Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Feeding a Group on Vacation

When you’re on holiday with family and friends, there are few worse things than having to leave your luxurious and remote mountain cabin to pick up another pack of hot dogs. Or cooking chili for eight people, only to find out you needed to make it for 16. Or wondering how you blew $400 on food over three days you mostly spent at the beach.

Feeding a vacationing group is tough. And if you’re staying in one place and cooking for yourselves over any length of time, it gets much harder. There are dietary restrictions to account for, shopping lists to write, menus to plan, and most of all, money to consider. But whether you’re in a rental home or a secluded yurt in Eastern West Virginia, there are ways to make everything a billion times easier.

First, plan ahead of time. The earlier you begin, the better prepared you’ll be when the time rolls around.

Second, keep meal prep and planning as simple as humanly possible. It will save you 15 gajillion headaches in the long run.

Third, give these guidelines a shot. In the past, they’ve helped me feed two large groups handily, inexpensively, and somewhat healthily. And if you have anything to add in the comment section, go crazy.

Pick someone to take the lead.
It will make life much, much, much easier if a single person acts as the go-to for everyone. This lovely individual will compile menus, devise lists, collect money, and possibly do the shopping, but WON’T prepare the actual meals. Foodies are always bizarrely up for this kind of challenge, but if no one wants the responsibility, promise a volunteer they won’t have to do dishes the entire vacation. As God is my witness, there is no greater incentive.

Check allergies and dietary restrictions.
You obviously can’t cater to everyone, but you can make sure you buy tofu for Cousin Chloe the Blossoming Vegetarian and avoid peanut products if they’ll kill Johnny Jr. Keeping a running e-mail thread is an easy way to do this, and a great method of keeping tabs on planning in general.

Find out what your vacation destination provides.
Often, rental homes and condos will have cleaning products, toilet paper, coffee, salt, pepper, sugar, and other basic staples already there for you. A quick call to your agent/the owner should nail you down a list, and then you don’t have to buy that stuff.

If you can swing it, bring a few food items with you.This makes sense for expensive products everyone might use (olive oil, coffee, etc.) instead of condiments purchased cheaply (mustard, ketchup, etc.). If you're camping, it may not be feasible, but if you're taking a minivan, see if they fit.

Get an approximate headcount, then multiply it by the number of days in your vacation.
The result is the number of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, and desserts needed for the duration of your stay. Your final drink number is all those added together. In other words:

13 people x 3 days = 39

39 breakfasts
39 lunches
39 dinners
39 snacks
39 desserts
195 drinks (1 drink per meal, snack, & dessert)

A few notes on meals:
  • Unless you’re gigantic breakfast fans, this is your easiest meal, and should be prepped by each vacationer as his or her schedule dictates. A few dozen eggs, some fruit, a bag of bagels, and monster box of cereal will do the trick.
  • Lunches are similar to breakfasts in that they should involve simple preparation performed by singular people. Sandwiches and grilled items are good options, and don’t forget leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.
  • Dinner is a doozy. To avoid anarchy, we designate one or two people per night to cook for the whole group. Make-your-own bars and easily multiplied recipes are best here, including chili, pasta, macaroni and cheese, salads, burritos, and pizza. Again, you can’t go wrong with grilling, either.
  • With snacks and desserts, I find vacations tend to promote grazing. An adult won’t necessarily sit down to eat exactly 15 chips, ¼ cup of dip, and eight baby carrots. Instead, they’ll have three chips at 2pm, five baby carrots at 3:47, and the rest at 5:13. Kids … vary.
  • As for desserts, not everyone is into them, and you may only indulge half the nights of your vacation. Subsequently, the overage can be used for random snacking. That’s always nice.
  • Drinks are exciting, because they’re completely dependent on your group tastes. For one recent three-day trip, we bought a few jugs of OJ and six bottles of Diet Coke, because everyone – from top to bottom – was drinking water. (Er, and booze.)
  • If you’re going out to a restaurant for any meal, don’t forget to subtract those servings from the total. In other words, if you’re accounting for 39 dinners, but everyone’s hitting a steakhouse on Day 3, it becomes 26 dinners.
Assign dinners and get shopping lists from everyone.
So it’s fair to all attendees, designate one person/group per evening to prepare dinner. Then, have each person/group write up their menu and submit a shopping list to the coordinator. This will ensure all the ingredients are bought, and there’s an equal distribution of cooking duties.

Potential chefs: in regard to the dinners and themselves, choose recipes that A) are easily doubled (or tripled), B) you’re very familiar with (because you should never try a food for the first time on a group), C) will most likely appeal to a number of people, and D) doesn’t involve a huge list of hard-to-find ingredients. Again, chilis, soups, stews, pizzas, and any kind of make-your-own bars are ideal for this. Don’t forget to account for condiments in the lists, and if you have enough for leftovers, bonus.

Create a master list of all ingredients and necessities, taking care to estimate how much each item will cost.
Okay. This part is a little tough. But after you do it once, it gets much, much easier for future vacations. Here’s an example of my breakfast list from a three-day, 13-person Seattle trip earlier this year (note that milk is for cereal and coffee, not drinking straight):

12 - 18 bagels (12-18 MEALS) ($8)
3 dozen eggs (12 MEALS) ($7.50)
2 large boxes cereal (15 MEALS) ($8)
2 cream cheeses ($5)
1 lb unsalted butter (for breakfast & beyond) ($3)
2 lbs bacon ($10)
2 boxes breakfast sausage ($5)
1 loaf toast bread ($2.50)
1 gallon + 1 quart 1% or 2% milk ($5)
Assorted fruit ($5)
TOTAL: ~$60

And here’s an example of one of the dinner nights from that same trip:

4 small boxes Jiffy corn muffin mix (or other corn muffin mix) ($2)
10 eggs (for muffins and mac & cheese)($2.30)
4 medium onions ($1.50)
1 head garlic ($0.50)
3 pounds ground turkey (93/7 percentage – NOT 99% fat-free) ($14)
2 28-oz cans whole plum tomatoes (Redpack, etc.) ($4)
2 14.5 oz-cans beef broth ($2)
2 12-oz bottles amber beer (Dos Equis XX Ambar, etc.) ($3)
2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce (Redpack, etc.) ($1)
2 15-ounce cans small white beans ($2.50)
2 15-ounce cans pinto beans ($2.50)
2 15-ounce cans pink kidney beans ($2.50)
1-1/2 pounds elbow macaroni ($2)
18 ounces evaporated milk ($3)
30 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded ($10)
(Spice mixture being brought by cooks)
TOTAL: ~$60

For reference, one serving is about: three eggs, 2 slices of bread, 4 ounces lunchmeat, 2 ounces bacon, 5-6 ounces beef or chicken, 1-1/2 hot dogs, 1 ounce cheese, 1 cup cereal.

Add up the final total and divide by the number of people paying for food.
For this trip, all our meals added up to about $467. Divided by 13 people, that’s $35.92 each. We added another $4.08 to each create a nice even $40, and to account for any possible overage.

In the end, it was came to approximately $33 each for three days of profuse vacation eating, and we used our extra funds for alcohmahol. Not too shabby.

Go shopping.
You can take care of dry and frozen goods months ahead of time, provided you have storage space. Fresh foods should be bought much closer to the start of the vacation. If you’re feeling really saucy, cut and paste your master list to another document, and organize it by supermarket department. It will cut your store time in half.

No explanation necessary.

When all is said and done, split the leftovers.
And if you’re allowed, leave extra staples in the rental for the next group. Odds are they won’t have planned as well, and are gonna need that paprika.

In my (very) humble opinion, the person in charge of food shouldn’t be responsible for alcohol, as well. That’s just crazy talk. So, either designate another vacationer to take on the beer and wine assignment OR make individuals responsible for their own stuff.

And that’s it. Sweet readers, know that this is my method, and one of what must be hundreds. It’s not the easiest thing on Earth, but it’s saved my friends and family tons of dough. If you have your own technique, please share! The comment section is good to go.

P.S. I’m happy to pass my whole Seattle food document on to anyone who’s interested. (E-mail me at!) Who knows? It might help.

(Photos courtesy of Sun Realty NC, Mountain Property for Sale, and Dan Beard Council.)

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mkh said...

Oh, this is an excellently-timed post. I'm in the middle (Day 12 of 17) of our annual beach trip. 20 people. 1 vegetarian, 1 peanut allergy, 7 teenage boys who eat like Sasquatch.

We've been doing this for a lot of years (19) and we've actually gotten to the point of just winging it. I do an initial run to a warehouse club (we go through astounding levels of paper goods), somebody else fills in around the edges at a grocery store, one of the husbands does the liquor store run, and then we figure things out daily. We have a couple of meals that are tradition (beef tenderloin/shrimp, hard shell crabs, grouper, jambalaya) but usually we sit around on the beach with drinks in the late morning and figure out what we're in the mood for. We can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in 19 years that we *haven't* made a grocery store run, but trying to keep to a plan was way more stressful for us.

Despite looking and sounding like utter chaos, it works out well. The traditional last breakfast (as we're packing up the house, etc) is ice cream. It's probably the first thing the kids say about the week. =)

midwestgrrl said...

Sun Realty! I rented from them last year and hope to this year. Just funny to see the photo credit.

For our vacation, I compiled a box of dry goods beginning months in advance: tea, hand/dish soap, paper goods, sugar, salt, pepper. (For sugar/salt/pepper, I just purloined from my own stash.) Before we left, I threw in most of my spices. Stuff like flour or rice I left at home, because they can be purchased cheaply and add a lot of weight and bulk to the packing process.

Granted, there were only two of us, but this worked well for us for the week. We also did a big grocery run when we got the keys to our condo to stock up on fresh food for the week, and we relied on inexpensive local seafood to round everything out (after all...that's one of the reasons for going to the beach!). Going to the local fish shacks is fun, anyway.

Happy Cheapskate said...

Great post! I have been mulling over this very topic... we are heading up to a vacation house in Maine next month and I was trying to strategize ways to keep it, uh, cheapish.

Calidaho said...

We are headed to a giant family gathering next month. My Mother-in-law and her three siblings are each renting houses for their families. Four houses with 4-14 people in each house. Our house will have 9. Each house is responsible for their own breakfast and lunch with dinners being somewhat communal.

My husband's brother's family is responsible for our breakfasts, we are responsible for our lunches and the parents are responsible for dinner (the most expensive meal--nice how that works out!).

In this family of 34 people, with a bunch of type A personalities running around, it would be impossible to relinquish control of the menu to one person. We know we are doing lunch and that sandwiches and salads work for everyone! And we can do it without spending to much.

Although, I am not looking forward to the judgements--everyone is always on some crazy diet and, heaven forbid we have pasta salad for lunch! All those carbs! Maybe I will make a ground beef would they like that, huh? (Family together time is sometimes maddening--I feel like I need a few good therapy sessions afterward.)

AJP said...

On family/friends outings, we usually put out a list of meals we'll be eating communially, then families/small groups of people pick the meals they want to be in charge of according to what works best for them. Then they can plan that meal ahead of time according to their budget. We take into consideration dietary restrictions, although we really don't have many. Snacks/non-communal meals are the responsibility of each family/friend. Luckily we haven't had a "I made Copper River salmon and you made corn dogs!" kind of issue. :)

Porky M. said...

Holy frijoles! That is a lot of food, I never thought about it that way. We usually end up eating random scraps on vacations - peanut butter, turkey, and so on. How long are you staying at this given locale?

Laura said...

I LOVE this post! I just went on vacation with a big group of 20-somethings, lots of boys who eat a ton, and I was the meal planner and main cook. A couple good tips:
-I mixed up the dry ingredients for large pans of cornbread, biscuits, and other bread-type things before we left, because I find baking in vacation houses annoying and you don't want to buy an entire new jar of, say, baking powder just for the trip. Throw the ingredients in Ziploc bags with pieces of paper tucked in listing the rest of the directions and the wet ingredients you'll need, because you'll probably be buying things like milk, oil, and butter anyway. You can then whip up baked goods very fast for breakfast without trouble.
-If you have a grill, it's a good idea to appoint someone who is NOT the chef as the grillmaster. Chef can prepare meats to take outside and the grill person handles those while the chef tackles the rest of the meal.
-Similarly, you can get everyone involved in food prep. I guess this is hard if most people are on the beach and it's sandy, but there is always some before-dinner time when people are sitting around. Make sure everyone has a cocktail and then get them shucking corn, chopping vegetables, or whatever. This actually usually ends up being pretty fun.
-I agree that the person in charge of groceries should not be in charge of booze. Too much work!
-We saved the last day for leftover stuff. We had hamburger bun French toast, some pretty crazy omelets, and grilled chicken salad. It cleans out the fridge so you don't have to lug stuff home and it makes you feel very thrifty.
-For money, we collected everyone's receipts from throughout the weekend and split it up evenly at the end. This prevents mooching by anyone, but it does require everyone to bring enough cash. We had 12 people and I believe everyone ended up each paying $80 for three meals a day and booze for four days--not bad at all. In the future, I'd probably collect cash in advance, say $100 a person, and divide up anything that's left at the end.

Daniel said...

Huh, the house in that picture looks vaguely familiar... I think I may have stayed in it at some point.

I'll add two tips that I've used in the past:

1) Make and freeze one (or even two) dinners in advance, pack them in the car, and serve them for the first day or two of meals. If your destination is more than a few hours away by car, you can keep the food in a cooler. Lasagna or my chicken mole work well for this, and it takes away a lot of the stress of the early part of the vacation.

2) If it's a few different couples sharing a house, we ask each couple to bring some booze to share. Usually everybody collectively brings way more than we can drink and there's a wide selection of beers and wines for everyone.

Great post, Kris!

Casual Kitchen

Char said...

Very helpful for large gatherings! A lot of people give up and just eat cheap and unhealthy when they get together in my experience. Im glad you posted this!

Jenn said...

Every spring and fall our group of 8 gathers for a 4 day Girls' weekend at a nearby ski/golf resort. Over the years we've done the food differently. For many years we'd have a meeting (much wine involved) to plan the menu, and make the grocery list. The foodie in the group and a volunteer purchased everything and even premade several items. We'd then split the total when we arrived at the condo. We each bring two bottles of wine and the grocery order includes juice and a40oz rum for cocktails. In recent years we decided that although she was willing it wasn't fair for one person to do so much. Now we still have the meeting/wine to set the menu, but we also divide up the prep work - one person will bring a lasagna perhaps, one the fajita meat sliced and frozen in the marinade, one the giant pan of desert, etc. I find this arrangement more equitable work wise, but way more awkward financially. Some people wave off being reimbursed, others (meat dishes) submit receipts. Regardless which way we do it, the food costs always seem to be $35-40 per person for the four days including the rum.

Over the years we have cut down considerably on what we take. We used to plan different deserts for every day - now one large desert (lasagna pan sized) lasts all three nights. We've also stopped planning formal lunches. We tend to chat over coffee and have breakfast midmorning (always bacon/eggs one day and pancakes/sausage the next). Lunch was happening at 2-3 in the afternoon for those around, but the hikers and shoppers were generally miles from the condo at this point. We've now dropped the official lunch and instead we get an assortment of veggies, dips, cheese, crackers. Everyone helps themselves if they are around and feel like it. Some just do brunch and dinner. The last day we have to be out of the condo by 11am so we always plan on bagels, yogurt and fruit so we can clear up quickly and pack up. In the past few years we've instituted the Girls' weekend Rubbermaid. One person stores the bin between trips, and in it we keep the non-perishibles carried over from one trip to the next which we don't want to rebuy, or which might be missing or substandard at the rental - plasic wrap, foil, baggies, tea bags, sugar/sweetener packets, shot glass, corkscrew, extra dish/tea towels. It's not rocket science but it seems to work for us and now we rarely have any left overs and always a good variety of meals. One weekend we even did dinners from different countries and dressed for the theme. It was a riot - on Caribean night we dined in our bathing suits and dollar store sunglasses and leis. On Greek night we all showed up in togas.

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