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Self-catering for Large Groups

COVID lockdowns and restrictions appear to be over, and people everywhere are organising get-togethers, parties, weddings, and in this year in particular, Jubilee street parties – in fact all kinds of events that require catering for a large group of people. The options for feeding all your guests are either to use a venue with catering included, to hire contract caterers or to do the catering yourself.

DIY or self-catering is not as daunting as it may first seem. Whether you are providing food and refreshments for 10 people or 100 people, it is all fairly doable, if you put a detailed plan together and set your expectations accordingly.

If you are not planning to host your event at home, many venues offer the option to “self-cater” for your event and even hire some of the equipment you may need as part of the venue hire package.

Such as:

  • Tablecloths and paper napkins.
  • Crockery, cutlery and glassware.
  • Cake table, stand and cake knife.
  • Use of the venue’s self-catering kitchen for the reheating of food.
  • Set-up and clear down of the venue.

What is self-catering?

Self-catering or a DIY catering event such as a wedding, a party, or even a funeral means that you will not need the help of professional caterers for your day. You simply enlist the help of your family members and friends to take on the tasks of a catering service. This will include such things as planning the menu, purchasing ingredients, preparing the dishes, transportation and set-up, serving guests, and finally cleaning up after the event.

Self-catering or DIYing your event can help you cut down on costs that would have been spent on catering staff and even save on food and drink costs too.

Self catering hiring crockery and cutlery and glassware

Self-catering for large groups

If you are considering self-catering or DIY catering, it is important to start planning early, get organised, and understand what you need to do in the days leading up to your event. Self-catering does not always mean that you will spend less, but it often can. The way that you organise your self-catering determines whether it will make or ruin your event.

A self-catered event may require a large number of willing family members and friends to help you if you are dealing with a large group of guests. You will want to be selective with who you choose to help you prepare food for your guests; a friend who rarely cooks and can’t even boil an egg may be enthusiastic but are they going to be useful?

You will need to make yourself and any helpers familiar with food safety protocols before you even start, to ensure that your guests don’t get food poisoning.

Space is a major factor in self-catering. If you don’t have the space at home to cater for a large group, you may be able to hire a self-catering kitchen for preparation, or allocate specific food preparation to friends and family to do in their kitchens. On the topic of space, have you considered if your venue can hold the number of people you are expecting?

Make sure you have a solid plan in place of everything you need to book, to buy, to prepare, everything already organised and everything left to do, all the helpers you have been able to enlist and what you want them to help with.

Self-catering for large groups – planning

It’s important to plan ahead. Once you have confirmed numbers of people who will be attending your event, you will know how many to cater for, so make sure that you send out your invitations in good time and chase up the RSVPs.

Next, decide on what style of catering you want to provide. This can range from anything from a sit-down multi-course meal to a finger buffet. Will your guests be seated or standing? If they are going to be standing around or if there is limited seating, it is best to plan easy to manage food such as buffets or canapes. Will you require cutlery, glasses etc.? What type of tableware do you need, ceramic or disposable plates? Make a list of the serving dishes you will be using, or that you need to borrow. What’s the occasion, do you need balloons, decorations, alcohol, a cake?

You can then start menu planning; think about how different menu items will complement each other. Using a theme such as Italian, Asian, Tex-Mex, barbecue, veggie, etc. can help with ideas. However, when feeding a large group, it is best to stick to foods that are commonly popular; buffet items like salad, pasta, roasted or steamed vegetables, chicken, etc. usually go down well – not everyone is into sushi or highly spiced foods. You want your guests to enjoy your food and not be left hungry.

The key is to keep the menu and serving processes as simple as possible. Consider the time of year and what seasonal food is available, and of course the dietary requirements of your guests. Aim for 3–4 menu options that will suit all tastes and diets. You may also need to consider the age groups of your guests – are there any children? Their tastes and needs may be different to the adults.

As you plan the menu, think about what equipment each dish or drink will require and test them out ahead of time so you are familiar with everything you will be using. A cold food menu is easier than serving hot foods. All cold foods could be prepared in advance.

Once you have your guest list confirmed and you have chosen your menu, it’s time to calculate the quantities of ingredients that you will need. There are some handy online kitchen calculators to use if you haven’t catered for larger numbers of people before.

Always take into consideration that the number of guests that you have been given might not always match with the number who turn up, especially at a buffet event. While you obviously don’t want to provide too much food, it is better to have a little more than necessary and also make sure that you have additional plates, cutlery and glasses too, just in case.

Let guests know what’s on the menu, as it prevents queues forming at the front of the serving area, and let’s seated guests know what to expect by making the menu options super clear and visible whilst people are waiting to be served.

How much alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages you will need depends on your guests’ preferences, the duration of your event and what kind of drinks you want to supply.

 If it is not a “bring a bottle” event, then a guide might be:

  • Plan for two drinks per person for the first hour and one per additional hour. Keep in mind that guests will drink more at evening events than afternoon events.
  • Non-alcoholic beverages – Allow for one to two drinks per person if you are providing alcohol and three per person if you are not.
  • Wine – Plan for one bottle per two guests. So, for a party of 50, you’ll need about 25 bottles.
  • Beer – Allow for two glasses per guest for the first hour and one per guest for each additional hour. This means you will roughly need 150 bottles for a party of 50.

And don’t forget the ice, for putting in the drinks and for keeping drinks cool.

Beverages for self catering event

Self-catering for large groups – dietary requirements

One of the most common problems people run into with self-catering is difficulty meeting all the guests’ dietary needs. It is estimated that as many as 3 in 10 people in the UK currently live with a food intolerance or allergy, which means the possibility of you having to cater for one or more special dietary requirements is almost a certainty.

Make sure you find out about any special dietary requirements in advance of planning your menu. It may mean a few tweaks in your menu ideas, but you will still be able to provide food that everyone will enjoy.

There are many reasons for dietary constraints and they differ from person to person.

Some of the more common ones include:

  • Special dietary requirements such as vegetarian, vegan and pregnancy.
  • Religious reasons such as halal, kosher.
  • Food allergies and intolerances such as gluten-free, dairy-free, fish and shellfish allergies, nut allergies.

Gluten is a protein that’s most commonly found in wheat, barley, rye, and their familial grains. It commonly adds elasticity and a chewy texture to bread and wheat products, as well as aiding the rising process in baking. An intolerance, often referred to as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, is when the body has difficulty digesting gluten.

Coeliac disease on the other hand is an autoimmune condition where the proteins in gluten attack the lining of the stomach and other intestinal tissue.

Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is found in foods like bread, pasta, cereals, flour, cakes and biscuits, and processed foods such as soups, sauces and ready meals. If you are worried about feeding your guest(s) who may have this intolerance, Coeliac UK provide a checklist that can help you.

People can have both an allergy and an intolerance to dairy products. An allergy to dairy products is an autoimmune response and can be fatal, while an intolerance is a gastrointestinal reaction to the enzyme lactose. Allergy UK provide a checklist that can help you with dairy and other food allergies such as nut, fish and shellfish.

Halal is Arabic for permissible. Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Koran. Food Guide provide a checklist that can help you identify and provide halal food for any guests that require it.

The main principles of kashrut (kosher laws) are laid down in the Chumash (the Jewish Bible) and are classified as ‘statutes’. KLBD provide information on catering that can help you provide kosher food for your guests.

A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat but who will eat foods made from animals. Unlike a vegetarian diet, vegans will not consume any animal products, including meats and products derived from animals. The Vegetarian Society can provide recipes and information on vegetarian and vegan foods you can prepare for your guests.

If your group has an extensive list of food allergies, or if you have many guests who are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, it can be easier and safer to do at least some of the menu as vegan and/or gluten-free to ensure everyone’s needs are met. The non-vegans and anyone without food allergies will be able to enjoy this food too.

How to store food when self-catering for large groups

Large events mean large quantities of cooked and uncooked food. These compete for limited amounts of storage, fridge and freezer space. Inappropriate storage is one of the most common faults reported as contributing to food poisoning outbreaks. Food is often left unrefrigerated for lengthy periods of time as domestic fridges are not designed to cope with the large amounts of food prepared in the home for events.

Don’t take chances. Make sure that you’ve got the fridge and freezer capacity needed to keep food cool and safe. You can even hire additional fridges and freezers if needed; they are available in any size from an undercounter domestic fridge right up to a walk-in cold room and mobile fridge trailers.

Some tips for ensuring you are storing food safely include:

  • Check food labels for storage instructions.
  • It is important to keep perishable food in the fridge, particularly in the summer. Most bacteria grow quickly at temperatures above 5°C.
  • Prepare food that needs to be kept in the fridge last. Don’t leave it standing around at room temperature. Leaving ready-to-eat food at room temperature for a long time can allow harmful bacteria to grow.
  • Cool food immediately after cooking and never allow it to be at room temperature for more than 4 hours.
  • Always store food in the refrigerator as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.
  • The coldest part of your fridge should be kept between 0°C and 5°C (32-41°F). Use a fridge thermometer to check the temperature regularly.
  • Always keep raw and defrosting meat at the base of the refrigerator, below everything else. Keep them below where any ready-to-eat food is stored and keep them in a leak-proof container. Make sure that you protect the salad tray from any drips too.
  • Don’t clutter up the fridge with wines, beers and soft drinks. These drinks may taste better cold, but they don’t need to be refrigerated. Keep them in separate ice buckets, cool bags or cold water. You can then maximise available fridge space for perishable items.
  • Don’t overload your fridge. The efficiency of the fridge will suffer if the cooling air circulating within it cannot flow freely.
  • Do not let raw foods, such as meat and poultry, or unwashed fruit, vegetables and salads, come into contact with food that is ready to eat.
  • Put the food in clean, sealable containers or use clingfilm.
  • Once the food is prepared, getting it to where the event is being held can be a problem. This can be particularly difficult when there are large quantities of perishable food involved. Use cool boxes and use ice packs in cool bags.
  • Check the facilities where the event is being held are adequate for keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Self-catering for large groups is not something to be taken on lightly. Large amounts of food needs to be prepared in advance and stored appropriately. If this is not done properly, the risk of food poisoning is increased.

Covering food for hygiene purposes

Self-catering for large groups – food hygiene requirements

The main causes of food poisoning and food-borne illness and some of the most common errors that self-caterers can make are:

  • Not defrosting foods correctly.
  • Preparing foods too far in advance.
  • Not cooking foods properly.
  • Poor storage, such as storing foods incorrectly; that is, too warm, so that bacteria can grow quickly.
  • Not separating raw and ready-to-eat food.
  • Cross-contamination of foods after cooking.
  • Cold foods not kept cold enough.
  • Hot foods not kept hot enough.
  • Infection from people handling foods due to poor hygiene.

When handling or preparing food at home, you should follow the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013 to ensure that the food you are preparing and serving is safe for your guests to eat.

A summary of the important points in the legislation that anyone catering for a large group should consider include:

  • Ensuring that the area that you are using for food handling, preparation and serving is clean and in a good state of repair.
  • Ensuring that you have good drainage, lighting and ventilation.
  • Ensuring that you have appropriate and sufficient waste disposal facilities and making sure the bin area is kept clean.
  • Making sure that the kitchen equipment that you are using is in good condition and kept clean.
  • Having an effective cleaning routine throughout handling, preparing and serving food and making sure that work surfaces are disinfected, e.g. anti-bacterial.
  • Having good personal hygiene habits such as regular handwashing, especially after handling raw foods.
  • Wearing appropriate clean protective clothing for handling, preparing and serving food.
  • Using separate, easily identifiable containers for storing raw and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Checking that food is stored at the correct temperature.
  • Keeping foods covered.
  • Using separate colour-coded chopping boards, utensils and areas for preparing raw and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Boil washing any re-usable cloths.

Only ever have a small group of people involved in cooking and food preparation in the kitchen area. The fewer people you have touching everything, the better.

Final thoughts

There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from successfully catering for an event yourself. Focus your own time and energy on what you enjoy doing, and spend money or hire help for the rest.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.



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