How to host a chili cook-off at church in 10 easy steps

This January we held Redeemer’s third annual chili cook-off. When we first planned the event three years ago, I had several goals in mind. One was to create a fun, warm event in the middle of winter. Another was to make it an intergenerational event that families, singles, and everyone could enjoy.  A third goal was to bill this as an easy fundraiser–easy because people don’t mind donating when there’s a fun event planned. In all three contests, the chili entries were interesting and surprisingly unique, and everyone came away with warm memories of a fun evening.

Our first chili cook-off was in 2011. Several months before was the Holy Week that will live in infamy in Redeemer’s history when the boiler went out on Palm Sunday. It was an early Easter, as I remember, and so we had warm air piped in so that we could enjoy Easter in our beautiful church. We muddled through, but shortly thereafter had to purchase a new boiler. So the funds from our first two chili cook-offs went to offset the cost of the boiler.

With Nancy T. at the helm, we’ve had three successful chili cook-offs. This year I decided to jot down the steps to help you plan your own:

1. Make some decisions first. Is this a fundraiser or just for fun? Determining this will help you with #4. When is the best time to have it? I suggest wintertime when people like soups and hot dishes most, but it could be fall or spring just as easily. Brainstorm with one or two people who are willing to help, and make these decisions first.

2. Advertise it as a chili contest, but realize that this is basically a potluck with a theme. Have people who are not making chili bring salads or desserts. It’s often nice to divide up your crowd if you have a very large group, like over 100 (A-L bring side dishes; M-Z bring desserts).

3. Provide some of the extra stuff yourself. Buy shredded cheese, cooked macaroni noodles, chopped onion, hot sauce, drinks, and paperware. A note about paperware: it’s fun to provide little tasting cups. These can be found at stores like GFS.


4. Decide how the chili will be judged. I’ve seen it done with judges (if it’s for a school, have the principal and some fun teachers judge the contest). I’ve also seen it done very un-scientifically as a fundraiser where participants stuff the envelopes with dollar bills. The chili with the most money wins. The latter is how we’ve done it at our church. There can be no complaining that the contest is rigged because OF COURSE it’s rigged!

5. Divide and conquer. Divide up the shopping. Things you’ll need are:

– items in #3;

– plenty of power strips and extension cords;

– table coverings;

– any decorations you want to use, like centerpieces, flowers, balloons, etc.;

– envelopes or slips of paper so that people can vote;

– a prize for winners–if this is an annual event, it’s fun to get a huge wooden spoon to pass from one winner to the next. Remember those huge wooden salad tongs that people hung on their walls in the 70s? That’s what I was going for. I bought a set on eBay, and now we pass the giant spoon from one winner to the next. If you can’t find a set or don’t want to, you could provide a small gift card, perhaps to a grocery store or favorite chili restaurant in your area.


6. Make sure there are enough chili entries. At our church, we’ve had 13-14 entries for about 75 people attending, and it’s been more than enough to accommodate the crowd. If you’re nervous about there not being enough chili entries, consider making your own batch. 


7. Provide enough time for set-up. On the day of the event, arrive at least an hour or two early to set up the tables and chairs, and put out the power strips and extension cords. Gather helpers. Youth are fabulous helpers if you get them with their friends. I have four or five teen boys I rely on who come through for me every time. Love them!

8. As people arrive, help them set up their crock-pots on the serving table. At this point, put out your condiments and any slips or envelopes needed for the judging. Number your chili entries to provide anonymity.

9. Announce the winner. After about an hour or so, once people have had their fill, you can start with the reminders to the judges or to the crowd to make their selections. Grab some non-chili-entrants to help count the votes. Then announce the winner and award the prizes.

10. Before everyone leaves, get help cleaning up. This often means the host must move onto the cleanup before everyone starts leaving. 

A chili cook-off can be a great fundraiser, or just a fun and warm gathering to bring together a congregation, family, friends, or coworkers. Try your own!


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