Cooking for a Crowd

Deciding what to dish up for dinner is difficult enough for the average family of four. So imagine the effort involved in preparing for a swarm of seven or more every evening. Shopping for and feeding a big brood can be a daunting undertaking. These four seasoned mothers of five have honed their creativity and culinary skills over the years as the size of their families increased, adapting along the way. Here, they offer advice, a few tricks and a recipe or two. 

Heather Robinson

Favorite family meals? 
Spaghetti and meatballs and pot stickers are crowd pleasers. Oddly enough, my whole family likes my meatloaf (opposite). It’s really delicious when paired with our tomato relish. 

Biggest challenge of feeding a large family? 
We sit down as a family to eat almost every night, but juggling schedules to make it happen is tough: swimming, volleyball, tennis, football, basketball, drama, violin lessons and tutors.

Greatest joy in feeding a sizable crew?
Most nights, we not only have our crew but an extra friend or two. The conversations are utterly unpredictable when that many personalities come together. It’s like going out to a party every night.

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How do you handle picky eaters?
None of my kids are picky, but some have their quirks – as in, nothing on the plate can touch and the only condiment is mayo. I stick to simple meals – a meat, a cooked veggie, a starch and a salad. I hold off on spices that can be added at the table and leave sauces on the side. I also make sure my salads have every vegetable I can find, and I’m perfectly OK with kids picking through to serve themselves what they like. The one thing I will not do is short-order cook. I prepare one meal, and if you cannot find something you like, you can just have a really big breakfast the next morning!

Marvelous Meatloaf

This recipe is Heather’s adaptation of the version served at The Buckhead Diner in Atlanta. It makes two sizable loaves, and leftovers make great sandwiches.

2 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped green onion
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 bay leaves 
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs 

1. Melt together the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan. 
2. Sauté onion, celery, bell pepper, green onion and garlic together with seasonings until vegetables are soft and onion is translucent, approximately 5 – 8 minutes.  
3. Stir in Worcestershire, ketchup and milk. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly, then combine with meat. 
4. Mix in eggs and breadcrumbs until well-combined. 
5. Shape into two loaves. Place on broiler pan. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 45 minutes to an hour. 
6. Serve with Robinson relish, if desired (below). Serves 10 – 12

Mrs. Robinson’s tomato relish

Robinson relish is a zesty family tradition that pairs well with meatloaf. Heather’s husband Luckett’s late mother, Helen Robinson, always made it, and now Luckett and Heather make it every summer. Heather says that it is perfect for grilled meats, including pork tenderloin, chicken and flank steak.

24 large tomatoes, blanched, peeled and diced
6 large green bell peppers,  seeded and diced
8 large white onions, peeled and diced
4 cups white vinegar
8 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon nutmeg 

1. Combine diced tomatoes, bell peppers and onions in a very large roasting pan. (Heather uses a huge 20-by-16-by-4.5-inch pan that covers two stove burners.) 
2. Stir in vinegar and the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for approximately 6 – 8 hours. (Mixture should be thick enough to leave a path when you drag a spoon through it and reduced by at least half.) 
3. Put up the relish using the standard directions for canning on half-pint mason jars. Makes about 1 dozen half-pint jars.

Katie Moore

Favorite family meals? 
Ice cream and cake! Homemade pizza, tacos, spaghetti. 

Biggest challenge of feeding a large family?
We’re firm believers that the best way to stay out of the doctor’s office is by eating nutritious food. But it is a challenge to find cost effective ways to do that since fresh, unprocessed foods tend to be more expensive. Making sure everyone is sitting down, eating and not feeding it to the dog is right up there, too! 

Greatest joy in feeding a sizable crew?
Family meals are fun. On Friday mornings, my husband Scott makes pancakes from scratch, often with chocolate chips or blueberries or in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Emma and Camille frequently help me cook, as well.

How do you handle picky eaters?
Everyone has to eat at least three bites; if they don’t like it, they can choose not to eat it. I’m not a short-order cook, so what’s for dinner is what’s for dinner.

Secrets to making weeknight suppers quick and easy?
Scott is the pastor at Trinity Family Gardens, and a few of the girls in the neighborhood and I have cooking nights a couple times a month. It’s a great time for fellowship and it helps us all out. Other advice: Love your crockpot and plan ahead. Restaurants where kids eat free are awesome in a pinch.


Katie was raised in New Orleans, so Cajun cooking is a family favorite. She says, “I grew up eating jambalaya often but didn’t love the rice being so thick and fluffy and the dish being so ‘casserole-like.’ So, I decided to cook the rice separately from the broth and came up with ‘gumbalaya’, which is more like a soupy jambalaya.” 

2 tablespoons butter 
1/2 pound bacon (and/or sausage),  cut into small pieces 
1 large bell pepper
1 large onion, diced 
3 ribs of celery, diced
1 small head of garlic (cloves peeled and minced) 
1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s or other Cajun seasoning, or to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
2 large tomatoes, chopped 
3/4 – 1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 bay leaves, optional 
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water 

1 1/2 cups of rice (Katie uses brown rice) 

1. Combine butter and bacon (and/or sausage) in a big soup pot. Cook on high until the meat is mostly cooked through, approximately 5 minutes.  
2. Add the pepper, onion, celery and garlic. Add the Tony’s, salt and pepper. Saute until veggies are tender and slightly caramelized, about 8 minutes. 
3. Add the tomatoes, shrimp and bay leaves, and cook for a few more minutes while stirring. Then add the broth and water. Bring to a boil.  
4. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. 
5. Meanwhile, cook rice according to directions. Ladle mixture over rice. Uncover and bake 10 more minutes. Serves 6 – 8.

Virginia Jeffery

Favorite family meals?
Everyone likes Mexican and Italian food! 

Biggest challenge of feeding a large family? 
Coming up with fresh, new meal ideas and dealing with multiple eating times based on various activities and schedules. Cooking with two hungry 2-year-olds clinging to your legs is also quite fun.

How do you handle picky eaters?
Our children are good eaters, with a few exceptions. When we run into a food they don’t like or think they don’t like (typically a vegetable), we make our children at least eat one or two bites. It is hard finding new foods that everyone enjoys – it’s a matter of trial and error.

Where do you get new recipe ideas or inspiration?
Every couple of weeks, we will try something new, and we typically get the idea either from friends or blogs. We love Mimi Inge’s blog,

Secrets to making weeknight suppers quick and easy?
Any prepping that can be done earlier in the day certainly makes supper easier. We usually have some sort of meat and three vegetables. Simplicity is the key for busy nights when we don’t have much time to cook. 

Chicken Spectacular

The Jeffery children adore this classic casserole recipe that comes from their grandmother, Carol Ann Jeffery.

1 box Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice
3 cups diced, cooked chicken (approximately 3 large breasts)
1 (16-ounce) can French-style green beans, drained
1 (4-ounce) jar diced pimentos, drained
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 (8-ounce) can water chestnuts, drained and chopped
2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans cream of celery soup
1/2 – 1 cup mayonnaise
1 (8-ounce) can sliced mushrooms, drained, optional
salt and pepper, to taste
sliced almonds for garnish, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook rice according to package directions, omitting butter. 
2. Combine all ingredients except almonds. Pour into 9-by-13-inch baking dish. 
3. Top with almonds and bake for 30 – 45 minutes. (May freeze before baking.) Serves 10 – 12.

Emily Smith

Favorite family meals? 
Gumbo, chicken or shrimp and grits, homemade spaghetti, jambalaya and fresh fish prepared by Daddy.

Biggest challenge of feeding a large family? 
The time that it takes to shop for a large family can be quite a challenge, especially when I have several children in tow.

How do you handle picky eaters?
Finding food everyone enjoys is nearly impossible, especially when their preferences change regularly. I try to allow each child the opportunity to select a favorite meal for the week. There are always times when they do not care for a particular meal – then they always have the choice to eat or not to eat.

Advice on shopping for and feeding a big family?
I am still learning. As my babies get older, I am having to adjust to feeding larger appetites. I try to get meats and basics at Sam’s or Costco, but I also make an effort to buy my produce and seafood locally.

Secrets to making weeknight suppers quick and easy?
Prepare, prepare, prepare. I attempt to make larger meals on weekends and save the meals that take less prep time for  week nights. Then, there are times when we have to succumb to ballpark offerings. 

Creole Chicken and Grits

With roots in Natchez, Mississippi, and St. Francisville, Louisiana, Emily says most of her childhood memories involve one or both of her grandparents standing over a pot preparing gumbo. She says both of her grandmothers were influential in teaching her to cook and have passed on their recipes. 

1/2 cup oil
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts 

salt and cracked black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup diced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 quart chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
Louisiana Hot Sauce, to taste
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1/4 cup chopped parsley

6 cups garlic cheese grits (see below)

1. In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat oil over medium high heat. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Saute in oil until lightly browned on both sides, remove and set aside.  
2. Sprinkle in flour, and, using a wire whisk, stir constantly until dark caramel-colored roux is achieved, approximately 5-10 minutes. (Be careful not to burn. Should black specks appear, discard and begin again.)  
3. Add onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic. Saute 3-5 minutes or until vegetables are soft and wilted.  
4. Add bay leaves and tomato sauce, blending well into the veggie mixture. Stir in chicken stock, one cup at a time, until sauce consistency.  
5. Add oregano, basil and thyme. Season to taste using salt, pepper and hot sauce.  
6. Bring mixture to a rolling boil, and reduce to simmer.  
7. Add chicken breast to the sauce and allow to cook 30 minutes. Add more stock should sauce become too thick.  
8. Add green onions and parsley, and adjust seasonings if necessary. May serve the chicken breasts whole or chopped. (Emily chops the chicken into bite-size pieces before serving to make the dish more kid-friendly.) Serve over garlic cheese grits (below). Serves 6 – 8. 

garlic cheese grits

1 cup grits, uncooked
4 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package Velveeta
1/2 pound sharp cheddar, shredded or cut into pieces
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder, may add more to taste 

1. Cook the grits in the salted water according to package directions. 
2. Stir in butter, cheeses, Worcestershire sauce and garlic powder.  
3. Stir until the butter and cheese have melted.

text and styling by Sallye Irvine • photos by Elizabeth Gelineau • portraits by major adam colbert

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