This guide will walk you through the basics of planning a feast, from conception to completion. This guide will assume you already have the feast bid and will focus on a smaller feast, around 50 people. You will still learn enough basics that you can extrapolate for larger crowds. I’ve cooked numerous feasts from as little as ten people to as much as 375. If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them.
The first thing you will need is your budget; how much you will you have to spend per person. This will often not be your decision but your input will often be sought so it’s important to have some idea what you will need. That is why it’s a good idea to have some concept of what you’d like to make. However in my experience it’s best to get a budget and to make your meal based on that, which is why I say the first thing you need is a budget.
My ideal budget is $3 per person. In my experience this gives you enough wiggle room that you can do most quality, non-fancy meals. This covers a protean, side and veggies, plus disposable plates and silverware. I frequently come in under budget at this price point, but it’s important to have that wiggle room in case something unexpected comes up.
For this example feast we’ll go with a budget of $150 or $3 per person.
See Your Site
It’s important to know the site you will be cooking at. Will you have a kitchen, what does that kitchen have? Will you need to bring your own cooking ware? Will you be cooking off site and transporting it? These are important questions you need to have answered before beginning to plan further.
For the purposes of this guide we will assume you will have a full kitchen on site with no utensils or cookware.
Where to Shop
Before you can work with your budget you need to know how much things will cost. That’s where knowing your stores come into play. I primarily use three stores, Cash and Carry, WinCo Foods and Costco.
Cash and Carry is a restaurant supply store located throughout the Western United States. If you don’t have one near your area it’s worth taking the time to see if you can find another restaurant supply store. They will more often than not have higher quality items at lower prices than any other store. You will buy the majority of your items at this store. Keep in mind that if you buy your protein here you will have to probably break it down yourself. So I usually stick to ground meats or large cuts I can butcher myself. I stay away from bone-in items. You will also buy your disposable pans here. They are cheap and often better quality than at any other place.
If you don’t have a restaurant supply store near you then Costco is probably your best bet. You will find most of what you need in bulk. Normally the only thing I buy at Costco is chicken. You can buy it deboned and unlike other grocery stores it really is deboned. Even if this costs a bit more than a place like WinCo, it’s worth the time it saves from having to debone. I once bought thighs from WInCo that were “deboned” only to find that there were bone shards and I spent the next two hours checking diced thigh meat for bone spurs.
WinCo Foods is massive and cheap grocery story in the Western United States. The key thing here is the bulk food department which is large and cheap. The primary thing I buy at WinCo is the bulk food seasonings. They have a good selection and it is factors cheaper to buy spices from the bulk food section than prepackaged spices. For example you can get all the oregano you might need for $1, while buying it in a container might cost you $3-5. I highly suggest you don’t buy your proteins at this or stores like it, they are lower quality and often not worth the savings. Also keep an eye on dry goods, sometimes they will be cheaper here than a restaurant supply store. If I need cooking utensils and mixing bowls I will often buy them here to cut down on store runs but you can also make a trip to a Dollar Store and find most of what you need.
Your Real Food Budget
Now you know your budget, your stores and your site you can start to look at your options and find your actual food budget. It’s important to make a list of non-food items you know you will need. To err on the side of caution I always round the cost of items up when I’m budgeting and buying items. Here is a sample list of what you will probably need, depending on your site amenities.
From Cash and Carry
- Plates $15 (125 ct)
- Flatware $16 (125 ct)
- Disposable Sheet Pans $2 per 2 pack
- Disposable Sheet Pan Lids $3 per 5 pack
From WinCo or Dollar Tree
- Serving & Mixing Utensils $8
- Grater $2
- Mixing bowls $6
Seeing the list you might think that you don’t need the 125 plates and utensils but it’s the same price for 50 of equal quality plates at other places and that’s being generous. Plus you can always save them for another feast. The Flatware is actually 125 individual packets of forks, knives, salt and pepper packs with a napkin. That comes to a total of $52 of non-food items that automatically cuts down your budget leaving you $98 or $1.96 per person.
Congratulations you have your real budget and you can start to think about what you’d like to cook for your feast.
Now that you have your real food budget you can look at your meal options. From here it’s more about your creativity and less about the numbers. You want to use as few actual food items to cut down on costs and mistakes but that doesn’t mean you have to cut down on quality, quantity or creativity. I’ve made teriyaki chicken with noodles and dumplings, hamburgers, stews, meatloaf, nut encrusted chicken and much more within this budget. All with good portions, often under budget and well received by the attendees.
What you want to keep in mind is your protein, your side and a vegetable. Desserts are optional. I often don’t include them; I focus on filling people up with the main meal. Another trick is to create a meal that has a backup plan. If something goes wrong you will be able to make a secondary meal from the items you’ve purchased but that requires a bit of knowledge that you may not have developed yet but don’t worry, if you follow these steps you hopefully won’t have to do a back up meal.
For our example meal we’ll be doing meatloaf, mashed potatoes and a green salad.
Test Cook 1
Once you know what you would like to cook it’s very important to cook the meal at home. Keep in mind the facilities you have at your disposal. Will you be able to scale this up to meet a huge demand using those facilities?
Once you’ve finished cooking divide up the meal into the portions you would like to serve at the feast. Doing this will allow you to figure out how you can scale up your recipe and if you can afford all the ingredients.
If you like the meal and you think it’s within your budget then it’s time to do a second test cook but first you should find a helper.
The recipe I usually use is 2 pounds beef, approx half a cup shredded carrots, approx half a large shredded white onion, two eggs, one cup Italian bread crumbs, Johnny’s Season Salt, pepper and ketchup. This should feed about 6 people. This gives each person a third pound of beef.
For the sides you can make them from scratch but here is my little secret, don’t do it, instead buy quality instant mashed potatoes and the bag salad. It will save you time, most people will not notice the difference and the cost is negligible.
For the mashed potatoes you don’t want to serve it just as it’s suggested, you will want to add extra butter, maybe a little salt. You’ll want to salt to taste. You want about ½ – ¾ cup mash potatoes per plate.
The salad should be about a loose cup of salad, it fills in the empty spot between the meat and the potato.
Find a Helper
While you might be able to do the feast all by yourself, it’s a good idea to find a helper. I don’t mean a last minute kitchen helper but someone who is willing to go over the meal plan before the event. If something goes wrong at the site it helps to have someone else who knew the plan to help brainstorm away out of the problem.
Test Cook 2
You did a test cook to see if your recipe was tasty, within reason and to see proportion size. Now it’s time to do a second test cook to see how well the meal scales and to problem solve any perceived problems with large batch cooking. Invite over 10-15 friends and do a scaled up recipe. Make sure you invite your helper over too so they can go through the process.
What you are looking for is any possible problems in your method. Is what you are doing going to work when you cook approximately 4 times as much? What are the prep times, how much did they increase when you made the smaller batch, chances are it’s going to increase even more with more food. What are the cook times, are you going to have to do more than one cook?
What problems did you encounter that you didn’t expect, are those problems something you can correct for? If not, you might need to change your menu plans.
At this point you should be able to fix any problems. If you are unsure if your fix will work it’s time to do another test cook. If you are uncertain it’s best to be cautious, you won’t get second chances on the day of the feast.
Extrapolate Your Recipe
· Your Recipe
· 16.60 , rounded up to 18 pounds
· 5 big white onions
· 4 pound carrots
· 18 eggs (I use liquid eggs, it’s eggs pre cracked and scrambled, saves time)
· 6 cups Italian style bread crumbs
· 3 bottles of ketchup
· ¼ cup pepper
· Bottle of Johnny’s Seasoning Salt
· 28- 35 cups mashed potatoes
· 2 pounds butter
· ¼ salt.
· 1 Gallon Whole Milk
· 56 cups salad
· 2 bottles salad dressing
Now it’s time to adjust your recipe for a full 50 people. If you get a fraction round up to the nearest whole recipe increment. This means you’ll have a bit more than you need but that’s usually a good thing and it usually doesn’t cost all that much more. It’s better to have seconds than to not have enough food to feed everyone. The table to the left is an example using the meatloaf meal plan.
Purchasing Your Goods.
It’s time to buy your goods! Make sure you make a full list of everything you will need and take it with you. To help make sure you stay in budget it’s important to write down the cost of each item on your list as you place it into you cart, rounding up to the nearest whole dollar.
Example List with Prices
· 18 pounds ground beef $30
· 5 big white onions $5
· 4 pound carrots $4
· 18 eggs. (liquid eggs) $4
· 6 cups Italian style bread crumbs $4
· 3 bottles of ketchup $6
· ¼ cup pepper $1
· Bottle of Johnny’s Seasoning Salt $6
· 28 cups mashed potatoes $16
· 1 pound butter $4
· ¼ cup salt. $1
· 56 cups salad $10
· 2 bottles salad dressing $6
· Plates $15 (125 ct)
· Flatware $16 (125 ct)
· Disposable Sheet Pans $2 per 2 pack
· Disposable Sheet Pan Lids $3 per 5 pack
· Serving & Mixing Utensils $8
· Grater $2
· Total $149
We come in just under budget. In actuality we are probably even more under the budget because we rounded up for each of the items. The cost per person would actually go down if we were doing it for a larger crowd. If we were to do the feast for 100 people the costs come to approximately $250 bringing the cost down to $2.50 per person rather than $3.
Preparing to Leave
When you are packing up to go to site, it’s important to double check your list to make sure you have everything you need. Have a clean list and check off each item as you pack it up. This will help insure you don’t forget something at home. Make sure you keep items you need cold, cold.
You have done all the hard work; if you planned correctly it should go smoothly. It might get intense but it should be manageable. Once you’re on site, it’s all about managing your time.
To help keep on time try to make sure you keep all your items organized. When you unload into the kitchen double check your list against your items to make sure something didn’t go wrong. It’s best to know you’re missing an item at the start of the day than when you are in the middle of cooking and don’t have time to fix the mistake.
If you took advantage of your test cooks you should have a good idea what your time table should be. It’s best to err on the side of caution, it’s better to serve lukewarm food, than to be 30 minutes late. Food stays hotter longer than you might expect.
I hope this guide has helped you figure out how you can plan for a feast. What this didn’t cover is actually cooking the feast itself. That really depends on the items you are cooking and matters on the kitchen and the equipment available to you. It also depends on the individual’s cooking knowledge. This is something I might cover in another guide.
The key thing in feast preparation is planning. You want to plan as much as possible to make sure that the execution is as smooth as it can be. Plan for all the things you know could happen and you will be better prepared to overcome any problems that were not foreseeable.