Cooking as a large group is bad for a variety of reasons:
- More work to coordinate roles, responsibilities.
- Limited cooking resources (stoves, pots, etc.) means waiting, frustration, idleness, or carrying more than one of everything.
- More likely to waste fuel.
- Waste of energy/misuse of downtime e.g. Instead of cooking every 3rd day/meal you're cooking every meal.
- Harder to build consensus on menu, cooking methods, etc.
Here's the technique that has worked best for any group that I've been in, whether for a 3 day trip or a 10 day trip, 4 people or 25 people:
- Break group up in cooking teams For example, for 9 people I'd probably do 3 teams of 3.
Each team is assigned one ore more meals. We usually assign breakfast and dinner.
Its easier for people to manage their own lunch/snacks, mostly because people might split up or lag behind during and/or have different eating habits during the day. By keeping lunch light/simple it also helps avoid lunch becoming a 2 hour break on a busy day.
For dinner, the meal must consist of:
- appetizer lets people satisfy hunger quickly while the team prepare the main dish. In a back country hut appetizer might be vegetables, bread, dips, meats and cheese, or in a more remote location it might simply be instant soup and crackers.
- main dish the hearty main course, could be anything from pasta to beans and rice to mexican, or just a bunch of freeze-dried packets cooked together.
- salad (optional) usually reserved for nicer conditions. People need roughage.
This allows each team to further break down responsibilities (you do salad, I'll do dessert) but more importantly it creates the conditions for a calorie complete meal (ever have a team bring some instant soup and say that's supper after a long day?), it offers variety for the picky eater and eliminates the risk that a 1 dish meal fails (burnt, missing ingredients/fuel, over salted, poor cooking conditions, etc.) which would leave everyone hungry.
One of the other crews volunteers to do dishes/cleanup afterwards.
The team that cooked the meal packs out the leftovers/garbage, putting better emphasis on portion control.
Coordinate teams in advance of the trip so that they can arrange menus and do their shopping.
- Assign teams and the meals (but not the menu) they will be making. Don't forget to share email addresses! Provide some suggestions for menus if you've got newcomers.
- provide them with the above instructions.
- Have anyone with dietary concerns speak up in advance and share those dietary concerns with all teams.
- Have each team post their menus in advance so that there can be feedback/synergy and to make sure you're not eating canned beans 3 meals in a row.
- Arrange cooking supplies in advance: pots, stoves, fuel, etc. so that it leverages efficiency and keeps weight to a minimum.
I find this process tends to create positive one-upmanship as people show off their culinary prowess. It also lets teams that have done this before share simple recipes/tips for those that are doing this for the first time.
The only downside to this method is that if you've never cooked for a large group before it can be a bit daunting. The first time I cooked for 25 people in the backcountry I tried the meal in advance with 4 people at home, measuring and portioning meticulously, and worked out the portions from there.
Some tips for cooking for large groups
- practice a smaller version of your meal in advance to perfect portions
- measure everything in advance, at home.
- make sure that you'll have enough pots to feed everyone efficiently. You can't feed 25 people with a 1L pot in 1 hour.
- manage portions yourself for the first serving, then let anyone go back for as much as they want.
- make sure everyone else is fed one serving, THEN serve yourself and THEN let people go back for seconds, thirds.
- put an extra portion or two in and you'll avoid not having enough. Someone will have the appetite for seconds.
- everything tastes better in the woods when you're tired and hungry. Don't sweat it!