Figuring out how much food you need can be tricky, even before you factor in different diets, allergies, and restrictions. We mentioned this in another blog, but this topic is complex enough that it deserves its own post. Below is a brief, handy guide to calculating just how much food you’ll need – as well as the dishes to serve it on!
The most common and easiest rule to follow is the one pound rule, which says adult guests will eat about one pound of food each at a party. This doesn’t include desserts or drinks, and also estimates kids will eat a half pound of food.
This gets complicated when you think about men versus women, body sizes, how hot it will be, time of day (did you know people tend to eat more at night than during the day?), the types of food you’re serving, and factors out of your control like how much else guests have eaten that day.
Let’s focus on what we can control. One pound of food for adults and a half pound of food for kids is easy enough. If you’re on a budget, focus on filling foods that are high in protein, fiber, and volume, but are low in energy density, such as:
- Greek yogurt
Working these into your menu can keep your budget low without sending guests home hungry. Quinoa, Greek yogurt, potatoes, and avocado can be added to many dishes, because they don’t have a ton of flavor on their own, and tend to take on the taste of the other food in the dish. Oats and apples can be turned into a delicious dessert – and if no one has a nut allergy, add nuts to it! Be creative with your menu and your guests will love it, and never suspect your budget was tight.
If you’re only serving appetizers or snack food, plan on 4-6 bites per hour per guest. If you’re serving a main meal in addition, plan on 6 total appetizers per person. If you plate individual servings beforehand, guests will eat less than if you set them out buffet-style. Consider leaving out bowls of snack food in addition to the plated appetizers, such as nuts, popcorn, and trail mix.
Estimate that guests will eat 6-8 ounces of protein for their main dish. Offer at least two options, but try to guess which one will be more popular so you can have extras of that, just in case. Don’t skimp on the vegetables! Feel free to work them into a main dish as well as the side dishes.
- Grains: 1.5oz
- Potatoes: 5oz
- Vegetables: 4oz
- Beans: 2oz
- Pasta: 3oz
- Green salad: 1oz
- Bread: 1-2 pieces
- Cake/pie/tart: 1 slice
- Pastry: 1 piece
- Creamy (pudding, mousse): 4oz
- Ice cream: 5oz
- Ice: 1lb/guest
- Wine: 1 bottle per 2 guests
- Beer: 2 per guest for the first hour, 1 per guest each additional hour
- Champagne: 1.5 glasses per guest during cocktail hour, 3 per guest during the meail
- Spirits: 3 per guest
- Liqueurs/aperitifs: 1 per guest
- Nonalcoholic: 1 per guest if alcohol is also provided, 3 per guest if not
- Pre-mixed drinks: 1 gallon for 10 guests
Of course, these are only estimates. It’s always best to round up if you aren’t sure. This is also why it is so crucial for people to RSVP.
Knowing how many plates, utensils, cups, and napkins you need is pretty straightforward. The hardest decision, actually, may be whether to use disposable dishes or reusable. Reusable dishes are cost-effective and better for the environment, but disposables save you tons of clean-up time – and you can personalize them!
Disposable plates and other serving dishes are sometimes seen as tacky, but they don’t have to! Dress them up with an elegant monogram, holiday message, or birthday greeting. You can also choose plastic over paper for a glossy look.
If you choose disposable plates, you have a couple options. If you get only dinner-sized plates, you’ll need more than double the amount of guests you have – especially if you’re serving food buffet-style. If you’re going to use both dinner-sized and dessert-sized plates, you’ll only need about 10-20% more of each plate than you have guests.
You should also have about double the amount of cups, straws (if you’re using them), and napkins. Especially if you’re serving messy food or there will be kids around.
If you’re concerned about not having enough food (or if cost is a factor), there are things you can do to make it stretch. The most common solution is to include more carb-heavy side dishes, because they’ll fill guests up faster, but that can still leave guests feeling dissatisfied. Instead, add ingredients to your main dish, even if they may be unexpected. Cucumbers can actually be added to most dishes – they don’t have much of their own flavor, so they take on the taste of the food, and they add bulk to the dish. Go heavy on the vegetables in any dish! More tomatoes, onions, even squash, which also doesn’t have much of its own flavor but is filling, are great additions.
Another option is to set out dishes of trail mix or individual bowls of nuts, olives, pretzels, and other snack foods like that – they’re filling but unexpected!
Avoid serving sugary foods like fruit with the appetizers or main meal. Sugar actually expands your stomach, which causes you to eat more (which is exactly why you always have room for dessert!). Therefore, if you’re hoping guests will eat less than usual, don’t serve many sugary items.
Make sure you serve a variety of colors as well as textures. Multiple colors will make food look more appealing, but you also don’t want to serve only soft, mushy food. Make sure there are crisp and/or crunchy options as well.
The best way to serve desserts is to plate individual servings beforehand. This is particularly helpful with things like puddings and ice cream. However, desserts are often the prettiest dish at the party, so we tend to want to show those off whole to the guests. If this is true for you, have someone serve the desserts to guests.