Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cooking for Groups

One of my favorite things I get to do on staff, besides be with students, is cook for my team! Usually a few times each year there are different opportunities for this: a staff retreat, student leader retreat, wives conference, etc. Each event has different needs for food, different numbers of people, budget, and feel of the event. And since they are usually at least 3 days long, they require lots of planning!

I think I love it so much because it is a project I can work on that is short-lived (I only work on it for a few weeks) and allows me to experiment with different recipes to come up with a great product that people usually get really excited about! It is so fun also to pull people into the kitchen with you to chop things, chat, whatever. I love it. This year I have gotten to plan two staff retreats' food for our team. The first one was at a house with minimal electricity (and no oven) for 2 1/2 days (which posed many new challenges) with Aussies and Americans (also affects my food choices for the group). The second was at the beach for our mid-year retreat, was all Americans, and lasted for 5 days.

I wanted to post on here all the recipes I used for the mid-year retreat, mostly because I know my team wanted them, but I figured it may be fun to document it for myself too and offer some of my go-to recipes and advice for groups for anyone else who is interested. :)

I started the planning by looking at our budget ($700 for 17 meals and 14 people). I divided up the money into amounts I thought I could make work for each meal, and to give me an idea of how elaborate or simple I needed to make each meal. This really helps me start to plan. Otherwise I will just come up with ridiculously expensive ideas for everything, and ones that take me the whole day to cook. Not really ideal for a "retreat" where I'm supposed to be relaxing too! I can't remember exactly the amounts, but I think it was $30 for each breakfast, $40 for each lunch, $70 for each dinner, and $15 for each supper (dessert). I didn't provide any snacks except for leftover fruit and veggies from the meals prior since we always end up eating too much at these things.

I also made a list of everything people didn't like to eat, or allergies and things like that could be taken into account here. I have several picky teammates, even ones that don't like chicken and cheese…so that made things a bit more challenging since I had to make sure each meal could be cheese-less on a portion. However, the girl that doesn't like chicken is awesome and loves veggies and sides so a couple nights she tried the chicken and then just ate lots of sides. :) I also had a vegetarian (who also eats fish) to consider. She needed to have protein options. This was probably the most difficult retreat to plan for me so far because it was the longest with the most picky eaters. (I also planned it for a tighter budget of $600 which got increased at the last minute by our team leaders since they had extra from something else!).

To make the actual menu, I thought through things our team always likes to have at team things (i.e. a specific salad, dessert). I made a list of all the possible things to include and asked a few teammates to give me feedback. Then I drew out a calendar and wrote down all the meal ideas, then moved them all around so there was a variety of meats each day and different fruits and veggies, too. Then I tried to look at it overall to see if anything was missing or if I had a bit of money left to throw in something really special. I also LOVE theme nights for meals, so I included a couple of those, which also helped me to fill in the sides and dessert to match the theme.

It is also very important to know what equipment you will have access to while there. We were staying in a nice vacation home, so I went to their website and they had everything detailed out there. That was really helpful, but not always available. Sometimes I will call the camp or wherever we are staying to ask questions. But sometimes you get to a place (like I did with our other minimal-electricity-no-oven-house staff retreat) and just have to adjust after you figure it out.

The final thing I looked at was the prep time involved for each day. If I had a more involved lunch, then I wanted dinner to be pretty quick so I didn't have to pull people inside to help twice in one day. But our team was great and was always willing to help so I didn't really have any problems with this. I wrote down a menu for anyone in the house to see and also a prep schedule, especially for those days when I had a meeting and wasn't going to be able to be around the whole time. I tried to think through what we would be doing each day…for example, on the day we arrived, I knew I wanted to make something easy because we were going to be grocery shopping until about 5pm and would need to get home and get people fed quickly. These things really helped to shape the menu and make it conducive to a retreat where we had other responsibilities and wanted to relax.

After I had made the whole menu, I printed out a stack of every recipe I needed to bring, including the ones that are just in my head, then went through and made a huge master list of all the ingredients I needed to buy. It is really important to me to be very detailed in this part of the process because it makes shopping much easier, especially if others are helping you, and it helps you to stay on budget and not end up with a lot of unused food. Since I had a really strict budget, I actually made a spreadsheet with each ingredient and amount written out and went to the grocery store the week before the retreat and wrote down each price. Then I got home and did the math. I realized then that I was $20 over budget so I took a few things out and adjusted in small ways to make sure I was under. You wouldn't have to do this, but I recommend it if you have a budget. It is just too easy to end up spending way too much. It took me about 3-4 hours including going to the store and adjusting the menu but it was worth it! Especially when Jordan and Chris were the two who volunteered to go to the store with me…they had the exact price written down next to the ingredient so they easily chose the right brand/type. However, we inevitably forgot a couple of things and so I just changed the menu based on what we had. (We didn't have a car after the first night we took a taxi, so I couldn't really get back to the store, but if you could, this may not be as big of a deal).

My other overall advice is just to have fun! I love to cook, so I really enjoy when people hang around the kitchen to help, when they really enjoy a meal, and when clean up isn't too bad because you're all doing it together. We had a great time at the retreat so hopefully this will help you if you ever need to do something similar. :) I will post recipes over the next few days since I don't want this post to be longer than it already is…yikes!

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