Whether you are thinking about hosting a fundraising dinner, a dinner theater meal or just a get-together, the planning you will need to do will be similar. After hosting our dinner theater meal for 40 people, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work in planning a meal for a crowd, and I thought I would share what I have learned with you.
Plan Ahead. Plan a couple of months in advance. If you are asking for donations from businesses, some will need the time to take the requests through their corporate headquarters. Most of the time you will need a letter from your group's president, validating your request as legitimate. Some will say "no", so ask at more places than you actually need. Some will give you the donation then and there, without any special requirements. If you happen to be fortunate enough get more donations than you can use, you can raffle it off and give the proceeds to your sponsoring group.
Secure your location. We were blessed to have the use of a church hall that has an attached kitchen for no charge. (It is the same place we hold our co-op.) If you can secure a similar location, even if you have to pay for it, it is well worth it.
Planning the Meal. Before you begin seeking donations, you need to determine what you need. Some donations are the actual foods, so you will need to be on top of what you need, so you can tell the sponsors without hesitation. You can determine this by just looking at the packaging of the dinner items you are buying. I will give you all the details of our spaghetti dinner, and it can give you an idea of how it works, even if you plan a different tupe of meal. We used:
- Spaghetti noodles: One pound of spaghetti serves about 6 people. We also had a gluten-free option, so we bought 2 of those as well.
- Spaghetti sauce: You could buy the ingredients for homemade sauce, but for convenience, we opted for canned/jarred sauce; one container of sauce for every pound of spaghetti. We also provided little cups of Parmesan cheese for each table. We used 1 container of Parmesan cheese for 40 people in little cups for each table.
- Meatballs: Again, you could buy the ingredients for homemade meatballs, but we opted for frozen, pre-made meatballs. We decided to plan for about 4 meatballs per person. We bought gluten-free meatballs as well (Farm Rich brand Original flavor is both gluten and dairy-free and is delicious,)
- Bread: You can either go the bread and butter route or the garlic bread route. Either way, you will need about one loaf for every 10-15 people. Remember, if you go the bread and butter route, you will need to provide little dishes for each table for the butter, in addition to the bread baskets you will need for the bread. You would need approximately 1/2 pound butter for every 40 people.
- Salad: We bought salad greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrot shavings, croutons and a variety of salad dressings. You will need about one pound of lettuce for every 10 people. You also need 1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes for every fifteen people. This type of tomatoes can be left whole in the salad so that the juices from the tomato doesn't make the salad mushy. We did slice the cucumbers into the salad at the last minute, using one cucumber for every 20 people. We also added croutons on the salad right before serving. We used one bag for every 20 people. We had a wide variety of dressings because the dinner theater script called for it, but you really only need one bottle of each Italian, Ranch, Blue Cheese and Thousand Island. We also bought little plastic cups to hold portions of dressings for each salad.
- Drinks: The least expensive route is to provide iced tea (sweetened and unsweetened), lemonade (2 cups lemon juice, 2 cups sugar and 1 gallon of water) and ice water. You could also go the 2-liter route. In that case, you will need a variety (mostly cola), planning for one 2-liter for every 6-8 people. You will also need 10 pounds of ice for every 20 people and cups for each person, with lots of extras.
- Dessert: We opted for brownie sundaes, using 13x9 pan of brownies for every 12-16 people and 1 gallon ice cream for every 40 people. We used Fudge Swirl ice cream, but you could use vanilla ice cream and add chocolate syrup. You would need 1 bottle syrup for every 40 people. We also had gluten-free and dairy-free options.
- Tableware: We used paper plates and napkins, plastic cups, bowls (remember bowls are used for both the salad and the sundaes, so you will need two bowls for every one plate) and plasticware, 1 per person, with ample extras. We also used plastic tablecloths. We also bought vases and plastic flowers for each table from a dollar store.
Buy Now, Buy Later. Once you have gotten your donations, you can buy your non-perishables and plan to buy your perishables the day of or the day before the dinner. Make sure you have secured a place to store your items, especially the perishables.
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate. Once you have obtained the items, delegate responsibility for the various things that need to be prepared in advance- for our dinner, this meant baking brownies, making salad and advance preparation of the spaghetti noodles. If you have a different dinner, then the needs might be a bit different.
Here is my favorite tip: If you are preparing spaghetti for a crowd, the day before or the day of the dinner, cook all of your spaghetti noodles 5 minutes (or about half the suggested time). Immediately run cold water over the noodles to stop them from continuing to cook. Put in gallon zip-lock bags and store in the refrigerator. When you are getting the dinner ready, the day of the dinner, put a large pot of water on to boil, and as soon as the water is boiling, dump the cold noodles from the refrigerator into the boiling eater and set your timer for 4 minutes. It doesn't matter if the water doesn't return to boiling in those four minutes, the spaghetti will still cook perfectly and will be steaming hot for serving. Transfer the cooked spaghetti to a warming tray and leave the pot of water on the stove to return to boiling for the next batch of spaghetti. It works perfectly every time. This does not work well for gluten-free noodles, which tend to turn to a solid, mushy mass. You will have to cook those as the directions on the box suggests.
The Big Day. The day of the dinner, you will need to set up serving areas. If you have a self-serve buffet, set up your warming trays, ice buckets (we used small Styrofoam coolers from the Dollar store.) and your service items on the buffet. We had our actors serve as waiters, so we set up the stations in the kitchen. We had one area for the gluten-free noodles and meatballs, so we wouldn't have a mistake in serving. We had another area for the regular spaghetti and regular meatballs. The sauce, which already was gluten-free, was in another area. We set up an additional area for the salad, which included the croutons to be put on at the last minute and labeled cups of salad dressing. The drinks, cups and ice were set at a table in the back, for self serving.
Student Waiters. I printed out a menu for each person to check off what they wanted (gluten-free free or regular, what type of salad dressing, etc.). These were left at the tables along with pencils. As guests arrived, they filled them out and gave them to the waiter assigned to that table. The waiters brought the orders to the kitchen staff and we prepared the plates, putting them on large trays for the waiters to deliver to the tables. The waiters then returned the trays to the kitchen staff for the next table. We had 10 tables, 8 waiters and 3 people as the kitchen staff and it worked quite well. Note: You will need to consider you serving needs and secure those items in advance. Don't forget serving utensils.
Clean-Up. It would be best to plan to delegate clean-up responsibilities as you did the rest of the responsibilities. As it turns out, I had a whole group of take-charge helpers for our dinner, and so I never had to ask anyone to complete a chore, but I did plan ahead and had a checklist of everything that needed to be done, down to vacuuming the floor, so if anyone had asked if they could help, I wouldn't even have to think about what needed done, I could just refer to the list. Even with all the help, it was reassuring to be able to go down the list and make sure that everything had been attended to.
Thank You. Don't forget to send thank you cards or letters to everyone that helped, especially your donation providers. A nice touch is to include a photo of the event, even if it is just on paper and printed from your computer. Everyone likes a personal touch, and you will be more likely to be remembered should you want to do a similar event in the future.