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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