Meal Planning, Shopping, and Cooking for 30!

posted by Andrea | 02/16/2013

Last weekend, Dave, Nora, and I went up north for a long weekend with friends. There were 30 people total — but (brace yourself) 12 of them were under the age of 4! We stayed at a huge ranch house that slept 30 (which was perfect for our group) and it was beautiful!


We had so much fun — and besides a massive blizzard on our drive up, the weather was absolutely gorgeous!

The only “problem” was that the ranch was a 40 minute round-trip drive to the nearest grocery store or restaurant. And since we didn’t want to spend our entire trip making and preparing food, I offered to do much of the busywork before we arrived.

Thankfully everyone else brought desserts, goodies, snacks, drinks, etc. — and we divided the cost of groceries and other supplies evenly among the 9 families.

As I was planning out the menu and my shopping list a couple weeks ago, I asked for your suggestions on facebook and got a whole slew of fabulous recipes and ideas! I was also asked (repeatedly) to share any tips I learned as well as my finalized menu on the blog.

So here we go! 

A Menu for a Crowd:

Breakfast for Friday – Sunday:

Lunches for Friday – Sunday:

  • Salad (with some sort of meat, cheese, bacon bits, and other toppings)
  • Baked sandwiches (I made 4 dozen buns without the sauce and froze them ahead of time)
  • Baked potato bar
  • Leftovers
  • Mac & cheese / PB&J for kids

Dinners for Thursday – Saturday:

  • Mexican Casserole (my friend made two 9″x13″ pans ahead of time)
  • Pizza (we ordered it)
  • Lasagna, salad, and garlic bread (3 large trays)

Snacks for Thursday – Sunday:

  • Muffins
  • Cookies
  • Brownies
  • Granola bars
  • Fresh fruit, yogurt, granola
  • Candy
  • Popcorn


So yeah, my grocery bill definitely wasn’t under $50 like normal 🙂

And speaking of groceries, it was quite a feat to get all the groceries I needed. I really wanted to do it all in one trip, but unfortunately, it took about 4 trips to get everything — mainly because I made most of the meals ahead of time and waited to get the perishable ingredients until later. Plus a made a separate stop at a bulk supply store that always has really good prices on paper products.

So while I definitely haven’t perfected the art of grocery shopping for a crowd, here are a few of my tips.

Grocery Shopping For a Crowd:

1. Type out a detailed meal plan for each day

Normally, I just write our weekly dinner plans in my planner, but for this large of an event, I planned every meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and typed out all the details of each meal so I wouldn’t forget anything. I even color-coded the days for fun!

meal plan

2. Print off every individual recipe so you have it in front of you.

I’m usually an advocate for keeping recipes digital, but for something like this, I knew I wanted all the recipes to be right there in front of me (and attached to my meal plan). Plus, I wanted to be able to bring the recipes along with me and have them available in case someone else needed to put them in the oven or take care of last-minute preparations.

all recipes

3. Go through each recipe and write down everything you need on one big master list.

For example, if I needed 2 cups of sour cream, I would write “2 cups of sour cream”, not just “sour cream”.

4. Look at your master list and consolidate “like” items into one shopping list.

Your first list is going to look really long and messy… that’s OK! The trick is to go through and consolidate “like” items together. For example, if one recipe needed 2 cups of sour cream, another recipe needed 3 cups, and you needed another cup of sour cream for your baked potatoes, you would need 6 cups of sour cream total. So write “6 cups of sour cream” on your shopping list.

Similarly, if you want yogurt and fruit available multiple times, make sure you mentally try to estimate how much you might need, and list it as one item on your shopping list (3 quarts of yogurt, 4 bunches of grapes, etc.)

5. Stick to the list! 

When you’re buying this many groceries, you can’t afford to get side-tracked or wander from your list!

Also, when I got home from the store, I immediately grouped groceries for each recipe together to make sure I didn’t forget anything (you can see the start of that process in the image below)


A Few More Tips to Feed a Crowd:

1. Use paper products.

I know it might be a bit wasteful, but washing dishes for 30 people after every meal would have taken way too long. I also purchased disposable baking pans so I could make all the food ahead of time and didn’t have to worry about running out of pans or getting my pans back after the weekend was over.

2. Make simple foods that can be made ahead and frozen.

I rarely ever make fancy or time-consuming meals, so this wasn’t that difficult for me. I picked a few dishes that were easy to double, triple, and quadruple; easy to make ahead and freeze; and had simple, frugal ingredients.

I was actually able to make and freeze almost all of the food 2 weeks ahead of time… and then all we had to do was defrost it, maybe add a sauce or a few ingredients, and bake.




I’m always a big fan of labeling everything in my freezer, but it’s even more important when making so much food ahead of time. I write what the contents of the container were, what the baking instructions were, etc.


4. Don’t stress about getting every single good deal.

I’m speaking mainly to myself on this one! I was trying to get all the good deals, but that’s really hard when you need to buy 10 of something and it’s not on sale… but you need it now.

Although it totally goes against every fiber of my being, I finally decided that I’d get any deal I could, but I wouldn’t stress about paying full price for something if necessary.

This shopping excursion definitely made me realize how much I DO save by shopping the sales and using coupons! WOW!


More Simple Crowd-Pleasing Recipe Ideas:

1. Chili in the slow cooker

2 Taco Bar or Walking Tacos

3. Pulled Pork in the slow cooker

4. Any type of salad and/or sandwich

5. Roasts, ham, or other large cuts of meat in a slow cooker or in the oven

6. Any type of soup in a slow cooker

7. A bunch more ideas in this Facebook thread

All in all, our weekend away was a success. We had plenty of food, it all tasted great, and we all had a TON of fun with our friends (especially Nora!)

Do you have any other tips to add to my list — or any other fabulous recipes that are awesome for large groups?

Visit my virtual recipe box for more simple, delicious, family friendly, recipes!


Filed under: FoodFreezer CookingMeal Planning

Leave a comment


  1. Lyndsey


    Wow! You are so organized! I would love to know where you and your family went. We’re beginning the process of planning a big family vacation (20 of us), and are trying to come up with inexpensive places to go.


  2. Stephanie


    Sounds like a fun trip. My family has done a week cottage trip in the summer a couple tines. 5 families, 12 kids under 7. The biggest expense besides the place was food, which makes sense. But we spent well over $300 per family on food for one week! That is about a month’s worth of groceries for my family. One couple went and purchased all the groceries and we had to go get more halfway through the week.
    I would’ve much rather spent time organizing it and purchasing ahead of time with items on sale. They didn’t want to do that and went the day before the trip to one store. Less stressful maybe…… but I had offered to make a menu plan and shop and stock pile on some items but was turned down.
    Curious how much did you spend on this 3 day trip?

    If we ever do a trip again, we will be getting seperate cottages and cooking for our own family.


    Andrea Reply:

    Wow Stephanie, that’s a big expense for the food! It sounds like your families are a bit larger than ours (all our kids were 4 and under and many were not eating table food). That said, we spend $50 per family on food for the entire weekend and we had a TON of food left over — we actually had to divvy up the food, goodies, drinks, paper products, etc. on the last day so we could clear out the place before we left.

    Also, just so you know, I didn’t stock pile or try to buy everything on sale. I did 2 big shopping trips in one day (one to Meijer and one to Gordon Foods) then we did one shopping trip to Meijer when we got there for milk, eggs, fruit, yogurt, and a couple frozen items we needed. I purchased everything we needed for the recipes I was going to make — but if something wasn’t on sale, I still purchased it anyway. We still saved a bunch and it honestly didn’t take a ton of extra time on my part.


  3. Christina


    Wow, I wonder if we went up at the same time?!?! We did a four day weekend, but with way less people/little ones. Brilliant ‘dining in’ with that many wee ones! I also did all the cooking at the chalet, but only for 10. (12 with guests one night) We brought in tons and I shopped IN my house mainly, hit only the sales I could that week, and we did eat out two meals. I should have checked in at what you made first and could have done WAY less food packing! I usually travel with a crock pot, as it is so easy to dump food in the morning, spend your day playing, and then return to hot wonderful smells at dinnertime. It was fabulous and fun was had by all!

    Another great tip we have done with large groups is assign a meal to each family. It’s easy to bring just a few snacks/drinks and just one meal. I haven’t done it with a group that large, but upwards of 15 and it usually is a blast! Everyone gets to do their ‘speciality,’ and rounds out the cleaning in that area a little too.

    Btw, where do you get your bulk supply paper products from?! I am stealing all your ideas for a trip back in March! The premade, prefrozen, in disposable is golden! Thanks lady!


    Andrea Reply:

    I got all the paper products form Gordon Foods – they had a sale going so everything was extremely reasonable. Plus I had two $5 off coupons which helped a little!


    Christina Reply:

    Gotcha! Thanks! I also stock up there.There beef sales are so worth it! I got prime rib for $3.99lb after Christmas! A true treat! They have their storage containers on sale every year by Thanksgiving/Christmastime and I always restock then. I haven’t ventured out into the paper products. I still have a Sam’s membership (Free to me) and do grab things there.

    I am blessed to be within 3/4 miles to a Gordon’s, Sam’s, Meijer’s, Walmart, Target, Aldi’s and Family Fare… it’s easy to run where the deals are! Plus my youngest is 10. HUGE difference there too!

    Thanks Andrea & Happy Wednesday!


  4. Jen


    You have probably been asked-and then answered-this question multiple times but I can’t seem to remember so I hope you don’t mind me asking it again. Just point me in the right direction if you’ve answered it previously.

    Do you ever shop at Aldi? I know there are several even new and lovely stores in the GR area and I wondered what you thought about the store? I definitely get things there and don’t notice much of a difference in taste or quality, aside from a few obvious things that I wouldn’t buy off-brand anywhere!

    Just wondered! Looks like you had a fabulous trip! So fun! Such great memories. Are these childhood friends, college friends, a church group? Or a good mix! 🙂


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Jen — I actually don’t shop at Aldi’s, but only because they don’t take coupons or credit cards and I don’t like bagging my own groceries when Nora is a long because it’s just one extra step that takes more time

    I have nothing against Aldi’s, I’ve just found that it’s easier for me to shop at a larger store so I can get everything in one trip, and then use my credit card (because we get really good rewards for groceries!)


  5. Kathryn


    You are absolutely amazing, Andrea! What an amazing feat to pull off all those meals!


  6. Living So Abundantly


    When we used to work with the youth group at our church in NY, the teens did a murder mystery dinner. I was the main cook for the dinner. We ran out of beverages, and my hubby announced that I had to leave the kitchen and go get more drinks. Well, the crowd thought that was part of the act and that I was the one who did it. Lol…I really had to go buy more drinks, but it all worked out in the end. It went smoothly, even though it didn’t feel smooth to me. So my tip is to always have enough soft drinks and beverages. Haha!


  7. momstheword


    Wow, I am so impressed that you planned all the meals yourself. That’s a lot of work! It looks like you must have had a lot of fun that weekend and what a blessing you were to all your friends for your willingness to take charge of the meals.

    I am posting a link for one of my go-to meals. My kids and all their friends love it and they always ask me to bring it to any church potlucks. I love it too, it’s yummy and so easy. I like to make it ahead and have one or two in the freezer in case I need to take a meal to someone or I don’t have time to cook.



  8. Jeanine


    Wow, Andrea, your friends were really blessed to have you along. I predict you’ll be invited back!
    I would suggest your enchiladas. I forget the name, but hope I can find it on your site. I’ve made them before, and they were so good! I would probably have every couple plan for one meal, just to make it easier on all concerned, but having you do all the prep work was, no doubt, a huge blessing to your friends!


  9. Tammy Skipper (@Tammy_Skipper)


    I did something like this when we had a big family reunion at a resort a few years ago. We basically had a two bedroom house as our ‘condo’ and everyone ate at our building for meals. We didn’t leave the grounds for 48 hours but the night we all arrived we ate at the restaurant on the grounds. Thanks for writing this all out, saving for future reunion planning 🙂


  10. Kelly C


    I had to comment. This past month my 6th grade daughter has had a math project to prepare meals for 13. I am sure the odd number was designed to make them do some unusual math. What got me during this whole project is that in order to get to the math part, we had to do all the steps 1-5 plus go to the store and price everything for the project. I thought it was way beyond what a 6th grader could do on her own without a lot of parent help. I even wondered if many parents would even know how to do it. It took me hours just finding simple recipes that didn’t require tons of ingredients for her to convert to 13 servings, etc. as part of the project was converting every single ingredient. Even a simple meal of tacos, beans and rice was complicated to a child. Thanks for sharing. I especially like your ideas of labeling the individual ingredients and separating them out ahead also. I probably would have been chopping and shredding at the ranch.


  11. Kristia


    I have a crockpot Broccoli Cheese Soup that is perfect for a big crowd. Some people might be offended by the ingredients, but there are only 4 and it is delicious. It’s also my most pinned post.


  12. Deb


    You continue to amaze me, as if your daily (lack of sleeping) schedule was not enough………way to go!


  13. Charissa


    Nice job!!! Totally off-topic….I love the boots you’re wearing! Where did you get them??


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Charissa, They’re UGG boots (from about 9 years ago!) I have loved them, used them, and abused them for 9 long winters and they are still going strong!


    Charissa Reply:

    Thanks for responding!!


    Holly F. Reply:

    I was going to ask about the boots too!!!!!


  14. Shiann


    When we would go camping, I would put a frozen chicken breast in a vacuum or plastic zip bag and add spices. When it thawed in the cooler, it would marinate and then we could grill it easily. It would also help keep drinks cold while it thawed.