Hi, friends! Ross here. Welcome back to Cooking Conundrums, where I take super-specific food questions from BuzzFeed readers (like you!) and use them to arm folks with as much cooking knowledge as possible.
As I sifted through my unread emails the other morning with a cup of coffee (read: frantically chugged my first PSL of the season in my pajamas while trying to hit inbox zero), I came across a message from a reader named Stacia who was running into a dead end while trying to plan her first-ever cookout. And with Labor Day swiftly approaching, now felt as good a time as ever to provide some "cookout for a crowd" advice.
Here's her dilemma: Hi, Ross! I am pretty much a brand-new cook, and though I've mastered the art of cooking meals for my husband and me, I've yet to host any sort of small gathering or dinner party. Well, I'm now in quite a pickle, because the other week I foolishly agreed to host a 25 to 30-person cookout, and I don't even know how to begin the planning process, let alone cook the actual meal! I know that I can make a delicious dinner and feel pretty confident in my cooking abilities, but time management isn't my strong suit in the kitchen...and that's when I'm cooking for two people only. So, am I screwed? Do you think there's a way I can pull this off, or should I cut my losses and cancel? I don't want to, but I could...
—Stacia, 37, Indiana
First of all, DON'T CANCEL, Stacia! Cooking for 30 isn't anything like cooking for two, and I actually mean that in the best way possible. If cooking for a significant other (or: a family) often feels like an hour-long hassle to churn out something edible after a stressful day, cooking for a crowd — or, really, catering on the smallest scale — is mostly just creating a generous schedule and plan for yourself and sticking to it, as well as breaking up all that work into manageable chunks across multiple days.
Here's how I would approach this situation to wind up with the most delicious, crowd-pleasing, and hard-to-mess-up food possible.
I'll also do my best to make it out of as many budget-friendly ingredients as possible, because food for 30 ain't cheap.
For your menu, there's no need to overthink it, but my two strategies are to 1) go delicious, not impressive, and 2) have a little something for everybody, regardless of dietary restrictions and food allergies. Here's my little cheat sheet, for reference:
STARTERS: Go for two crowd-pleasing dips that you can make ahead. Choose a classic that's also accidentally vegan and gluten-free, like this "perfect" guacamole recipe that has never done me wrong. Then, choose one that's fun and unexpected just for some added pizazz. If I were cooking this meal, I'd opt for this Korean corn cheese dip or an easy, smoky baba ganoush. They're both easy to prep in advance and finish the day of; the corn cheese only needs to quickly bake, and the baba ganoush just needs to be smeared on a platter and garnished.
MAINS: I know this is going to be controversial, but AVOID BURGERS AT ALL COSTS. They're never as good as a restaurant, they're far too easy to overcook, and everyone prefers them to a different degree of doneness. Also, prepping buns, toppings, and sauces always takes 10 times longer than you think it will. Instead of burgers, BBQ chicken thighs are my cookout-for-a-crowd secret weapon. Bone-in, skin-on thighs are wildly cheap and incredibly forgiving on the grill; I mean, you could literally forget all about them and overcook them, and they'll still be delicious and fall right off the bone. Marinate them the night before, grill 'em while your guests munch on your dip duo, and you'll impress everyone without breaking a sweat.
SIDES: Unlike Thanksgiving, less is more when it comes to cookout sides. I like to start with a crowd-pleasing pasta salad that tastes even better the longer it sits in the fridge and is easy to make a gargantuan batch of, like my sesame pasta salad with cabbage and quinoa. With dietary restrictions in mind, you can make this one both vegan and gluten-free without compromising flavor by swapping in gluten-free pasta (Rummo's gluten-free line is literally identical to regular pasta), tamari instead of soy sauce, and vegan mayo.
DESSERT: Phone a friend. And by "friend," I mean "grocery store." Pick one delicious, crowd-pleasing dessert that's comprised of various elements so people can make their ideal servings, like ice cream with tons of toppings for homemade sundaes, or DIY ice cream sandwiches. IMO, the perfect low-effort example of this is an angel food cake (store-bought!) with balsamic strawberries and homemade whipped cream.
Importantly, any good cookout host needs a checklist or timeline. When I tell you you should follow this as if your life depends on it, I mean it. Having a written plan that you can easily reference to keep yourself on track can be the difference between feeling easy-breezy on the day of the party vs. wanting to toss your grill into a dumpster and flee the state:
And, that's it! Happy cooking, Stacia. I promise you: You've got this.
For everyone else: If you end up using this template/strategy/guide in your own cooking, let me know how it went for you. And if you have any of your own cookout tips, share 'em below.
If reading this post made you think of your own kitchen dilemma you need help solving, write to me through this anonymous form or DM me and your question might just end up in the next edition of Cooking Conundrums.