance to do it very often, but making Italian-style appetizers and side dishes that can be served @ room temperature has helped me in the past. And Honeybaked ham. =)

  4. Liz – that’s a great tip – stuff that’s good at room temperature is a HUGE help!

  5. The crock pot is my friend. I recently hosted a luncheon for a man who is running for US congress. I had about 20 people here for lunch (okay, six were our family), served two soups out of my crock pots, deli sandwiches on fresh Rhodes rolls (shh, my little secret) and two kinds of desserts. I did everything in the days leading up to the event so that all I had to do was make it all look pretty that morning.

    Pass that chocolate. I liked your post and it sounds like you had a fun, relaxing time cookin’ for a crowd!

  6. You did it right! That’s the way I do Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner every year. No mountains of dishes and stressed out cook!

  7. My one rule for company-cooking that I ALMOST never break is COOK SOMETHING YOU’RE COMFORTABLE WITH! This is not the time to break out a recipe for the first time. It’s not the time to pretend to be Martha Stewart and cook that dish with 50+ ingredients that includes knitting your own pot holders while the potatoes boil. :) I always cook one of those dishes that I can almost (or totally) cook without even looking at the recipe. That way I don’t have stress. :)

  8. I can’t believe you didn’t make THE GREEN BEANS (you know…the ones y’all won’t believe). Ever since I discovered that recipe, it has become a staple every time I have to cook for a crowd. It seems that even if I double the recipe, people still lick the dish clean. I made them this weekend for Easter dinner. Yummy! I think they are so good that their recipe deserves a special link on your blog! I am going to try your shrimp and wild rice next time as well…sounds so yummy and akin to one of my favorite chicken and wild rice casserole recipes.

  9. We don’t cook for a crowd very often, but once a year we have Scottoberfest, our family birthday celebration (3 kids and my husband have October bdays). And the best thing we have ever purchased is an electric smoker. Purists will say it is cheating, but we don’t have a lifestyle that affords time for babysitting a smoker and keeping the temperature constant. With an electric one, we just have to put in wood chips every so often. We use it to smoke brisket, pork shoulder, chickens, turkeys, etc. So easy and so yummy. We also smoke beans with the meat. So then all I have to do is prepare cold dishes that can be made ahead (or ask my mom and MIL to bring them). :)

  10. We are getting ready to host our rehearsal dinner in a few weeks (AHH!!) and we have decided to delegate!

    That is my tip. Delegate (if possible).

    My future Mother in law wants to make German Potato salad–done!
    My future sister in law wants to make a cheesecake–done!
    My dad wants to man the grill–done!
    My mom wants to make butter burgers–done!

    I’ll do my part too, but heck! If I can delegate stuff….I’m all for it.

    By the way–I have to brag, my sister in law just made a dessert for her son’s school charity auction and it went for $650. Yes. SIX HUNDRED FIFTY DOLLARS. You’re darn right I’ll have her make a cheesecake for us! : )

  11. Get all the help you can get! Delegate delegate. Thats my motto!

  12. Who’s Paige?

  13. Can I tell you, I love your Asian pork tenderloin only I throw it on the grill. It is divine! And I do believe in heaven we will eat shrimp and rice a whole lot. I have made Ree’s rolls and love the dill idea. I may just copy this menu as a “go to” for company. It is perfection.

    The Bravo housewives. How can something so wrong be so right? My personal favorite- ever- Kim from Atlanta. Especially the scene where around 10:00 am in the morning she is drinking wine, smoking a cigarette, sitting in her Mercedes convertable, talking on her cell phone, getting ready to pick her kids up.

  14. You look just like your mama! I hear that all the time, so I try to avoid saying it unless it’s REALLY true…and it’s REALLY true! And Alex looks just like you.

  15. Sounds fantastic! I like to do as much ahead as I can. I don’t do paper plates unless we’re doing a bbq type of event and even then if there is something ‘heavy’ like corn on the cob then no. I just like real dishes.

    I have lots of recipes but am just returning from a trip and am overwhelmed by my blog/facebook/email accounts so maybe later I’ll come back and add them. I love a pork tenderloin and we do that often for a crowd…so easy, generally everyone likes it and they are delicious. We do them on the grill normally.

    And pound cake is possibly my love language.

  16. Bravo! Bravo!

    (Hope that doesn’t cause you to run for the t.v.)

    And I just about died laughing when I heard Ramona say ‘on that like white rice’. Like, snorting laughing.

    I do what you do – prepare ahead!! I don’t like to be in the kitchen when I have guests. Yet, I’m always compelled to cook from scratch – although adorable Kelly @ KC holding her KFC bags may give me permission to skip that a time or two.

    Blessings on you & yours!

  17. I totally saw Romona say ‘all over that like white rice’ the other day and almost turned it off. But I couldn’t stop watching. It’s just so terrible – and amazing…
    Sorry about your bracket, but sounds like that amazing meal made up for it!

  18. It sounds like you did a fabulous job of planning ahead! Which is the exact opposite of how i usually do it, because what’s life without a little stressful adventure of expecting a houseful in 30 minutes when nothing’s prepared?

    OK, it’s not my favorite way of doing things. Yours sounds a lot better!

    My other achilles heel of entertaining is that I always get a hankering to try out a BRAND NEW RECIPE. As if nothing I made before is worthy of being served.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Well, from this side of the street, it looked like y’all were having a fine time. And I didn’t see smoke billowing from the rooftop, so I assumed the cooking was a success. When your mother told me about the party, she said, “The food was so, so good!!” Considering the woman could give Julia Child a run for her money, I’d say that means you outdid yourself!

  20. Great job! So glad you planned so you could enjoy yourself!!
    I cook for a lot often. 30 every week for small group and over 50 two or three times a years for family functions. Planning is key! Crockpots and Roasters are also essential.
    One of my favorites is brisket. I get mine at Wal-M*rt. Usually around a 18-20 pound one. Place it in the roaster fat side up. Sprinkle generously with season salt and then cover with chopped onions and celery. Cook at 250-275 for 13-14 hours. Remove fat, shred meat. Delicious!! You can serve it plain, put out your favorite bbq sauce, with buns or rolls. Easy, good and feeds a ton!!!

  21. I have no great ideas, but I love yours! Thank you!

    And I loved the article in HomeLife. I read it every month and although my hubby and I don’t talk while in the car(I don’t even know why!), I enjoyed the article!

  22. Well you may think it’s boring and just what everybody else does, but it’s just the sort of thing I’m needing to learn! Case in point: My mother-in-law and 10 other people are scheduled to arrive tomorrow and spend the weekend at my house.

    My mother-in-law is 18 years older than my own mother and has a Bachelor’s degree in Home Ec. My mother, on the other hand, was raised by entrepreneurs who didn’t have time to teach her all of that home-eccy stuff and she never took any classes on it. She is an educated woman, an educator actually, but is pretty much clueless regarding all that hostessy, home eccy, domestic goddess stuff. And I’ve followed in her footsteps. I have 2 bachelor’s degrees but sometimes wish that I’d just followed my gut and gone with a home ec. major myself so I could be a good stay-at-home wife and mommy!


    Sorry for the lengthy comment.

    All that to say, thanks for the how-to! And any time you feel like posting any of this kind of valuable information, I’m all ears:)

  23. Wow! What a party! Sounds fantastic!
    I have no advice. Your event looks pretty successful to me.
    Great job, girl!

    I love to cook too. I’m all about yummy food. It’s one of my love languages, I’m sure of it!

  24. I go with as much stuff that can be made ahead of time as possible!! :)

  25. No words of wisdom here, but I just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog. I think you’re hilarious and precious!

  26. Mary Kat's Mom says:

    I loved this post and the photos! Thank you so much for it and for the encouragement to do something like this for my family! ! ! When we do get together it is more paper than silver but it is great to serve things in my precious mom’s serving pieces that I have.

  27. I have slowly been learning the same tricks; just making anything I can ahead of time to actually get to enjoy the company I’ve invited over. I can’t tell you the number of times (okay, a gazillion) I’ve had a party, and don’t get to connect with a single person there because I’m in the kitchen the entire time. And I hate to make our guests feel like they aren’t important enough for me to walk away.

    The only other thing I can add that REALLY helped me for my kids’ birthdays last year was decorating the night before. In addition to making everything I could ahead of time (salads, lemonade, etc), I stayed up late decorating and it was PRICELESS. I am totally the type of person that gets so stressed out when I have a lot to do, and I get crazy. Decorating early took so much off my plate and gave me a ton of relief. I just blew up a ton of balloons and put them up on the walls, and all over the floors. I had thought it wouldn’t be complete without a helium tank and balloons hanging from every chair, but this was even better. And streamers of course. ;)

  28. We have 7 kids so I’m always cooking for a crowd! However, when we do have company I try to cook and freeze some in advance. It also helps if I’ve trained my kids on specific tasks so on the day that company’s coming I can delegate and not have to look over their shoulders constantly!

    I do try to have an attitude of hospitality, not entertainment. I want people to feel welcome and comfortable in our home, not like they’ve been invited for a big show! :)

  29. …just waitin’ on my chocolate… haha;)

    I have an easy side dish recipe that I get TONS of compliments on every time I make it:

    2 bags frozen small corn on cob (about 24), thawed
    3 sticks butter, softened
    2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
    2 limes, zested and juiced
    3 teaspoons salt
    1-1/2 tsp cayenne (or more to taste)

    Mix all ingredients in bowl with rubber spatula. Coat each corn on cob with the butter and wrap individually in aluminum foil. (You can refrigerate at this point if needed – I do this and cook the next day). Place corn on baking sheet and bake in 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes, until hot and steaming. (You can also grill which is delicious, but suggest that for a smaller number). Enjoy!

  30. I forget to tell you … It’s called Roasted Corn on the Cob with Cilantro Lime Butter on the Food Network, if you want the ‘original’ small recipe :)

  31. I’m going to host like you when I grow up. We had Easter lunch at our house after church this year and I served deli ham on potato rolls from Target and it about wore me out.

    I hang on Ramona’s every word, she is such a treasure. However, my favorite moment so far this season has to be Kelly’s declaration, “I’m a great fur wearer”. That whole scene was pure joy to watch. Yes you are Kelly and you wear it well.

  32. I usually like to do it myself except that I might get some help from Sonic or someone with tea and ice. And I rarely like anyone to bring anything because it will mess up my motif.

    Clearly, I have issues.

    But I do try to do as much as I can ahead of time and I never clean up.

  33. Your dinner sounded fabulous. I don’t have much luck with cooking pork tenderloins…I think I ALWAYS overcook them. Anyway, you really had everything under control. I usually try to do too many things at once instead of keeping things simple so I can enjoy my company. I’m learning…at least I’m trying. :-)


  34. I think you’re brilliant and I’m totally impressed. I mean this too–not just jonesing for some free chocolate! :)

  35. I cooked for just 4 people. I asked them what they would like, my hubby requested homemade Veggie Lasagna, Garlic Bread and Cheesecake. I made every detail from scratch, starting Friday night with Homemade french bread, which we ate as soon as it came out of the oven, so he had to go to the store and buy “store bought” bread for our Sunday dinner! Saturday I assembled the rest and Sunday we ate, Monday we ate leftovers, tonite we shall finish it off. I can’t imagine how much I would cook if I were hosting a crowd! Of course we use real dishes, my vintage table cloth, all the pretties!

  36. No advice. I just wanted to say how I loved the reading of a delightful slice of your life, Sophie, and the time with your family, which blessed me beyond words. Praying, you know that, though.

  37. I’m struggling to get past the fact that you can get Blue Bell ice cream and I’m still in mourning for the Nutty Chocolate flavor I last tasted in September before this forsaken move to the pacific northwest and oh I didn’t even mention we’re going to Germany this summer and goodbye Blue Bell for three more years, but ANYWAY..

    I’ve been cooking for crowds for about 25 years and my favorite simple tips are to make two comprehensive lists – one of the menu, which I post on the fridge, and a grocery list which I keep in my purse.

    I also set the table completely a day or two before the event, and lay out all my serving dishes and serving utensils (sometimes I have to put a post-it in each one to remember what’s what.) These things help me not to panic because I’m prone to the panic, especially since procrastination is an art form with me.

  38. There was one time where a crowd worked out really great at my house. We had a quesadilla bar, and it was so fun! We bought a ton of tortillas and a ton of cheese, some chicken, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. We have a plug-in griddle that worked perfectly for cooking it all, and everyone at till they were full. The best part is, there’s little to no prep-work, and everyone can have and make what they want. So no stress for me! And really easy clean up too!

  39. You could write about moss growing and I would read it. Take that crippling lack of confidence!

  40. Good ideas. The only addition (for me) is to burn an anti-stress essential oil and peppermint essential oil. Th combination keeps me moving, energetic, and stress-free. (I did not believe this would work…but it does! Now I’m a believer.

  41. Read your blog this morning. Shortly after noon…a friend asked me to cater his Wedding Rehearsal Dinner….ummm….perhaps I should be the one seeking tips!

  42. misslisslee says:

    I forgot to email and tell you I enjoyed the HomeLife article. Score one for massive disorganization coupled with school-induced ADD. My tip is to cook dishes that are either crock-pot-enabled (thus perfect) or all need the same temperature oven so you can multi-task. It really stinks to plan for three different recipes then realize they need three different oven temperatures and you only have one oven!

  43. I am not above the Chinette (platters for the adults. . .plates for the kiddos) OR the Popeyes AT ALL. . .I fed 11 people at my house on Sunday–baked ham (just pop it in the oven and it does itself), Sis Schubert rolls–must have–green bean casserole (again–easy)–mashed potatoes (TEN pounds, mind you). . .I did those fresh. . .and steamed asparagus (4-7 minutes in the microwave covered) with butter. None o it was too hard OR time consuming. . .and it was GOOD.

  44. Theresa says:

    The easiest crowd pleasing dish I serve is a pork tenderloin from the crockpot. Pork with cream of mushroom, golden mushroom and french onion soup. Serve over noodles. Can’t beat it!

    Our Sunday involved glazing the ham at 3 am, Sunrise service, Cracker Barrel, Sunday School with 2 year olds, church with my son and fiancee, lunch and babysitting a two year old. A room temp lunch was essential! Ham, broccoli rice casserole, green beans, potato salad, rolls, angelfood cake with strawberries…sounds likes SPRING to me :)

  45. Loved the tips. Cooking for a crowd gives me hives. Those dinner parties Ree hosts would make me break out into a sweat … whew.

    I noticed someone mentioned a Homelife article you wrote. Can you put a link in one of your posts or send me a link. I’ve had 2 things published in it Our church stopped taking it so I didn’t see yours.

    Happy Belated to your mom and dad … sounds like you did ’em proud at the party!

  46. I love cooking for a crowd. I think it is actually easier than for a small party. I always use plastic when a crowd over 12 is arriving…nothing like leaving a footprint :(
    Do crowd friendly food, pullpork, soups, italian/pasta/bread/salad. Do a big taco bar, with Pioneer Womans rev’d up queso. Would love to come help you…so many ideas. Have fun, that’s the key have fun. It’s doesnt have to be perfect..just edible :D!

  47. I grew up cooking for a crowd and had to actually undo that behavior when I got hitched. But, when the family comes to town, I always make an enormous batch of chicken & veggie soup that I freeze, chili that I also freeze, and back many loaves of bread. I have a bunch of pigs in the family.

  48. I know you get 65 million readers/comments/two cents all the live long day but when you quoted Ramona from Housewives of NY I just giggled with glee…I noticed that line too and thought “whaaaaa?” but when you said it I just thought that was great. I visit your blog all the time and you are quite fun. keep it up homey. we like you.(two readers in Sacramento)
    ps. not that you would stop blogging if we didn’t like you but just so YOU know…we like you.
    ok . i’m done.

  49. I should be heeding some of the advice here because I ALWAYS tend to try something new when entertaining. This year I made Emeril’s Lamb Chops and they were pretty fabulous if I do say so myself. I did, however, make a ham as a back up plan, just in case. I must have about as much confidence as you do! I did prepare the potatoes, the salad dressing, and had the chops marinading the day before. I will have to try that shrimp/rice concoction…sounds great!

  50. For my daughter’s first birthday party, we had homemade baked mac & cheese and meatball sandwiches. I had the meatballs sitting in crockpots, and the mac & cheese on sternos. Other than that, it was just salad, rolls, sodas, and juice boxes for the kids! Easy!

  51. I should be completely ashamed to admit this, but we invited company over for Easter, and then my husband and I could not agree on what to cook. We ended up doing a last minute KFC drive-thru bucket and sides.

    Sad. I know.

    But we had a great time, and prep was a sinch!

  52. Great menu. I have to laugh remembering my first big doings party! I took a week off work to prepare! And the first time I bought a bakery dessert was a huge milestone in my life! Are you laughing yet?
    These days, years later of many guest and many meals, dinners later, I have learned to stream line and enjoy my guests and myself so much more! My family likes it better that way too!

    Linda (bushel and a pickle