Food, glorious food! What could be more essential to any reunion? And what could bring more headaches? Between accommodating vegans, Paleos, gluten-frees and sodium-restricteds, you also have to come up with food that appeals to toddlers, teenagers and adults. What could possibly be stressful about that?
No worries. We’re here to walk you through the meal planning process, starting with figuring just how many meals you’ll need to plan.
Identify Your Reunion Food Needs
First of all, take realistic stock of how much food you’ll be expected to provide. How many people will attend? How long is the reunion? Will you be providing all meals and snacks?
Obviously, this gets more complicated the bigger and longer your reunion is. Suppose you’re hosting a great big bash over a long weekend. Should you have set meal times for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner? Will you have a buffet one night and a formal seated dinner the next? Will guests provide their own snacks and drinks? Will your venue be able to meet the accessibility needs of all of your attendees?
Your budget is going to be a huge factor in the food you offer. All food expenses are usually defrayed by the attendees, so be respectful of everyone’s budget (You’ll find a helpful section on how to pay for reunion food at the end of this article).
Where you hold the reunion also has an effect on your menu plans. If you’re having the reunion at a house, does it have enough kitchen space and equipment to handle the heating and cooling needs of all your food? Trust us, nothing is worse than a crowded kitchen and an over-full fridge when you’re trying to cook dinner for a crowd.
Suppose you go even farther afield – to a campground, a park or some uninhabited wilderness. These cooking facilities are usually basic, so you should plan your menu around outdoor-friendly foods. Guests may not be able to run to the nearest party store to pick up snacks or drinks; in this case, it’s best to have everything you need when you arrive.
Planning Your Menu
Now that the overall structure is in place, let’s start tackling some of the details. Ideally, you might want to hand off the menu planning to a fellow attendee who’s experienced with such things. If this isn’t an option, the pointers below will help you get organized.
The food choices for a themed reunion should match the general atmosphere. This will take extra work and may incur extra expense, so give yourself some extra time.
On the other hand, themed reunion foods can be lots of fun. Some ideas can be planned around specific places (American South, Japan, Italy) or styles (barbecue, fondue). Having era-specific foods really complement special events, like 50th wedding anniversaries or 25th high school reunions. In that case, foods that were popular in the related decade would be an excellent choice.
Accommodating Special Diets
Unless you’re holding a reunion for people that have set dietary requirements (e.g. religious groups), it’s unlikely that you’ll have to plan an entire reunion menu around a specific diet. However, some attendees will likely have special diets. How can you cope?
Your first line of defense is to include a section in your reunion survey that deals with dietary requirements. It’s important that you have guests indicate whether their specialized diets are due to preference, medical reasons or allergies/sensitivities. Food allergies and sensitivities require special precautions, which we will discuss below. So do certain dietary requirements followed for religious reasons. Forewarned is forearmed; the more you know and the sooner you know it, the better you can handle dietary needs.
You don’t have to plan entire meals around special diets, but you do have to make sure those guests have something to eat! Here are some guidelines:
- Serve side dishes made with hearty whole grains (farro salad, tabbouleh, quinoa salad). Topped with a simple vinaigrette and plenty of veggies, these can make a filling entrée for vegans and vegetarians.
- Let people customize their own meals: embrace salad bars, omelet stations, and build-your-own sub tables. Just make sure that you offer a variety of toppings and dressings to can suit any diet.
- Always have a selection of salads and fresh fruits.
- If you’re using caterers, let them know in advance about any dietary requirements.
Dealing with Food Allergies
While it’s important to meet guests’ dietary needs, it is imperative to respect food allergies and sensitivities. Giving wheat to someone who is gluten-intolerant can make them seriously ill for several days. Giving nuts to someone allergic to them can cause a life-threatening reaction. You cannot afford to take allergies and sensitivities lightly.
How can you make allergic and food-intolerant guests comfortable? If you can commit to preparing food in a dedicated space (one that isn’t used for other foods and won’t get cross-contaminated with the problem substance) and using only certified allergen-free ingredients, you can certainly fix some special dishes just for them. Be sure to label these and keep them away from other foods. And it’s worth noting that if you have several allergic guests, you’ll likely need to have a dedicated prep space for each one.
Alternatively, you can buy certified allergen-free foods and offer those — again, cooked and served separately. And if you’re using professional food services, you should definitely let them know about these needs in advance; they may very well be able to help.
However, many people with food allergies and sensitivities may simply prefer to be safe and bring their own food. Hopefully, they will let you know about this need when they RSVP. (Hint: Put a space for it on the form!) Make sure you have facilities available for them to prepare their food if needed.
Finally, when it’s time to serve foods buffet-style, make sure you either clearly label “safe” foods or that you have a list of ingredients available for all dishes. Most people go with labeling the safe foods, for obvious reasons. Encourage guests who have severe allergies to bring Benadryl and an EpiPen (or their equivalents) with them. Better safe than sorry.
Food safety is hugely important. It’s also your responsibility. If you don’t have much experience with the food preparation and storage, you can find guidelines at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website and at FoodSafety.gov. Of course, if a member of your planning committee has experience in the food preparation and handling, you can always recruit them to manage this for you.
Given that much time and effort goes into meal planning, why not just make the affair strictly potluck? If you’re having a family reunion, where everyone knows and loves Aunt May’s brownies and Grandma Smith’s fried chicken, having people bring a dish may be the de facto meal plan.
Even so, a potluck meal requires some planning (Having a casual “games night” where everyone brings their favorite snack or dessert can work very well. But as a dinner? Not so much). For a potluck meal to work, you need:
- Someone to coordinate the menu
- A good number of cooks in your group
- A team of people to oversee the on-site preparation and serving of food
- Sufficient space and facilities for safe food preparation and holding
Also, while you certainly can self-cater a formal affair, it does present additional challenges — most importantly, the fact that a good chunk of your attendees will be so busy taking care of the food and serving others that they will miss at least some of the fun.
If you have the budget for it — or you don’t have the reunion group full dedicated cooks — outsourcing food prep can save a lot of headaches. If you’re staying at a hotel or resort, you may be able to work out a deal with their restaurant facilities and staff. If not, professional catering services will almost certainly be able to fill in.
First, consider the type of dining event(s) you’ll be having. Here’s a list of the most popular:
- Dinner Dance
- Self-Serve Buffet
- Buffet with Stations
- Seated Formal Dinner with Service
- Seated Informal Dinner, Family-Style
- Hors d’oeuvres Only
- Dessert Only
Depending on how formal the event is, you may need to create seating charts or have some other type of assigned seating. At the very least, be sure that your venue will hold all your attendees.
Let’s say that you’re opting to hold your reunion at a hotel or resort with catering facilities. Here are some tips to ensure a successful experience:
- Communicate early with catering and beverage managers. They know current trends, and they can work with you to plan a great menu.
- Tell them the size of your group and its budget. You should also mention the general theme of your food (for a themed reunion), major preferences and/or dietary restrictions and any allergies or sensitivities that your guests may have.
- Ask about any alcohol regulations, bar charges and the types of alcohol available. Can you supply your own liquor, beer and wine? If so, is there a corkage fee?
- Catered functions often require a count guarantee (a minimum number of attendees) at least 48 hours before the event.
- If you’re having a formal dinner with service, ask about the ratio of servers to tables.
You can also hire an independent catering company to handle your food. In fact, they may be able to help with much more than just your menu: they can also suggest facilities and help you find whatever supplies and extras they don’t provide.
As with hotels and resorts, catering success is in the communication:
- If you’ve already chosen a facility, will the caterer come to it? Does it have to be a hotel or resort, or can they cater an event in a park or someone’s backyard?
- Is delivery, setup and service included in the price?
- Can they deal with specific food allergies, sensitivities and other dietary preferences?
- Do they have specialties? Can they recommend local dishes or get you a deal on local ingredients?
- Are flatware, dishes, tables, table class and centerpieces included in the price?
- Who handles cleanup? Leftovers?
Obviously, your caterer will need to know the number of attendees you’re expecting as well as the percentage of children and adults. You may also want to be sure that cooks and servers have the necessary food service certifications if any are required.
Paying for Reunion Food
Finally, let’s talk about how you can pay for your event’s food. Unless your reunion is somehow running off a trust fund, you’re going to have to divide costs among the attendees. To make this seem more fair and inclusive, be sure to offer guests a choice of menu styles and price points in your reunion survey.
How will you know what to that charge? If you’re working with a professional catering service, they should be able to give you a per-person cost. If not, you have to do the math yourself. This means adding up the cost of the food, rentals (such as a tent, sound system, dishes, tables, chairs), decorations, taxes, setup fees, tips and insurance. Divide this total by the total number of attendees and you’ll have your per-person figure.
How do you get this money? Some reunion groups organize bake sales or auctions to help raise money. Others simply sell tickets or include a suggested donation amount in their reunion correspondence (For more reunion fundraising ideas, see this article). Using an online fundraising site such as GoFundMe can help you easily raise and collect money from attendees. However you get the money, you may find it easier to deposit it in a reunion-specific bank account and use that to disburse funds.
If an army marches on its stomach, so does a reunion. Once you know your group’s budget, dietary needs and general food preferences, you’ll find that planning your reunion’s meals is easier than you think. The key is to bring as much knowledge as possible to the table, whether you’re going to be self-catering or turning it over to pros.