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Planning a Family Reunion?

Simple menus are key to making any big gathering fun for all (even the cooks)

I'm an only child, so I guess it makes sense I would marry a man with six brothers and sisters. I love David's family. His sisters have become my sisters, his brothers, my brothers.

Like many families, this one has scattered big time. But it's a close family, too, so an annual reunion is a priority. Every year Grandpa and as many of the seven siblings and spouses, 25 grandchildren (14 of whom are married) and 28 great-grandchildren gather in the Tennessee mountains at a 17-bedroom house with two kitchens and nearby auxiliary cabins.

One of the weekend's big challenges is how to get us all fed, watered and snacked for the nearly three days we gather. With that many people, it's not surprising that we've got everything from adventurous to picky eaters, as well as committed locavores, vegans, lactose intolerant and a few kids with nut allergies.

So how do you serve such an intergenerational crowd with diverse tastes and needs? It's your family, after all, and you want everyone to feel welcome and respected at the table. Plus, it's got to be extremely easy to prepare. No one wants to spend their precious short weekend slaving in the kitchen.

Over the years our strategy has evolved. Here's what it looks like: Mornings are typically Continental with cereal, a range of milks — including nondairy — and juices. Sometimes the sisters bring homemade molasses bread and sweet rolls, using their late mother's recipes. We all love it, but don't expect it. For protein lovers, there are eggs in the fridge, but it's make 'em yourself.

Family members tend to scatter for afternoon activities so we make bagged lunches — sandwiches, chips, fruit, drinks (we take turns making the lunches).

The second night a local barbecue restaurant caters the dinner. In addition to ribs and chicken, the meal includes baked beans, corn, cornbread and slaw, all of which creates a meal for the meatless crowd. Our last night we order pizzas — veggie and even cheese-less are easy — and make big, fresh salads.

But the first night we gather, everyone's been traveling. Whether we've flown in or made a road trip, we're craving a simple homemade supper. Here's one of our typical opening night menus.

We offer “Grown-up” Sloppy Joes for our mostly carnivorous crowd, but we also make a batch of Lentil Sloppy Joes. There's corn on the cob, which requires very little preparation (and completes the protein for those eating Lentil Sloppy Joes). We make a big salad, too, and carb watchers can skip the bun and top their salad with either of the Sloppy Joe mixtures.

The Salted Chocolate Toffee bars are the perfect little first-night dessert. They travel well, making them easy to pack. Except for vegans and dieters, everyone loves them. You can put out some fresh seasonal fruit, but in the end most everyone nibbles at the bars. Who can resist the irresistible?

Enjoy this year's family reunions. With a little thought and preparation, it's easy to take care of just about everybody in the family.

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