How to Make Simple, Easy & Elegant Meals for 30 People

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As soon as you find out that you have to cook for 30 guests, start planning. No area of party organization is as dangerous as food and refreshments. You have to satisfy a variety of tastes and quantities while taking precautions for those who have special dietary concerns such as food allergies. One wrong move can lead to an ambulance ride and the abrupt conclusion of your elegant party. So, if you have chosen to accept the responsibility of cooking, take it seriously from the start, that way you can make sure everyone has a good time and full belly without over-stretching your budget, your kitchen space or yourself.

Ask your guests about food allergies. Call or email guests that you know personally to ask. Or, provide an R.S.V.P. card with the party invitation; if you expect guest to respond via snail mail make sure invitations are sent at least six weeks before the event. Inform guests if they are expected to provide any food or drinks for the party.

Make a list of reported dietary concerns. Group concerns into categories such as "Vegan," "Vegetarian," or "No Condiments." Tally the number of people in each category.

Select dishes based on dietary concerns. Start by choosing a main course for each category, such as roast beef, pasta Alfredo or tofu stir fry. Assume that each individual will eat 1 pound of meat or meat substitute and 1/4 pound of uncooked pasta. There is no need to avoid any dishes in particular as long as you focus on making the dish special for your guests; for example, instead of spaghetti and meat sauce, prepare penne with a homemade marinara sauce and Italian sausage.

List possible side dishes. Pick starch or vegetable sides that can be incorporated into all three of the main course menus such as rizzotto, chicken soup or salad; selecting sides that cross-over makes it easier to cook in quantity.

Weed through the list and select two or three side dishes. Give priority to items that save money and time, or are in season; ingredients that are in-season are fresher and can cost less.

Collect recipes or write down lists of ingredients with quantities for each of the dishes. Multiply the ingredient quantities so the serving size is 40; preparing more food than is necessary ensures that guests can have additional portions. For example, if a potato salad recipe calls for 9 medium potatoes to make 10 servings, multiply the quantity of potatoes by four and use 36 medium potatoes.

Determine what can be prepared in advance. Make a cooking schedule that includes the items that are being prepared, the kitchen equipment that is required and the prep time. For example, dishes like potato salad can be prepared a day in advance and stored in a refrigerator and meat can be left overnight to defrost slowly in a fridge, but pasta must be cooked the day of or it will become soft.

Make a grocery list and estimate the cost of the meal.

Purchase groceries. Buy meat in quantity from a butcher or wholesale supermarket.

Delegate tasks to cooking assistants. Perform similar tasks at the same time such as peeling vegetables or making sauces.

Serve food buffet-style; keeping serving dishes off of the table ensures that guests can talk and see around the table. Buffet service also saves you the trouble of plating meals for 30 people. Label dishes on the table clearly so guests know what they are eating; including an ingredient card can be helpful if you have several guests with different allergies. Be sure to separate different dietary main dishes; for example, keep roast beef separate from vegetarian pasta dishes. Place a portion of each dish at the ends and center of the buffet table so guests can serve themselves.