How Much Food To Make Based On Your Party Size

Plan perfectly so you don't make too little—or too much.

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I can't count the number of times I have found myself standing in a grocery aisle, holding loaves of bread, bags of chips, and bottles of wine, trying to do the mental math of how much food and drink to buy to feed a crowd.

I've done it at the holidays, trying to figure out how big a turkey I need for 12 people, and I've done it in the summer, calculating how much cold beer and sandwich meat my friends and I will need for a week at the beach.

The good news, though, is that professionals, like bartenders and caterers, have clear rules they use to make all these decisions, and you can apply them to your own events. Here's what you need to know.

The Big Picture

The overall rule that most caterers and party planners use is to calculate a pound of food per person, and a half pound per child.

Professionals typically recommend breaking it down further from there: Aim for 2 to 4 ounces of appetizers per person—think 5 to 6 bites. Depending on what you're serving, you might do two pieces of shrimp cocktail per person, a few slices of cheese, plus a handful of nuts, or a few pieces of crudité.

Calculate for 6 to 8 ounces of protein per person for the main dish. If you're serving something bone-in, like a roasted turkey or bone-in pork shoulder, calculate a pound and a half per person of the uncooked product. You'll lose weight from the bone, and water will cook off during the roasting process, leaving you with about 8 ounces per person.

Aim for another 8 ounces of sides—about 3/4 cup per person for each dish of things like mashed potatoes and cornbread dressing.

Holiday meals, in general, will have more sides, so you may find yourself going over the weight estimates. For these types of meals, calculating the amount per dish, rather than the total amount of food on the table may serve you better.

Condiments and Dessert

Extras like gravy and cranberry sauce that you'll serve as condiments won't be included in the final count, but you'll want to make sure you have plenty. In general, aim for at least 1/3 cup of gravy per person, with about an extra cup for every six people.

Desserts are also not included in that estimated one pound of food per person. Instead, aim for a slice of pie, cake, or tart per person, 5 ounces of ice cream, or about 4 ounces of pudding or mousse.

Again, for holidays like Thanksgiving, all bets are off: Most people will eat several slices of pie so they can sample all of their favorites.


Conventional wisdom says that most guests will have two drinks in the first hour of a party, and then one drink per hour after that.

For a dinner party or holiday meal for 15 people, calculate for 4 hours, which comes out to 5 drinks per person, which is 75 drinks. Keep in mind that a bottle of wine holds 5 drinks, and a 12-ounce can of beer or an ounce of liquor counts as a drink.

It's always good to consider the crowd you're serving—if you know your family drinks a lot of wine at the holidays, round up. If you're mostly serving people who aren't big drinkers at a barbecue, round down, or add more non-alcoholic options to your beverage selection.

The Time of Day Matters

In general, people will eat and drink more in the evening than during an afternoon event. If you plan to serve a full meal, you'll obviously need more food than, say, an afternoon cocktail party or an after-dinner event.

At an event without a full meal, caterers typically allot about six bites per person per hour, or a total of six bites before the full meal.

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