Whether you're expecting 15 relatives for Christmas dinner or feeding 100 at a cookout, you can bet that any group will include folks with varying dietary restrictions and tastes. To satisfy them all without losing your mind, make big-batch dishes that are crowd-pleasers and can be customized.
You can make soup ahead and keep it warm for a long time, so it's perfect for a crowd. Using beans is an affordable option, and it will appeal to any vegetarians; think chunky chili, not-too-spicy tortilla or lentil soup. Offer toppings like shredded cheese and sour cream too.
If you prefer to make a meat option, a simple chicken noodle or potato and bacon soup is bound to satisfy the masses. These soups are also not complicated to make. With any soup, provide a side of crackers.
Here's another make-ahead option. Steer clear of the runny casseroles that earned this dish a bad reputation.
When in doubt, turn to pasta. Toss cooked, small shape pasta like elbows or farfalle with tomato sauce, cooked sausage and shredded mozzarella and bake until the cheese is golden brown. You can even make one of the casseroles without sausage so it's vegetarian friendly. Add cooked greens or diced peppers if you wish.
No matter the time of day, your crowd will flock to breakfast casseroles. Make a hash brown dish with onions, peppers, ham and cheese. Another quick, make-ahead option is a strata, or a kind of egg casserole. Combining cubes of crusty bread, milk, eggs, cheese and meat, this dish is like a savory French toast -- before it's baked, it's refrigerated overnight to let the bread soak up the milk and egg mixture.
Food safety is crucial when feeding a big group, since the food is likely to sit out while guests help themselves. Hot foods should be kept at temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or lower. Perishable food should only be kept at room temperature for two hours, or for one hour when the temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
Sandwiches are the ultimate customizable option, so they're bound to impress. That doesn't mean you have to set out peanut butter, jelly, bread and plastic knives. A sandwich station can actually be an elegant option for feeding a crowd.
Fill platters with roasted vegetables, smoked salmon, roast pork, sliced cheese and ciabatta rolls and spinach wraps. You can also provide a selection of gourmet pre-made options, like veggie wraps and muffalettas, for those guests who'd rather grab and go.
A more casual crowd will be perfectly happy with cold cuts, rolls, cheese and plenty of condiment options.
When feeding a group, take advantage of shortcuts whenever possible. For instance, buy platters of cut fruit and cold cuts at the grocery store and arrange them on your own platters.
Making a big salad is an easy way to feed a big crowd, and luckily for you, the fewer the ingredients it has, the more elegant it will seem. Instead of iceberg lettuce, use a mix of greens. Top the salad with citrus fruit, toasted nuts and bold cheese like blue cheese. Offer a few kinds of vinaigrette and a platter of grilled chicken or shrimp for guests to add if they wish.