Interview #5: Tips for Feeding Big Groups

In our last post, we talked about being intentional about how many people you invite to your home at one time. Depending on what you're trying to achieve at a particular event, big groups can be ideal! 

Today we're talking about hospitality to big groups with Karen, who cooked for many years at the Bible college I attended. Karen seemed to always have a smile on her face despite many early mornings and repetitive tasks. I hope you’ll enjoy learning from her experience both with cooking for large groups (pro tips coming right up!) and using her kitchen as a place for life-changing conversations.

Karen, I know you as a great cook, but I don’t know how you got there. Could you explain how you started cooking for big groups of people? 

Serving people through food was something my mom always did. She often packed up the leftovers from our meals and took them to a shut-in lady from our fellowship, or left cookies for the mailman in the mailbox at Christmas. She and I worked together well in the kitchen; we’d make hearty meals and put away garden produce. Loving people by way of food was her thing and I learned much of what I know from her. As a kid, I thought every family appreciated food as much as my mom taught us to, but later I realized that my upbringing was fairly unique!

"Our pastor could see that hospitality came easily to me, and told me that."

My parents were really diligent also about having church workers or cross-cultural workers over for meals. When I was fourteen and helping prepare and serve a dessert, our pastor commented to me that I had the gift of hospitality. He could see that it came easily to me, and told me that. 

It’s neat that he pointed out your gifting. Sometimes when you do something naturally, you don't realize that others don't. Did you receive any formal training in cooking?

When I was a teenager, I worked in some food industry jobs, although I did not work as a cook. My husband and I attended Bible school in New York, and when we heard that the Bible school was opening an extension in Ontario, Canada (where we are from) and only had one cook, we decided to move to the area so that I could help in the Bible school kitchen. I still don’t have any formal training in culinary arts, but other than learning from my mom, at the Bible school I trained under two other experienced cooks. Eventually I became the head cook in the Bible school kitchen. A few years ago I had to give up my full time role in the kitchen due to health problems, though I still help there sometimes. My younger brother, who went to culinary school, took over the kitchen manager role at the Bible school—God worked that out perfectly!

What are some of your best tips for feeding large groups?

The first thing that comes to mind is to make sure you have the right tools, like a sharp chef’s knife. You get a lot more done with the proper equipment. In our case, having an industrial dishwasher made a huge difference in our ability to feed large groups.

Secondly, choose recipes that expand well and don't have to be individually portioned. Chili, sloppy joes, spaghetti and meatballs are are few examples of meals that can be stretched and served from one pot.

Keep the meals simple. Trying to make something finicky for a crowd is tough. Or, if you want to make one part of the meal more complicated, make the complicated part something you can prepare ahead of time, because at the last minute you can’t do detailed work. For example,  if you want to serve a dessert like homemade pies,  prepare the pies early and allow them to sit until suppertime, when they can be served up quickly. 

What were some of your favourite meals to serve to large groups?

Butter chicken is a meal that goes a long way and pleases a lot of people. Keep the chilli, peppers or hot sauce to the side so that people can make the sauce as hot as they like. 

“Build-your-own-" meals: I enjoy preparing make-your-own-pasta,  -potato or -fajita bars. Put the pasta, potato or tortilla at the beginning and let people choose their own toppings or sauces. (When I make fajitas, I sauté the peppers with the chicken, to make the chicken last longer.)

For desserts, squares work well (such as brownies, apple bars, or Skor bars) because they don’t have to be individually portioned, and portions can be cut bigger or smaller as needed. Squares can be eaten on a napkin, with no need for a plate.

Do you have any advice about the actual serving process, when you're putting out food for large groups?

Portioning out the food for the guests can be helpful, so that you know you’ll have enough. If people are choosing their own portion sizes, sometimes one person will take a lot more and then someone else won’t get enough. Portioning the first serving can help to make sure everyone receives something. Then people can get second servings if there are leftovers. 

For meals with strong ingredients that some might not enjoy, it can be good to leave a few of the ingredients that people may be pickier about off to the side. For example, recently we served a Greek salad but separated the raw onions and feta as optional toppings, so that the guests could choose whether or not they wanted to include them.

Do you have any thoughts on accommodating food allergies or preferences?

We ask people to let us know if they have allergies before they come to our property. Sometimes we ask them to bring their own products along to swap out for things they’re allergic to. So, if they bring along their own gluten-free bread or dairy-free milk, we make their food using their special ingredients. Children can be quite sensitive to a change in their food, so it makes sense for them to bring along a brand of bread or milk that they’re used to drinking or eating. You could do something similar when hosting guests in your home if you want—ask them to bring their own bread or milk if needed.

We see it as part of our responsibility to cater to legitimate needs, but we don’t ask about particular preferences that are not medical needs. In planning the menu, I try to think about what people of a certain age group might like. Picky eaters can choose what to put on their plates (that’s why “build-your-own…” meals are great). Having a tray of vegetables is always good for extraordinarily particular eaters, so that if they don’t like the entrée at all, they still have something healthy to eat.

Since this blog is mostly about cross-cultural hospitality, I wanted to ask: did you ever suit meals to students from other cultures or other backgrounds?

We often had students from Korea, and they’re used to having rice and kimchi at almost every meal. We had a rice cooker and provided rice daily just for them, so they could add a scoop to their meal if they wanted. We’d often keep a jar of kimchi nearby for them, too.

Can you recommend any resources for people planning meals for big groups? 

I have often gotten inspiration from a TV show called Carnival Eats. The foods they feature have to be prepared quickly and served out a food truck window in individual portions. Watching what they prepare gives me new ideas for serving portioned foods in a way that is easier and quicker. If you enjoy cooking and feed big groups, check it out sometime!

What are your thoughts about how physical food and spiritual food (or physical work and spiritual work) are connected? For example, how did you see your work in the kitchen as connecting to the overall work of the Bible school?

There’s definitely a connection between physical and spiritual food. I have observed that people usually won’t come to hear the Word if there isn’t something to feed their bellies. We see this tendency acknowledged in Scripture as well, such as at the Feeding of the 5,000, when Jesus made sure people’s physical and spiritual needs both were met. There’s something about eating around a table that makes people feel cared for.  When they leave a meal to hear a lecture or study with their physical hunger satisfied, I believe that they are more prepared for spiritual food as well. 

I also realized that the kitchen itself is a great environment to demonstrate or develop character. I worked with many student assistants and when we ran out of tomatoes and had to make last-minute changes to a recipe, or spilled a pail of grease and had to clean it up, those were opportunities to help one another instead of getting frustrated. In the kitchen there are so many opportunities to practically live out what God’s Word says about serving one another.

During the last few years you’ve been spending less time in the kitchen and more time in a counselling setting. How do you think that your interest in cooking intersects somehow with your interest in counselling?

It was actually in the kitchen that I first “counselled”. For many years the kitchen where I worked was attached to the Bible school’s lecture hall and students would come into the kitchen between classes to chat. Other students worked in the kitchen with me and we would talk as we worked. Through these conversations, I became more aware that formal teaching and Bible classes are great, but people also need one-on-one advice.  

Eventually someone in authority at the school pointed out that I loved counselling and asked if I’d ever considered studying it more formally. Until he pointed out that gifting (just like my pastor had once pointed out my gifting in hospitality and cooking), I had only counselled informally. Through his encouragement, I decided to study Biblical counselling. People need someone to guide them through how the Word applies to their lives and to provide accountability. The kinds of conversations we used to have while chopping onions are now taking place in a spare room at our local fellowship, but they’re happening because of what happened in my life in the kitchen. 

There have been seasons of my life where I’ve been asked to do mundane tasks, and I’ve often really struggled to accept them. I was encouraged in talking to Karen, seeing that her “less spiritual” work in the kitchen turned out to be very spiritual after all. If she had refused the messy, sometimes-sweaty task of showing hospitality to large groups day after day, she would also have missed hundreds of meaningful kitchen conversations, and may never have had the opportunities she’s having today through counselling. Thank you, Karen, for sharing your hospitality insights! Watch the blog for Karen’s Butter Chicken For a Crowd recipe, in our next post.