How and What to Feed a Crowd {Perfect for Family Reunions!}


Get all of the tips, recipes, and inspiration you need to make feeding large groups or planning family reunion meals a success!

Well, there’s nothing I like to talk about more than how and what to feed a huge group of people.

No really, I honestly LOVE talking about it.

As in, if you don’t want to spend at least 37 (ok, 58) minutes of your precious time, you probably better not ask me any questions related to this subject.

Yeah, yeah, I need to get a life. But until then, let’s talk about feeding a crowd, shall we??

Today, I wanted to give some tips and menu advice if you are looking for the how-to on feeding large groups, especially since family reunion and church camp season is upon us.


From about January 2015 to November 2017, my family and I (along with lots and lots of other volunteers and helpers that I recruited – basically, the ones who couldn’t avoid me quick enough) regularly fed between 85 to 125 construction workers and office personnel building an LDS temple in my area.

I planned the menu, recruited help, and my kids often helped pack the brown bags stuffed with a treat, napkin, water bottle and utensils. I think all said and done, we served upwards of 30 lunches for this huge group of hungry men and women.

To say that I became extremely proficient in creating menus for large crowds (and doing an insane amount of dishes after) is an understatement. But the experience made me even more passionate, if that’s possible, in regards to all the details related to feeding lots of people.

Lots of dirty dishes in sink.

I mean, if you’re going to go to the work of making an amazing meal, you might as well make it to feed 100, right?

Er, or maybe not.

Years ago, I published a post with three great menus to feed a crowd. Each menu is complete with recipes written to feed at least 20 (easily extrapolated to even larger crowds), as well as a printable table full of details about how far in advance you can make each recipe, freezable tips, etc.

Today, I’m drawing on the experience I gained from the 3+ years I spent planning and executing the lunch menus for my favorite construction workers (not to mention a lot of meal prep for family reunions – both Brian and I have 30-45 family members in our parent/sibling downline), and I am going to share with you the THREE most popular meals served during our construction lunch era, as well as some family reunion favorites (plus lots of other tips).

Let’s dive in!

Just a quick note about this itty bitty issue. All of us have different guidelines and comfort levels when it comes to making every last thing from scratch vs buying every bit, even the prepared stuff, at the store.

I am not here to lecture. Instead, as one who gets excited to make as much as I can from scratch, I’m giving a little emotional support and virtual hug to say: it’s ok to cut some corners when feeding a crowd. Mostly so you don’t have a nervous breakdown.

Easy French Bread Rolls

Sure, making homemade rolls is exciting, and I think we can agree that most often they taste worlds better than storebought, but when you are feeding a lot of people, there’s no shame in picking up those hamburger buns or dinner rolls at the grocery store.

Trust me on this one.

One of the first lunches I served to “my” construction workers was soup in bread bowls. Did I buy those innocent little bread bowls or consider serving the soup in good, old-fashioned paper bowls?

Of course not. Because I hadn’t yet learned my lesson. Instead I made 100 bread bowls from scratch (with the help of my faithful Aunt Marilyn). And do you know what? I don’t think one single person who ate lunch that day knew or cared that those bread bowls were made from scratch.

My advice is to focus your homemade energy on the recipes/food that really need a from-scratch touch. Perfect example: homemade sloppy joes vs the canned stuff. Consider going homemade on the sloppy joe filling and grabbing those buns from the store. Although I do have a funny story about sloppy joe meat that I’ll share below.

Without further ado, here are the three most popular meals my compatriots and I served for lunch the last three years:

1) Sweet Pork Cilantro Lime Rice Bowls (with fresh fruit and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies)
*I used a combination of recipes for this meal (modeled after these BBQ Chicken Salad Bowls), but it was crazy, crazy popular every time we served it. I used this tomatillo pork or the sweet pork from this recipe – a couple times I used taco meat; shredded chicken would work great, too – and served it over cilantro lime rice with tons of toppings: shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole or diced avocados, olives, etc. and of course this dreamy cilantro lime dressing (served in large squeeze bottles). The real hit was when I found these crispy fried jalapenos to serve on top. My gosh, everyone went crazy. One huge upside to this meal is it is customizable for every eater – even picky eaters can find something in the lineup to add to their rice bowl!

BBQ Chicken Salad Cilantro Lime Rice Bowl

Make ahead: all the toppings can be cut and refrigerated in advance (same with the fresh fruit for serving); sweet pork or taco meat can be made in advance and frozen for easy reheating; cilantro lime rice can be made several days ahead and stored in ziploc bags for reheating in the microwave or pour in a pan and reheat covered with foil in the oven; cookies can be made several weeks ahead of time and frozen.

2) Sloppy Joes* (with chips, watermelon slices and chocolate chip cookie bars) or BBQ Pork Sandwiches (too close to call)
*This meal is so easy and always a hit; you can go all out and make homemade rolls, but this meal is insanely simple with storebought buns! Make ahead: Both the sloppy joe and BBQ pork meat can be made ahead of time. Either several days in advance and refrigerated or up to a month in advance and frozen. The watermelon can be cut and stored in a covered container 1-2 days in advance, and the cookie bars can be made, cut into squares, and frozen several weeks in advance.

Easy, cheesy, delicious - these philly cheesesteak sloppy joes are the perfect 30-minute meal!

3) Slow Cooker Red Beans + Sausage and Rice (with rolls, apple slices, and brownies)

*A little out of the box, this meal is so hearty, EASY, and delicious! When my husband suggested I serve it for one of the construction lunches, I was hesitant, but I shouldn’t have doubted. This quickly became a favorite. Make ahead: The red beans and sausage can be made ahead of time and frozen to reheat (may need to add a bit of broth to thin it out after freezing and thawing); the rice can be made several days in advance and refrigerated in ziploc bags to reheat in the microwave or spread in a pan to reheat in the oven (covered with foil); brownies can be made and frozen several weeks in advance.

Honorable Mention: Build Your Own Sandwich/Hoagie Station with chips, fruit salad, and cookies (as simple as it sounds)

*As promised, a funny and totally irrelevant story about sloppy joes. One month when sloppy joes was on the construction lunch menu, I had gathered faithful volunteers to help provide the sloppy joe meat. I’m too passive aggressive to demand that the kind volunteers should  make a certain recipe, so I just asked that a certain number of servings of sloppy joe meat be brought to my house by 8 a.m. so I could heat it all up. I had about 6-7 ladies drop off sloppy joe meat that morning. Some of it homemade from varying heirloom recipes – others brought the canned variety. As a function of necessity (and because I had to drive all the food 20 minutes down the road), I stirred every single last sloppy joe contribution together in my electric roaster and heated it all up. You guys, I’ve never had so many requests for a “recipe” before in my life. Haha! Everyone wanted the secret recipe for the amazing sloppy joes! I just said “oh, it’s just a little bit of this and a little bit of that” before awkwardly changing the topic. It still cracks me up thinking about it (kind of like the time my mom won our church’s chili cookoff by opening a can of Nalley chili and heating it up in her slow cooker). 

What’s obvious from the above list is that none of those meal plans are fancy.

When serving large groups, like family reunion meals or church eventsor whatever, you most likely aren’t going for a 7-course gourmet meal (at least not if you are in my laid back family!). Of course there’s a time and a place for that – and it’s equally fun brainstorming candlelight dinner menu plans, but when serving a crowd, keep it simple!

A hearty main dish + fresh fruit or vegetables that don’t require much prep + a quick side dish + a make-ahead dessert.

That’s a pretty simple and pretty much perfect plan.

I’ve found that slow cooker meats/meals make a perfect starting point for large group menu planning. Why? A) because they are usually simple and straightforward and B) they very often can be made ahead of time and frozen and then reheated right back in the slow cooker.

Instant Pot or Slow Cooker Smoky Honey Cilantro Chicken

What I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t need as much food as you think you do. My faithful helpers from the construction lunch days are laughing their heads off right now, because they would almost have to tie my hands behind my back to prevent me from making triple the amount of food we actually needed.

I’m so worried about running out of food that I over plan and over prepare (think: making six more batches of potato salad at midnight) and end up with gallons of leftovers.

Don’t be me.

There are websites dedicated to giving advice on how to alter recipes to feed a crowd (like this old school forum), but I’ve mostly learned by trial and error that taking a recipe that serves 6 and multiplying it by 10 to feed 60 might not be the most accurate way to do things (because you’ll usually end up with too much food).

Here are a few random rules of thumb:

-Plan on about 1/4 to 1/3 pound of meat per person if the meat is being served with other things (like on a sandwich or on a salad). Last week for my one of my family reunion meals, we made BBQ pork sandwiches to feed 30. Using this recipe, my mom bought 8 1/2 pounds of pork, and it was perfect. We had about 1/2 cup leftover (and I even saw a couple of the hungry adults eat two sandwiches). For reference, we had about 15 adults and 15 kids (some of them teenagers).

BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches

-For a large group, side dishes will almost always feed more than the serving size in the recipe states. This might be because often large groups consist of adults and children or because if there is a hearty main dish, the side dish can go further…either way, I’ve learned that if a side dish recipe (like fruit salad or potato salad) states the serving size as six, if my group is larger than 15 or 20, I can usually plan on that recipe feeding more like 8-ish people.

Example: Say I want to make honey lime fruit salad for a group of 30 people. The serving size on that recipe is six, so if I were to multiply the serving size by five to get 30 servings, I know from experience that I’ll have a lot leftover. Instead, I figure the recipe will probably feed more like eight people and so I will take the recipe and multiply the ingredients by 3 1/2 or four (instead of six) to get enough servings for 30 people. Make sense? This isn’t an exact science, and a lot will depend on who you are feeding (their ages, food intake ability, etc), but it’s a general guideline that has helped me in the past. I still submit that it’s better to make too much than not have enough, but keeping this in mind when planning for a large group will help with food costs and leftovers.

Honey Lime Fruit Salad

-A large but still “average” sized watermelon will yield about 50 triangle slices. You might wonder why I need to include such a specific detail, but the one time I ended up with SIX LEFTOVER WATERMELON because I had no idea how many slices each would yield has scarred me; I’m on a mission to help others.

Ok, maybe not everything, but it’s rare that I’ve found a recipe or food that doesn’t freeze well, which means you can make a lot ahead of time. Some notable exceptions that you should NOT freeze are: potato salad, fruit salad, macaroni or pasta salad, dairy-based recipes, etc.

But most main dishes and desserts can be made ahead of time and frozen with great results.

For another of my family reunion meals, I made this taco meat (I used 10 pounds of meat to serve 30 people – and increased all the ingredients 10X except for the jalapeno and onion). Instead of simmering all ingredients together, I browned the meat in batches, transferred it to a gargantuan bowl and added the spices and tomato sauce and then sealed it up in gallon-size ziploc bags and popped them all in the freezer. We had to drive 10 hours, so having it frozen made it easy to keep cold on the drive.

The Best Ground Beef Tacos From-Scratch

I put the bags in my mom’s fridge when we arrived and the next day, it was thawed and ready to go straight into the slow cooker. It cooked on low all day and was hot and flavorful in time for dinner.

Most cookies and brownies/bars will freeze perfectly and can be made weeks ahead of time. I have some really large tupperware-type containers that I will freeze large batches of treats in, separated by layers of wax paper, but many times, I just use freezer ziploc bags and call it good (my secret tip is to press or, yes, suck all the air out so the bag is airtight – not enough to squish the treats – but just enough to make a tight little package).

It might be time to channel your inner spreadsheet nerd and create a table of what you are serving and how far in advance you can make certain components. Planning in advance will save you. I promise. Plus, it gives you a chance to delegate, and that is a beautiful thing.

Easy Peanut Butter Fudge Bars

If you aren’t cooking for a crowd on the regular, you probably don’t need to invest in specific tools and supplies. You can easily borrow most of these things, but I thought I’d share a list of the tools that saved me when I served construction lunches…AND, I still use all of these things even though I’m not cooking for a crowd quite as often.

It’s nice to have some large-and-in-charge items around to bail you out when you are asked to make a huge salad for church or you need to mix up an epically huge batch of slime for your kids.

{A few affiliate links included for some of the items below}

-Large slow cooker or electric roaster oven: I have an 8-quart slow cooker, but I have to admit, I love my electric roaster more than life. I use this thing all the time. For holidays, large batch cooking, infant bathtub (ok, just kidding)…and I loan it out at least monthly to someone who needs it.

-Large capacity mixing/serving bowls with lids: my favorite bowl in the history of ever is a ginormous red bowl (Tupperware Thatsa Jumbo bowl, if you speak Tupperwarese) with a lid my mom bought me when I got married. They are kind of pricey (around $60), but I love that bowl so much, and it has come in very handy when serving large crowds. However, there are a lot of other bowls with lids that can be used. Costco regularly carries a melamine set that is pretty great (similar to these ones at Crate and Barrel).

-Storage containers: I have four of these 2.5 gallon/40 cup rubbermaid storage containers, and I use them all.the.time. I freeze large batches of cookies in them, use them for watermelon slices at potlucks/BBQs – they make great serving or storage containers for fruit salad, pasta salad, or ANY kind of salad.

-Inexpensive utensils: You never know who is going to walk off with your favorite serving spoon, which is why keeping some inexpensive but still efficient and dishwasher safe utensils around can help. These small tongs have been a lifesaver over the years as well as these simple serving spoons.

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Well, this was a TON of information, but I hope if you are planning out a menu or meal to feed a crowd this summer (or anytime!) that the insight and tips will help you and save your sanity just a bit.

Feel free to chime in with any comments or questions below, and I’ll try to help out with any specific questions you have.

What is your favorite thing to make when feeding a crowd? Do tell!

Posted on July 9, 2018 by Mel



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