HOW TO HAPPILY FEED A CROWD (EVEN IF THEY HAVE REALLY DIFFERENT BELIEFS ABOUT WHAT TO EAT)
Can’t we all just get along? Is it my imagination or is it becoming more common for people to have allergies, health concerns, spiritual practices or politically correct ideas which restrict what they will and will not eat? Sometimes cooking for people feels like walking through a minefield: whatever you make, there’s sure to be someone who can’t eat it.
So, how do you cook for a crowd of friends or family or for community groups with differing eating styles, and still keep people happy? That’s a question I’ve faced during the 15 years I’ve been cooking for diverse groups at Saratoga Springs Retreat Center. While you may not please all of the people all of the time, here are some ideas I’ve developed for pleasing most of the people most of the time.
First of all, listen to and remember people’s needs and concerns. Try to meet them where they are. Whatever your opinion, their beliefs about what they need to eat are important to them. If you do this, even if you make an honest mistake or space out someone’s “can’t eats,” they will still feel listened to and taken seriously.
Second, keep it simple. The fewer ingredients in a dish, the less likely it will be a problem to someone. Aside from people’s desires for vegetarian or vegan food, the most common concerns are about dairy, wheat and gluten, and peppers and spice. If you can isolate those, you’ll have resolved most of the possible concerns. Sometimes I keep it simple by deconstructing dishes, for example, instead of serving a Greek Salad with everything mixed in, I serve it as a salad bar. In fact, a salad bar is a good model to keep in mind. I often set up taco and tostada bars that way, with separate serving containers for each ingredient. People love choice, and this way you can happily serve meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans from the same spread, with no one feeling slighted. I’ve also done pasta bars this way, always including a nondairy sauce and a rice, quinoa or corn pasta for those who are gluten intolerant. You can make it special by including a variety of diced vegetables, diary and nondairy cheeses, and herbs and nuts as garnishes. Also, I usually dress vegetables with little more than a sprinkle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt, and there is always a dairy-free and not spicy vinaigrette for salads.
Third, offer alternatives. If a traditional pasta dish is the main course, it’s not very difficult to set aside a portion of all the other ingredients before adding in the wheat pasta, and to make a similar dish with rice noodles, for example. For the buffet pictured, vegetarian and chicken savory bread puddings were the main warm dish, but I made sure there was a substantial and well-balanced dish which vegans and gluten-free people could eat, in this case the quinoa and chickpea salad. In addition, I set up a condiment tray with soy sauce, tabasco sauce, lemon juice, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar and olive oil so guests can season things to their taste.
Fourth, if some guests have particularly hard-to -satisfy needs, it may be best if they bring their own food. Often they will offer to do this. I find it’s best to graciously accept this and to provide whatever help they need. I’ve learned not to take it personally, some people feel more comfortable eating their own food.
While it may be impossible to please every single person all of the time, remembering these points will help you cook for a crowd and please most of the people, most of the time.