Cooking for crowds

Take the guesswork out of shopping and chopping with this holiday food guide
By Jennifer Danter
Cooking for crowds

From cocktails to buffets to intimate dinners with friends, pull off holiday entertaining with ease. Choose your event or course from the menu below and get great food ideas, portion tips, recipes and helpful hints from Chatelaine food editor Jennifer Danter.

The cocktail party

A cocktail party should last anywhere from two to four hours. Depending on time, budget and the amount of help you'll have, prepare a mix of passed canapés and self-serve hors d'oeuvres. Or for complete ease, skip passing altogether and set up food stations in different rooms with a mix of hot and cold nibblies that just need to be restocked every now and again.

Quantities: Count on serving 12 pieces per person for the first hour of the party, then about six pieces per person for every hour after that. To keep it interesting, have a choice of three to four different canapés plus one or two dips or a large cheese platter. If you know you're feeding a hungry crowd, add on bulk extras such as olives, mixed nuts, pretzels, edamame or wasabi peas.

Jennifer's tip: To keep it interesting I like a mix of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, but I hate running to the oven every few minutes to reheat. I stay sane by putting out cold platters (such as smoked salmon, antipasto, cheese) and dips as my mainstays, then supplement with two hot passed canapés and two cold ones. I serve all the hot canapés once the bulk of my guests have arrived – and when they're done, that's it!

The cocktail hour

Guests usually arrive hungry to a party. But if you're dishing up dinner after happy hour, you just want to take the edge off with a couple of appetizers.

Quantities: Count on four to six pieces per guest for one to one-and-a-half hours of pre-dinner cocktailing. Don't get fussy – a cheese platter, bowls of tapas-style nuts or olives or a plate of cold shrimp does the trick. Or dish up heat 'n' serve hors d'oeuvres from the grocery store.


Jennifer's Tip: When hosting a dinner party I go minimalist on the munchies so everyone will still have an appetite for dinner. I keep it really simple and only put out cold appetizers. Usually it's a bowl of roasted almonds and a mix of olives. But if it's a big crowd – and I know there'll be late-comers – I'll add a bowl of hummus and flat bread for dipping too. When I feel like splurging and have some extra money, I'll pick up take-out sushi and just serve that.

The first course

Many people skip pre-dinner noshing all together in favour of a sit down appetizer course. But even if you have hors d'oeuvres, it's still 100 per cent acceptable to serve a small appetizer course before the main. Use these guidelines to help determine appropriate quantities.

Quantities: An appetizer portion should be small enough to just whet the appetite. For soup, a 1 cup (250 mL) serving is plenty, especially if it's cream based or a rich consommé. A salad starter should be served on a plate (or bowl) that holds about 2 cups (500 mL). If serving a more substantial protein course, such as smoked salmon, seafood or cured meats, try to keep it within a two to four oz (60 to 126 g) portion size. For pasta, a 500 g pkg of noodles will generously serve about eight people, depending on the sauce and other ingredients in it.


Jennifer's Tip: I'm a big fan of the appetizer course. In fact, I love having many small courses. If I have the time I'll start with two small appetizers – a tiny demitasse of soup paired with a small salad (served on the same plate) or I'll prepare two separate courses. The smaller portions look beautiful and dainty, and your guests feel spoiled rotten by all the "extras."

The main course

The main course always involves much mulling over. Guests' likes, dislikes and allergies have to be taken into consideration. Plus, ease of preparation always weighs heavily on the host. Not to much to make?


Quantities: For a sit-down dinner, a serving of 6 to 8-oz (180 to 250 g) protein is the norm. But how does that translate when shopping for seafood or big bone-in roasts?

Turkey: When buying the whole bird, count on 1 lb (500 g) per person. For boneless breasts, figure about ¼ to ½ lb (125 to 250 g) per person. If you want leftovers, buy a bird 4 lbs (2 kg) larger than what will serve your guests.

Roasts: For a bone-in roast, whether it's pork, beef or game, plan on about 1 lb (500 g) per person. It sounds like a lot – but remember that the bones take up a good portion of the weight. For a boneless roast buy about ¼ to ½ lb (125 to 250 g) per person.


Lobster: Lobster comes in different sizes, but I think the smaller ones taste the best. A 2 lb (1 kg) lobster will generously feed one person.

Pasta: Depending on what kind of sauce and other ingredients in it, a 500 g pkg of noodles will feed four to six people for dinner.


Buffet: At a buffet, your guests will most likely sample a bit of everything so the portion sizes should be a little smaller. Plan on 4 to 6-oz (125 to 180 g) of protein per person. If serving pasta, a 500 g pkg of noodles will easily stretch to 8 to 12 people depending on what's served with it.

Jennifer's Tip: I always worry about not having enough, so to cover all my bases I add on an extra person when planning. It's saved my bacon more than once when friends bring last minute dates or I've underestimated a guest's hunger!

Side dishes

For a sit-down dinner, two side dishes are classic – usually one starch-based and the other veggie. If it's a buffet, add on few extras plus a salad.

Quantities: Average about ¼ lb (125 g) each starch and vegetables per person. If it's a buffet, aim for a mixture of side dishes, figuring about 2 oz (60 g) per person.

Jennifer's Tip: Side dishes act as a foil for the main course. If I'm dishing up something saucy, then I'll have rice, couscous or mashed potatoes to soak it all up. I try to use bright coloured veggies like carrots, green beans, asparagus and rainbow peppers to brighten up the plate – they go well with dark coloured roasts. Instead of serving a sauce with some entrees, I'll add richness to the meal by using dishes such as scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach or corn or savoury custards.


For some, this is the best part of the meal. Planning dessert is the easier part of menu portioning – if you can narrow down your choices!

Quantities: It's easy to eyeball portions – a slice of cake or pie is usually about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm), a 1 cup (250 mL) serving of fruit crisps, cobblers or ice cream is far from skimpy and one or two brownies, bars or cookies satisfy any after dinner hunger gaps.

Jennifer's Tip: I can't believe I'm saying this, but you usually don't need as much dessert as you think. After a big meal, a small dessert is completely satisfying. While it may be tempting to make three or four different choices, ultimately one amazing dessert is enough. But then again, dessert is the best kind of leftover – especially if it's chocolate!



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