top of page
  • Writer's pictureJolanta Nowobilski

4 Tips On What I Learned About Cooking For A Crowd From Working in Food Service

As the holiday season approaches and somewhat precedented times are coming back, cooking for a crowd may be something new or that's out of practice. When I started working in foodservice a little over two years ago, I was experienced in my kitchen at home, but I had a steep learning curve when it came to preparing food for hundreds of people (literally!). In this article, I will go into what I learned from these experiences and how you can apply them to cooking for a larger crowd.

Disclaimer: I don't have a lot of traditions in my family around any holiday so those are not as important to me in my decision-making process.

1. Know Your Limits

Time management is key in prepping your meals. This is going to look different depending on how many people you are serving and who is helping. In my two current roles, school nutrition worker and dietary assistant at an eating disorder clinic, the time management is vastly different.

At my school nutrition job, I work with a team of five people with dedicated stations and we serve around 600-700 meals a day at lunch.

At the clinic for eating disorders, I prepare breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner by myself or with one other person for anywhere from 5 to 15 patients, depending on the day.

Even if you can multitask in the kitchen or have a team helping you, give yourself enough time to prepare each dish as if one at a time. If you can multitask, this will give more time to tidy the kitchen or spend time with loved ones. After all, the holidays are about you, too!

2. Not All Of The Food Has To Be Piping Hot Out of The Oven

For a lot of home cooks, there's a desire to be "restaurant-quality". In this standard there is also the desire to have their service at a restaurant level with everything being ready at the same time when it's time to serve. It's certainly valid to want that, but if it's causing unnecessary stress (like it has done for me), it's ok to look at other options.

In the school kitchen, we cook our foods in advance to keep in a warmer, keeping it above 135°F until serving time. Admittedly, this works better for some items more than others, depending on when and at what temperature you put it in the warmer or low oven. On the opposite end of the thermometer, we also keep most of fruits and vegetables raw and cold, which frees up space in our warmer and hot serving lines.

So, think about what foods would be ok cold (or even room temp)! How much of a staple is that green bean casserole at the Thanksgiving table? Or could you swap it out for a cold green bean salad with other beautiful autumnal flavors?

3. Keep It Simple

I know it's tempting to have so many options and make this big, beautiful spread on the holidays.

When our staff was downsized due to a labor shortage, my manager decided to cut down on our entrée variety because it was not feasible to be making that many different options with the amount of hands we had. It is more practicable to make more of a few dishes than to make less of a lot of dishes.

Calculators like this one for Thanksgiving from Personal Creations can be helpful in eliminating the guesswork with how much food to make (even if you want leftovers).

4. It's OK to Have Pre-Made Options

Continuing on the previous point, if you want an easy way to add variety with minimum effort, pre-made options are great!

Another change when our staff was downsized due to a labor shortage was some of our recipes were swapped for products that were already made and that we had to just pop into the oven. For example, we used to make Bean & Cheese Burritos by hand and now they come prepackaged and ready for the oven. It makes for a more consistent product and saves on time and mental energy.

I know for a lot of home cooks, there's this notion that everything needs to be made from scratch, especially for important holidays. While that may be your preferred way because you love cooking, feeling pressured to do so isn't a great feeling. Get a pie or two from your favorite bakery! Get an appetizer dip from the store! The options are endless!


bottom of page