This fall, I attended a “chuckwagon” dinner and show with some family members in the Black Hills. I have decades of experience at big family celebrations, and never in my life have I witnessed such a miracle of people-moving efficiency outside of things you have to be licensed for, like driving. The giant hall containing the show must have held 250 guests, and the staff managed to feed everyone within minutes. It had such an efficient system that by the time I got back to my seat, my food was still hot.
When two dozen relatives packed into my house to celebrate my eldest daughter’s birthday a few weeks later, I figured this was the perfect time to try to apply what I had learned from the chuckwagon.
Usually, serving time at my family gatherings — and probably at any family’s gatherings, for that matter — looks like a herd of buffalo crowding around a watering hole. But I am very pleased to say that applying a few basic principles of efficiency at this giant family gathering led to the shortest dishing-up period I have ever experienced in a group even half this size. This time, everyone’s food was still hot by the time they got back to their seats.
As anyone who’s raised children can testify, it’s hard to understate the satisfaction of getting humans to be orderly and efficient. I hope to impart this satisfaction to you this holiday season with five simple principles for feeding a crowd.
1. Organize Food and Dishes in Logical Order
My daughter requested butter chicken for dinner with garlic naan bread, so we laid out bowls, forks, rice, curry, and bread in a counterclockwise flow through our U-shaped kitchen. We chose counterclockwise because most people are right-handed. You may call it “righthanded privilege,” but I call it efficiency.
If you aren’t building a dish by piling one food item onto another (as with curry), then start the flow with the cold and room-temperature items. This way, the hot food stays hot for as long as possible. Obviously, trays of turkey and bowls of mashed potatoes would be placed before dishes of gravy. Don’t make people reach backward past guests behind them in line to grab accouterment.
2. Pre-portion Dishes
We pre-portioned the naan bread by cutting it into quarters. This way, people didn’t have to stop and rip it in halves or quarters themselves. They also tucked neatly into the bowl.
Anything that can reasonably be pre-portioned should be. Don’t leave it up to a guest to wedge a spatula into a dish and cut out pieces if this can be done beforehand, shaving precious minutes off total dish-up time and thus preserving the quality of the meal. This holiday season, I’d like to try getting pre-sliced, individually packaged pads of butter like the kind served at diners to reduce mess and better facilitate buttering rolls and mashed potatoes.
3. Put All Foods in Multiple Serving Containers
In our case, we had two pots of rice, two pots of curry (each with a ladle), and two trays of bread, allowing everyone to serve themselves two at a time. When some dishes have multiple serving dishes or “options” and others do not, a bottleneck is formed at the food with the lowest serving capacity. For instance, if you have two dishes of cranberry sauce and only one tray and tongs for turkey, turkey becomes a bottleneck. Every food item needs the same number of containers or serving utensils, which should be greater than one.
Alternatively, if you can set the meal up potluck style and put everything on a long table where lines can move down either side and dish up from the same large containers but on different sides, that could work even better. Ask another guest to bring some extra ladles, spatulas, and hot pads if you’re worried about running out.
4. Announce the Order of Operations Beforehand
Don’t be afraid to give orders for fear of coming off like the Soup Nazi. You’re here to ensure everybody gets hot food and has a less chaotic mealtime experience. Who doesn’t want that?
Taking a cue from the chuckwagon emcee, I gave explicit directions. I said something along these lines: “Okay, everybody, listen up! This is how it’s going to work. There’s one egress into the kitchen, and we don’t want to jam it up. We’re going to flow counterclockwise around the kitchen. Grab your bowl and fork, get some rice, get some butter chicken, then get your naan, and quickly leave the kitchen and find your seat. Beverages are in the refrigerator in the garage. We are going to have a speedy and orderly serving time.” Our guests had a good laugh at this new attempt to herd cats, but they did just what was asked of them.
You may also consider sending guests through the dish-up line table by table so everyone sitting together gets their food at the same time. Also, tell the crowd ahead of time if there is more than one option for a side and what the differences are (for instance, the green bean casserole in the red dish is gluten-free). You might want to stick a toothpick label into the food if you think some people might not hear you or will forget.
5. Offer Fewer Options
Adopt as your hosting motto Ron Swanson’s best-known quote from “Parks & Rec”: “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” While traditional holiday meals have more than three components (as our butter chicken dish), I believe everyone can benefit from paring back and focusing on making the essentials well. Don’t half-ass eight dishes by outsourcing to the big box grocery store or making mediocre but “easy” recipes; whole-ass five. Make your guests want to run to their seats with appetizing plates of food like a hotel guest runs from the door to the hot tub in January. They don’t want to meander around your kitchen adding bits of not-particularly-appetizing this and that.
If a lot of households are coming, don’t ask them all to bring homemade dishes. I’ve done this before, and while my family is full of above-average cooks, it’s just too much food. It takes up too much space and too much decision-making time for guests, and it makes putting everything away and dishing up leftovers at the end of the evening more tedious and time-consuming. Instead, ask some guests to bring a kind of dessert, sparkling cider, champagne, beer, or pre-or-post-meal munchies that can be tucked away at mealtime.
When serving time is less chaotic, there are fewer kitchen traffic jams, so when you sit down with a hot plate of food at roughly the same time as everyone else, you will not miss your great-aunt’s “Lil’ Smokies.” I promise.
At a bare minimum, you must limit the number of items to what people can reasonably fit on a plate. You don’t want a buffet situation where people have to stop and stack things on top of each other, decide which item they want, or grab an extra plate because there are too many items to try to pack into a feast. This will destroy any attempt at efficiency. And ultimately, these gatherings aren’t chiefly about the food, anyway. They’re about spending time together and appreciating the blessings God has graciously given us.
If you applied any of these principles to your holiday meal, tag me on Twitter @georgi_boorman and let me know how it went. Be generous and kind, but don’t be afraid to impose a bit of order and efficiency. Your guests will appreciate it.