How do I make sure I have enough food for a crowd?
February 6, 2014 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I am organizing a dinner at a local charity. They just said to expect 100 people (about 30% more than the original estimate), and I want to make sure we've got enough food and hopefully enough to leave leftovers. I've never done this before, can you take a look at my recipes and see what you think?

We'll be serving a soup and a vegetarian chili (recipes below) with fixings, plus salad, bread, dessert, and beverages. The recipes we're using are family recipes so I don't really have a "Serves 8" or whatever measurement on them - we don't usually have sides with these so I think our normal serving is larger than what we'll be dishing out but I'm not sure. I would MUCH rather have way too much food than not enough.

From the recipes below, do you think we are making enough of each type of soup?

How much of the following should we buy?
Bags of salad mix
Bread rolls
Chili fixings - sour cream, chips, cheese
Bottles of soda, gallons of milk
Cookie trays (I'm guessing 4 cookies/person - too high or too low?)

Chicken wild rice soup (5 batches)
2 c cooked wild rice
1 large onion
1 carrot, finely diced or shredded
1 c cooked chicken, diced
1/2 c butter
4 tbsp flour
8 c chicken broth
salt & pepper to taste
1 c half & half

Chili (4 batches)
2 medium onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
2 red or yellow peppers, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
4 15-oz can of beans, drained (pinto, kidney, great northern, small white, black, etc - garbanzos taste weird, but everything else is good!)
28-oz can of crushed tomatoes
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp cumin
6 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp oregano
2 tbsp white vinegar
dash hot sauce
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have used this cheat sheet in the past and it worked out for me.

It also depends on the people. Students/Programmers/IT will eat on the high end of any range. The elderly will eat on the low end. Sales people are seemingly always on a "diet" so they are the high end for salads (even if the salad isn't healthy) and the low end for desserts. I need a lot more food for the same amount of people in Texas than I did in coastal Southern California.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:47 AM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

How many vegetarians are you expecting? And what kind of crowd is this - are they younger, older, etc? Are they paying more for the food or more for the experience? (A crowd which is thinking "I am going to go hang out with friends and support this cause" is going to be less food-oriented than a crowd thinking "Oh, I get a large delicious dinner and it all goes to support this cause!". If the first crowd finishes the food, they'll be mellow about it, but the second will be disappointed.

Are you expecting that many people will have the soup as a starter and the chili as a main dish? If so, your soup looks skimpy to me.

How is everything going to be served? Buffet or family style?

A cookie tray in the middle of the table will mean more people eat cookies than if they have to get up and help themselves. (I'd say 4 cookies/person is plenty unless the cookies are small and served at the table.) Have fewer kinds of cookies, because if you have four kinds, more people will eat one of each even if they would normally only have two total.

If I were buying the giant plastic boxes of greens rather than the bags, I would estimate about 10 servings of salad per box. Also, this depends on how the salad is served - if it's in a giant tub and people serve it onto their plates, people will take less than if it's in small bowls or served into small dishes.

If I were you, actually, I would serve everything buffet style in one go. This will guarantee that everyone gets a moderate amount and the genuinely hungry can go back and have a second plate. (Or else serve it restaurant style and have fixed smallish portions).

The chili is pretty cheap, so I would actually make another batch or two.

Also, plenty - plenty! - of rolls (maybe two kinds if you're buying them), and maybe jam as well as butter if you have that kind of crowd. That way if people do get hungry they can just eat extra rolls. Also, what about crackers? Maybe have some for the soup (and some people like them with chili for some reason.)

I have not personally staged this size event, but I have cooked for, served at and cleaned up at a number of these which were organized by others.

Some more general questions:

1. How will you be transporting this food? Will you be cooking on site?
2. How will you serve it?
3. Where will you store the finished food before serving, and where will you store leftovers if there are a LOT?
4. How will you handle clean-up? What does the venue expect?

Do you have enough people? By the time you've cooked all this stuff and served it, you will be SO TIRED, and washing all the dishes plus washing down tables and maybe mopping the floor will be tiring too. Getting some people specifically to wash dishes or serve will help.
posted by Frowner at 10:49 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, I never cooked for that many people, my groups tend to be around 30 individuals.

My estimate would be:

Bags of salad mix - what size are those? Guessing one bag serves 2 full portions, since you have a lot of other stuff your bags will stretch to 3 portions easily = 35 - 40 bags (makes 102 - 120 portions) (buy bigger bags/containers if you can, but keep in mind the portions - salad does not keep well for leftovers)

Bread rolls = at least 120 (some people will take two, some none)

Chili fixings - sour cream, chips, cheese - conservative estimate because those are add-ons and cream & cheese will not make good leftovers. Again, what is the size of your items? Sour cream = 2 tablespoons per portion (add it up to get # of tubs). Chips = 1oz- 1.5 oz max per portion => 6.25lb - 9.37lb. Shredded cheese = 1oz - 1,5oz max per portion => 6.25lb - 9.37lb

Bottles of soda, gallons of milk - I'd add water and maybe juice. Assuming every person will drink two glasses before/during/after food is served = 16 fl.oz per person x 100-120 =>12.5 gallon - 15 gallon

Cookie trays (I'm guessing 4 cookies/person - too high or too low?) - Personally, 4 cookies seems on the higher end for me, but people love dessert and cookies keep well over a few days, so go ahead and buy what you think

compare to other recipes that serve 100 - like this bean soup for example. Here is a whole collection of different recipes for such a large crowd.

I think it would make sense to have a test run and measure out ONE portion of each, that helps to be confident that no one will have to leave hungry.

If I've made mistakes or underestimated, please let me know! Happy cooking and have a great charity event!
posted by travelwithcats at 11:14 AM on February 6, 2014

Are you doing an "Empty Bowls" Dinner? Been there!

It looks to me that your Chicken Soup recipe serves 8 people, so times five, makes it serve 40.

Ditto the Chili, so you might want to add more to each to insure that you've got enough to make 115 servings.

Also, stir the hell out of the chili, because if you do it in a big pot, the bottom will burn. If it does burn, don't freak, a bottle of beer will take that burnt taste out of it. (ask me how I know!)

It depends on the types of people you expect to come, but I like 115% as coverage. So 115 rolls, 115 servings of soup, etc.

As for salad, you can skimp on that. For some reason, folks just don't do the salad thing. DO go to Costco and get the huge bags of pre-cut salad, and make it and dress it ahead of time. There is nothing worse than the bottleneck of people dicking around with salad dressing. I'd plan on 60 servings of salad, with a ceasar dressing or vinegrette. The easy thing to do is to throw grape tomatoes, black olives and croutons into that bad boy. Serve the salad directly out of an aluminum serving tray.

While bottles of pop and juice and milk are cheaper, it's MUCH easier to get cans of pop, juice boxes, individual milk containers and water. Just throw into coolers with ice. No cups, no ice, no hassle.

I'm conflicted about chili fixins. They're nice, and unnecessary. You can get large sized bags of shredded cheese and a big tub of sour cream, and a box of saltines, and put them on a separate table from the rest of the food.

In fact, you would do well to separarate the soup, salad, drinks and dessert from each other. This will prevent a lot of lines and waiting.

At the end of the day, have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:43 AM on February 6, 2014

Advice so far is great, keep it coming!

This meal will be served to parents and relatives of patients in a children's hospital, mostly adults. There is no charge, but they are emotionally drained. The venue is a large home-style kitchen designed for exactly this purpose, and we will be serving the guests cafeteria-line-style. Dinner is open for two hours, and people come through as they can get away from their child's bedside. No idea about the number of vegetarians but there is enough cultural variety to expect some.

I have about a dozen helpers; everyone is making or bringing something so it's not all on me (I just have to make assignments). We have half a dozen crockpots to keep things warm and serve from, as well as restaurant-sized pots and pans and eight stove burners.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:48 AM on February 6, 2014

For your soup and chili, I'd estimate about 6 fl oz (1.5 cups) per person per serving. It looks like your chicken soup will yield 1.5 qts per batch, and your chili probably closer to 2qts per batch. So let's do some math...

Let's say you serve 120 servings of soup/chili (one serving for each guest, plus 20 more for seconds/leftovers), that's 720 ounces, or approx 22.5 quarts (or 5.625 gallons).

Based on my assumption above, your current plan of four batches of your chili would yield 8 quarts, and five batches of soup would yield 7.5 quarts. So you're currently looking at 15.5 quarts of soup and chili, or 82 six-ounce servings.

You may want to scale up your soup to 7 batches (10.5 qts), and your chili to 7 batches (14 qts). This will give you 24.5 quarts of main course (6.2 gallons), or roughly 130 six-ounce servings.

I might be low-balling your batch size, based on your recipes, which means your final quantities would go up.

For chili fixins, I'd guestimate about .5oz (1T) each of sour cream and cheese per chili serving. This might be low.

Rolls, I would do one per serving of soup/chili, so 120-130.

Salad, I'd probably do 60-70 servings, especially if you're serving it out of a bowl, and not plating each one.

For cookies, I'd probably go more toward 2 per person. Some will eat more, others none at all.

Pop and juice is always a crap shoot, with regular and diet, cola and clear. Get a couple of each and have plenty of water.

It sounds like you're doing a great thing for your community. Enjoy it and have fun!
posted by slogger at 11:59 AM on February 6, 2014

I'd estimate about 6 fl oz (1.5 cups) per person per serving.

Your math is off. A cup is 8 fl oz. So 1.5 cups would be 12 fl oz.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:04 PM on February 6, 2014

Dang it! I knew something was coming out off, and I couldn't find it!
posted by slogger at 12:13 PM on February 6, 2014

(Chef here, I've done a lot of catering)

Your soup will make 25 portions. @400mL each. 250mL/8oz is a tiny serving of soup for dinner. I'd do a couple extra batches, especially because of the association of chicken soup with comfort and home and what I am assuming is a desperate need amongst attendees for both.

Chili looks like you're going to get about three litres out of each batch. 12 litres / 400 mL serving = 30 servings. So... you're going to need a couple extra batches there as well.

You are probably best to assume 1.5 rolls per person. Some people will have none, some will have two.

For salad, you probably want to look at 1.5-2c per person. Four cups of greens is a decent full lunch for one person, is my metric. So half to a third of that at dinner as a side.

You're dealing with adults, 2-3 cookies pp is a reasonable metric. I think 4 is unlikely. Really it'll depend on where your demographics skew.

Milk is probably going to be your least popular beverage. Demographics will dictate how much soda people are likely to drink. A lot of adults in these situations will, in my experience, reach for a big jug of cold water before soda. You might want to consider water jugs as a way to save some costs.

So at the end of the day, I'd say you want to aim for 70 portions each of soup and chili, 80 portions of salad (if you want to assume some people won't have salad; you'll have to allow for extra soup for them), 130-150 rolls, 250-300 cookies. Scale those numbers up if there's any self-serve options or if people are allowed to go back for seconds. It's smart that you're going cafeteria-style; you can control portioning. Buffets are a nightmare for portion control.

Given that you are aiming for leftovers, you might want to scale up your numbers a bit anyway.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:12 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've done chili for a large crowd and agree with the assessment to do more batches than you thought. Also, since you're cooking onsite, don't underestimate how long it takes things in big pots to come up to a boil.
posted by cabingirl at 5:54 PM on February 6, 2014

don't underestimate how long it takes things in big pots to come up to a boil.

Oh jeez hell yes. Sorry I didn't mention that. Large pro-kitchen-size pots take a long time to come up to temp. (And in the case of something like chili you need someone in there every few minutes stirring, because stuff doesn't move around the same way liquids do.)

I would say you're going to need at least two hours of prep before you put anything in pots--and that's assuming you're not making your own stock. And you'll want to give yourself at least six hours for actual cooking time.

Suggested timeline:

Prep chili ingredients. Start cooking process.

Prep soup ingredients, start cooking.

Then start dealing with everything else. You'll have a couple hours downtime towards the end where everything else is ready and you're just simmering your pots and stirring stirring stirring the chili.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:11 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

(also if you have access to a tilt kettle in your kitchen, use that for the chili and stovetop pots for the soup. Please just trust me on this)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:12 PM on February 6, 2014

(also if you're anywhere near Toronto my hands are free most days so if you want some help, memail me)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:22 PM on February 6, 2014

Thanks again everyone! We'll be upping the number of batches we're making and I've now got a big shopping list.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2014

In case this is helpful for someone feeding a crowd in the future:

We made 9 batches of chicken soup and 7 batches of chili, and had one crockpot of soup and half a crockpot of chili left over.

We bought WAY too much salad - 9 18-oz bags, and we used maybe half of them. When serving cafeteria style, onto a plate where someone is already balancing a bowl, the serving size winds up being quite small.

We bought four boxes of saltines (used two), 108 rolls (served about 70), and four bags of tortilla chips (used two and a half). Don't forget to consider crackers and chips when estimating bread needs.

We bought 200 big cookies (one variety) instead of lots of smaller/different ones, and had about 40 left over.

The night was a great success and we will be doing this twice a year - I'm looking forward to using the site travelwithcats linked to for future recipes. We were served over 100 meals by this charity when our daughter was in the hospital, so thank you for your help in paying it forward.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:41 AM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

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