Coping with large family gatherings

Posted on: 05 November 2009 by Mark O'haire

As the Christmas season approaches one thing is certain: at some point over the festive season most of us will find ourselves meeting up with our nearest and dearest. If we’re really lucky, we might even get to do the catering.

Family ChristmasComing from and having married into a big family, I am a veteran of producing food for large family gatherings. I am hugely fortunate that there are no lingering feuds on either side of the family resulting in a 'you can’t put Auntie Maud with Uncle Donald' kind of moments, but nonetheless catering en masse for large numbers, can be extremely daunting, particularly in the run up to Christmas.

The temptation when having the family over is to show off. I am a keen cook and well remember the delight one Christmas I found in producing a recipe involving lamb cutlets and a fabulous tasting sauce, which required preparing the day before. I was less than enthused to discover that the fruits of my hard work had boiled away to practically nothing by the time it was served on a plate.

Nowadays I do my best to keep it simple, so that I am not spending hours beforehand and during the party preparing food. If I am hosting a dinner party I will stick to tried and trusted recipes, mainly taken from my trusty recipe book: My finest hour was producing steak flambéed in brandy while all my guests were sitting round the kitchen table watching. I wouldn’t recommend it mind, as it was a tad stressful, but because the recipe was relatively easy, I was able to talk and cook at the same time.

If you are having larger numbers than that, I’d suggest having a buffet as it allows people to pick and choose as they wish and you aren’t obliged to spend the whole day in the kitchen, as the food can be prepared earlier. When we have family parties we often cook a side of beef and roast a turkey beforehand and cut up the slices of cold meat on the day. Salads, obviously can only be prepared in the morning, but quiches, sausage rolls, sausages can all be cooked the day before and stored.  Get loads of French bread. If all else fails most people will be happy with French bread and cheese or pate.

Don’t be too proud to go to Iceland and get some of their frozen range of party food, because it will save you time and effort and so long as there’s something to eat, and people have got a glass in their hand, in my experience they don’t care too much what you put before them. If time is a really crucial factor, then see if you can order the food from somewhere like Marks and Spencers. That way all you have to do is open it up on the day and put it out on plates. So long as your guests have enough to eat, it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t been up making pastry since before breakfast.

Get togethers with my family involve feeding 14 adults and 18 children. We’ve found by the far the best way of doing this is to do the food in two sittings. Apart from anything else, none of us have got big enough tables to get everyone round. So we usually feed the children first and then the grownups eat at their leisure. Making something like a chilli con carne is a great way of feeding people en masse, and it’s perfectly easy to make a vegetarian version if need be. The great thing about a chilli, or as on another recent occasion when we had large numbers, a beef stew, is that you can cook it beforehand and then heat it up when you’re ready. No mess, no fuss.

Another good idea is not worrying too much about your cutlery and plates. Unless you have very snooty family members who’d turn their nose up at your offerings, go with paper plates and napkins, it does solve a lot of washing up.  Plastic cups for the children are also essential unless you want to bring a cloud to proceedings as little Johnny proceeds to smash all the cut glass wine glasses that Great Aunt Harriet gave you for your wedding present. Plastic cutlery is also useful, though my husband does tend to get a bit snooty about that, so bought us some cheap and cheerful metal cutlery which also does the trick.

For many of us these days, space can be at a premium, and entertaining in December can be tricky as you can’t spill out outside. The best thing we’ve found is moving tables as far into the corner of rooms as possible, and loading up the food on there, while placing chairs around the edges of the rooms to liberate space. Generally people get chatting, particularly at buffets, so they don’t always need to sit down for the whole event.

Puddings can be a difficult one to gauge  - we invariably end up with more than we need, but the times I think I’ll cut down on puddings, tend to be the times everything gets eaten. At Christmas obviously mince pies come into their own. And again if you don’t have time to make them, the supermarkets are full of so many different varieties these days you won’t be short of choice. Fruit salads are a nice easy and light pudding for this time of year, and I’d recommend cheesecakes and tarts because these can be made earlier and frozen. However, again if you’re short of time, it’s easy to buy frozen puddings from the supermarket.

And finally, it’s your family you’re entertaining, not the Queen. Presuming you all get on and no one has two heads or anything, the main thing is to spend some quality time at Christmas together. Which means you needn’t do all the work.  So whatever else happens, make sure they help clear up!

By Julia Williams

About The Author

Julia Williams is the author of Last Christmas published by Avon, £6.99

Last ChristmasThe perfect Christmas novel for romantics everywhere, Last Christmas is set in the village of Hope Christmas where four of the villagers are struggling with the festive season. With her marriage in tatters, her children running wild and her mother increasingly forgetful, Catherine Tinsall’s seasonal cheer is running low. Husband Noel also hides a secret: he’s facing the axe at work. Gabriel North faces a lonely Christmas but hides his sadness for the sake of his son. Will his wife ever come home? Meanwhile, local schoolteacher Marianne Moore is trying to heal her battered heart. All four need a Christmas miracle. And it might just happen - courtesy of a mysterious guardian angel.

Julia has always made up stories in her head, and until recently she thought everyone else did too. She grew up in London, one of eight children, including a twin sister. She married Dave, a dentist, in 1989, and they have four daughters. After the birth of the second, Julia went freelance and decided to try her hand at writing.

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