I’m deep in the murky waters of planning a family reunion for the end of June, and of course, the food we shall be eating is at the forefront of my planning. (As well as epic family olympics, name that baby pic competition, and some very low level crafts.)

I’m splitting up the family reunion meals between myself and the siblings-in-law; this year we have some particular food issues among several family members to work around (like gluten, oats, cilantro, peanuts, vegan). 

I was chatting with my sis-in-law, Cassidy, and she mentioned how build-your-own meals are a great solution to working around these food issues, and as I thought about it, I was like, “dude, she’s so right!” Not only are these types of build-your-own recipes perfect so everyone can customize their own pile of food (picky eaters or food allergy issues), but in a lot of cases, many of the components can be made ahead of time, which is a sanity-saver if you are in charge of a meal at a family reunion, church camp, etc. 

No one wants to be slaving in a hot kitchen when they could be enjoying some good ol’ family time (ahem, or a nap). 

That conversation with Cass got the wheels spinning in my head, and I wanted to share some of the ideas I’ve put together for which types of recipes work well for build-your-own meals.

As a quick recap, I’ve done several other posts in the past about feeding large groups with a lot of helpful info (the comment threads of these posts are golden and filled with a lot of other ideas, too!). 

How and What to Feed a Large Crowd
Three Fabulous Menus for Feeding Large Groups

Today, I wanted to hyper-focus on large group recipes that are styled toward everyone building their own meal. Think: a smorgasbord of ingredients served assembly line style with no one dictating that you have to put black olives on your taco salad.  At first glance, you might be like “chopping all those toppings is not for me, nothankyounoway” and I hear you. I do.

Wood cutting board with chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and olives.

But if you are working around food allergies, intolerances, or other food issues, these types of meals are a lifesaver so those that need to avoid a specific ingredient can do so easily. Plus, they are all ridiculously tasty, and that’s a win for large groups.

*Please keep in mind that cross-contamination is a huge issue with food allergies; separate dishes and serving utensils are essential for each ingredient as well as food safety precautions during preparation (i.e. sanitize cutting boards and knives when switching ingredients, etc). 

The Best Build-Your-Own Recipes/Ideas

Chopped Taco Salad

1) Taco Salad/Taco BarTacos never get old and they are endlessly customizable! For a traditional taco situation, you can include flour tortillas and gluten-free corn tortillas (soft or hard shell). And for taco salad, you can have tortilla chips as an option for crushing on top (or layering on the bottom of the salad). 

My favorite taco recipes to use for shells or salad are:
The Best Ground Beef Tacos
Chopped Taco Salad
Chicken Taco Salad

And this bonus recipe:
Taco Salad Dippers (a super fun and really delicious way to change up tacos)

Make Ahead:

  • In all the recipes above, the meat can be made in advance, cooled, and frozen for 1-2 months. My preference is to scoop the cooked and cooled meat in gallon-size freezer ziploc bags, press into an even, flat layer, seal and freeze.
  • To reheat, I like to thaw in the fridge overnight and then put the meat in a slow cooker to heat on low for 4-6 hours (sometimes I add a little extra liquid like broth, tomato sauce, etc if it looks dry).
  • Toppings can be chopped and prepped 1-2 days in advance (probably more, in a lot of cases) and refrigerated. 

Hawaiian Haystacks: Chicken Sauce Reinvented2) Hawaiian Haystacks

This is hands-down my kids’ favorite meal in the history of ever, and although the combination might seem a bit odd to those that have never experienced the gloriousness of Hawaiian Haystacks, I promise, it’s delicious. We’re talking creamy chicken gravy over rice and oodles of toppings. It is a great option for large groups (our yearly church girls’ camp served it this week to 250!). 

Hawaiian Haystacks

Make Ahead/Shortcuts: 

  • Using rotisserie chicken meat for this recipe will speed up the sauce-making quite a bit. 
  • The chicken gravy, although made with dairy which often doesn’t freeze well, actually freezes great. It might be very, very slightly grainy upon thawing, but once it’s reheated, hardly anyone would notice. 
  • To reheat, I thaw in the fridge overnight and the heat in a large electric skillet or roaster so I can stir while it heats (to prevent scorching). It probably stands a good chance of reheating in a slow cooker pretty well, too.
  • Toppings can be chopped and prepped 1-2 days in advance (probably more, in a lot of cases) and refrigerated. 

Breakfast Burritos

3) Breakfast Burritos

Breakfast burritos are a fantastic idea for, well, breakfast but also for dinner! And dishing up as a build-your-own meal means everyone can have a perfect little breakfast burrito exactly how they want it (even if that means leaving off the tortilla completely!). If you include eggs and also another filler, like potatoes, it’s a great meal for those eating vegan/meatless – they can leave out the eggs and go straight for the potatoes.

Breakfast Burritos
*this can be a great no-recipe meal, too – scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, and whatever other toppings would be breakfast burrito appropriate (cheese, hot sauce, roasted or raw chopped vegetables, crumbled sausage or other meat, etc)

Make Ahead/Tips/Shortcuts:

  • Scrambled eggs can be made several days in advance and refrigerated and I’m betting they could even be frozen (although I haven’t tried that yet). In both cases, I’d cook the eggs slightly runny so that when they are reheated they don’t dry out. 
  • For cooking large quantities, this oven method looks promising!
  • To warm, heat the scrambled eggs in a skillet (or try in a slow cooker). 
  • Cooked and crumbled meat and roasted potatoes can also be made several days in advance, refrigerated, and heated in a skillet or in the oven. 

The Best Cuban Sandwich {Slow Cooker/Pressure Cooker}

4) Sandwich Bar

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but of course I have to include it! A hoagie or sandwich bar is a delicious option for lunches or dinners. And, as a firm sandwich lover, I believe you could repeat this meal several times during a camp/conference/reunion and it wouldn’t get old because of all the options. 

You obviously don’t need a recipe for this – the combinations are endless! Buns or rolls, sliced bread (gluten-free and regular if you need!), flatbread would even make a good option. And then go crazy with sliced meats, cheeses, toppings, veggies, spreads. 

Make Ahead:

  • All the meat and toppings can be cut/prepped days in advance and refrigerated (in bags or on trays). 
  • Most breads can be made or bought and then frozen with good results (thaw the night before or the day of)

Chicken Pot Pie Baked Potato

5) Baked Potato Bar

A favorite of mine! This was my Grandma Walker’s go-to meal for our huge family that gathered every summer when I was growing up. There are so many ways to make this meal completely basic and easy…or to customize and fancy it up a bit. I’m making this as one of my meals for our upcoming family reunion. I’m going to serve it with a ground beef brown gravy and lentil chili as “gravy” options.


  • Bake russet potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • I think it’s best to bake the potatoes the day of (reheated baked potatoes aren’t quite as good in my opinion). Potatoes can be prepped the day before and refrigerated and then baked hours ahead of time as they can stay warm in the oven or a large, electric roaster for quite a while. 
  • I don’t always individually wrap potatoes in foil to bake if I want to save a step, but the skins definitely stay softer and yummier if you do. For an extra layer of yumminess, rub the foil with butter and sprinkle with salt and garlic before adding the potato and wrapping up. 
  • All of the gravy/sauce options below will freeze great for a make-ahead options. As mentioned above, my preferred way to reheat *most* toppings like this is in the slow cooker (if dairy-based, I usually reheat in a large pot or skillet so I can stir to avoid scorching).

Gravy Options:

  • Ground beef stroganoff or this slow cooker stroganoff
  • Shepherd’s Pie gravy
  • Chicken Pot Pie gravy
  • Chili 
  • Ground Beef Brown Gravy: Cook 1 pound ground beef with salt and pepper, drain grease; add 2 tablespoons butter, melt; stir in 1/4 cup flour, cook 1-2 minutes; add 1 tablespoon beef bouillon paste, 2 1/2 cups beef broth, dash of Worcestershire, and cook until thickened and bubbling; simmer 5-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste as well as additional liquid, if needed, to thin. 

Mexican Haystacks: a smorgasbord of delicious taco flavors simmered together in a tasty sauce served over rice or quinoa. Easy, fast, yummy!

6) Mexican Haystacks

This is a family favorite (and as a sidenote, it is one of my go-tos when I need a great take-in meal for a friend or neighbor); it also makes a great meal for feeding a crowd.

Mexican Haystacks

Make Ahead/Tips:

  • The Mexican Haystack gravy can be made and frozen 1-2 months ahead of time. I ladle the cooled gravy into gallon-size ziploc bags, press flat, and freeze. I thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat in a slow cooker (or large electric roaster if I’ve made a ton). 
  • Toppings can be chopped and prepped 1-2 days in advance (probably more, in a lot of cases) and refrigerated. 
  • You can serve this over rice (brown or white), quinoa, baked potatoes. 

BBQ Chicken Salad Cilantro Lime Rice Bowl

7) Sweet Pork Cilantro Lime Rice Bowls

I detailed this one in a past feeding large crowds post:

  • I use a combination of recipes for this meal (modeled after these BBQ Chicken Salad Bowls), I usually use this tomatillo pork or the sweet pork from this recipe – a couple times I’ve used taco meat; shredded chicken would work great, too (the meat can be made and frozen 1-2 months in advance)
  • I serve it with cilantro lime rice (this component is a bit harder to make ahead – it doesn’t freeze that great – but it can be made a day ahead of time and reheated)
  • Tons of topping options: shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole or diced avocados, olives, etc. and of course this dreamy cilantro lime dressing (served in large squeeze bottles). 

Assembled Buddha bowl recipe with peanut sauce in white bowl.

8) Yum Yum Bowls/Buddha Bowls

I’m giving these two meals an honorable mention. Both of them might be suited to more adventurous eaters…but then again, maybe not! They’ve both been huge hits with my family and I think they make excellent build-your-own meal solutions. 

Yum Yum Bowls
Buddha Bowls


And that’s a wrap!

What did I miss? Any other build-your-own style meals that you’d add to this list?