The Family Reunion Planner
Large family gatherings are all about reuniting, connecting and joy. But let’s face it — they’re also about the food.
Food plays a key role in families, setting the tone for celebrations and helping create memories that center on that favorite dish or that recipe passed through the generations. So crafting the menu for a family reunion or other big gathering requires plenty of thoughtful preparation and planning.
“The family-favorite recipes … fill hearts with love and smiles,” says Melissa Johnson, vice president of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, an Ohio-based special events caterer. Food at these events contributes to “very special moments that provide lasting memories.” To make sure the food — whether home cooked or catered — lives up to expectations, Johnson suggests creating a planning committee early in the process to think through event details, including the food. Here are some things to consider.
27 Dishes That Will Please a Crowd
Wondering what sort of go-the-distance dishes to bring to a potluck-style family reunion or big gathering? Focus on simple crowd-pleasers that can easily be made in large quantities, says Shane Jackson, assistant executive chef of Jubilations Catering in Estes Park, Colorado. “Our family loves a good potluck,” he says. “We love that it is community based and personal.”
Here are some classic dishes, plus some others that may be new, for your spread.
1. Arroz con pollo
2. Baked beans
3. Barbecued baby back ribs
5. Charcuterie and cheese tray
6. Cherry tomato, basil, mozzarella ball skewers
7. Chicken enchiladas
8. Chili (meat and vegetarian versions) with a taco bar
9. Clam dip
11. Corn pudding
12. Deviled eggs
13. Fried chicken/chicken wings
14. Fruit skewers
15. Greek pasta salad
16. Grilled corn on the cob
17. Ham and cheese Hawaiian bread sliders
18. Jalapeño cornbread
19. Macaroni and cheese
20. Peach cobbler
21. Potato salad
22. Pound cake
23. Rice and beans
24. Scalloped potatoes
25. Stuffed shells
26. Texas sheet cake
27. Watermelon salad with feta and cucumber
Potluck or catered?
Reunions and other big events can revolve around hands-on home-cooked meals, catered dishes or a mix of both, especially if the gathering is local and there is access to kitchen facilities. Deciding which arrangement guests prefer is a good place to start when it comes to planning. Take a survey of family members’ or guests’ preferences using apps and tools like SurveyMonkey to help gather feedback ahead of time.
“The question of potluck or catering really comes down to budgets,” says Oregon-based author Marie Bostwick, who has written about family reunion planning on her blog, Fiercely Marie. Her recommendation? Start organizing a big event, especially a family reunion, six months to a year in advance to allow for input.
If [a reunion] is catered, costs will be higher,” notes Johnson. “But catering lessens the workload for the attendees and ensures all foods are prepared … safely by professionals, which can be a concern at potluck-style gatherings.”
Allergies and dietary restrictions
If you expect guests with serious food allergies or you’re dealing with a lot of dietary restrictions, including vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, catering may be worth the added cost to ensure compliance and give diners peace of mind.
In addition to preparing dishes that satisfy dietary needs, a professional caterer also follows best practices for avoiding cross-contamination when it comes to food allergies, says Oleh Pereverziev, executive chef at Jubilations Catering in Estes Park, Colorado.
What’s more, “the organization and knowing how much to serve can also be a challenge for most families,” Pereverziev says. Hiring a caterer means event organizers don’t have to provide dishes, utensils, and the heating and cooling elements that large events require.
Focus on food safety
Should your group opt for a potluck-style gathering, Johnson suggests the planning committee create food categories, including snacks and appetizers, main courses, side dishes, drinks and dessert, and determine how much of each is needed. Use an online sign-up form like SignUpGenius so attendees can choose and keep track of what they’re responsible for bringing.
With potluck dishes, a focus on food safety is essential. In hot weather, some food left under the sun can spoil, and raw meats ready for the grill must stay separate to prevent cross-contamination by bacteria, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Perishable food should be kept at 40 degrees F (either in a cooler or on ice) until serving and should not sit out for more than two hours, or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees F, according to the FDA. Hot foods should be kept hot — 140 degrees F or above.
“Someone from the planning committee should take the safety lead and ensure that any cold food signed up for will be displayed on a cooling display or that ice and temperatures are monitored,” advises Johnson.
It’s also helpful and prudent to make sure each dish is tagged with identifying information so everyone knows what it is and what allergens, such as nuts or dairy, the food may contain.
And be sure to place a container of hand sanitizer at the beginning and end of the buffet line to help prevent the spread of germs on commonly touched items like serving utensils and lids, Johnson says.
Incorporate culture and heritage
Whether your family or group represents a single heritage or reflects a mash-up of many cultures, incorporating those unique and much-loved recipes or flavors into a menu makes an event extra special. And when it comes to potluck, noting which relative provided which item is another nice touch.
During the planning phase for a family reunion, for example, Johnson says to consider asking reunion participants: “What are the favorites and must-have items when everyone thinks of their family holidays or times together?”
Beverages are another fun opportunity to play up family culture or heritage, Johnson says. Create signature or themed beverages with and without alcohol, naming drinks after beloved ancestors or events from the family’s history.
After that? Let the fun flow.
“A reunion isn’t the time for a seated and served meal,” which can restrict people’s mobility and conversations, Bostwick says. “It’s much better to keep seating casual and fluid, so people can move around during the meal and visit with as many relatives as possible.”
Terry Ward is a contributing writer who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post and on CNN.
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