Simple, fast meals for a group of 50 children are well within your reach if you rely on one-pot main dishes and familiar favorites. As an added bonus, many quick, easy meals are also cheap meals for a large group. Focus on safety, healthy nutrition, and on keeping food and prep easy. Have fun in the kitchen, and the kids will have fun at the event.
Even if cooking for a horde of kids is outside your normal experience, stick to the safety rules that you use in your own kitchen. Insist that all food prep helpers wash their hands thoroughly and often and keep raw meats, nuts and wheat separate from other foods for safety reasons and to protect kids with allergies. Use an instant-read thermometer to ensure that hot foods are cooked correctly, and never let any food sit at room temperature for longer than two hours.
Quantities of Food
Some foods, such as cookies, whole pieces of fruit or slices of bread for sandwiches, make the job of determining quantities easy; simply count the quantities served from any package label. The amount of food for casseroles or just how much deli met to buy offer a larger challenge. As a rule of thumb, one pound of spaghetti or ziti pasta serves about 15 children or 10 teenagers and will fit in one 9-by-13-inch pan. You'll need about 13 pounds of ground meat for hamburgers or sloppy Joes, 1 to 1 1/2 gallons of potato salad and eight heads of lettuce for a green salad. Count on at least two slices of deli meat and one slice of cheese per sandwich. Have a good pound and a half of margarine or butter for the sandwiches.
You have some options to keep assembly and preparation easy; assemble food items ahead of time, such as making sandwiches and placing them in paper bags, or setting the food out buffet style and letting each child make his own taco or take her own piece of fruit and cookie. Other specific prep ideas include:
- Get plenty of help with shopping, preparation and assembly.
- Set water to boil the first thing when you get to the kitchen if you plan to make pasta for a main course or potatoes for potato salad.
- Make cold items first, such as tuna salad or potato salad. That way they can be refrigerated until just before serving.
- Err on the side of having too much food rather than just enough.
- Bring an extra loaf or two of bread and a jar or two of peanut butter for those kids who can't eat what you've prepared.
- Buy precut vegetables, bagged salads, precut chicken pieces and preformed hamburger patties.
A main course or a sandwich, a salad, an array of cut, raw vegetables with a dipping sauce and a sheet cake or cookies for dessert is a menu that won't disappoint a group of hungry kids. Choose from one of these main dishes for either lunch or dinner:
- Spaghetti or baked ziti with and without a meat sauce
- Baked macaroni and cheese
- Chicken fingers or fish sticks
- Make-your-own chicken or beef tacos
- Sloppy Joes
- Baked chicken breasts with melted cheese on top
- Pizza served in sheet pans
Precautions for Allergies
To help ensure that all the kids have a good time and a safe time at your event, gather information from parents ahead of time about any food allergies or intolerances their child might have and what foods they recommend you serve. Then plan accordingly. Be meticulous about separating foods that could trigger a child's allergy, such as wheat, nuts or dairy, don't reuse utensils or pans that have had contact with the allergy-causing foods and check the ingredient list on any packaged foods.
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Susan Lundman began writing about her love of cooking, ingredient choices, menu planning and healthy eating after working for 20 years on children's issues at a nonprofit organization. She has written about food online professionally for ten years on numerous websites, and has provided family and friends with homemade recipes and stories about culinary adventures. Lundman received her M.A. from Stanford University.