How Much Food?

I’m helping a friend coordinate the food for an upcoming Open House and it brought to mind a common question when planning food for a party: how much to make or buy? I often say that a [Southern, especially] hostess’ worst nightmare is to run out of food. Food is synonymous with hospitality and just like the welcoming spirit we offer our guests, we want our tables to be just as bountiful. At the same time, we don’t want to go so far overboard that food goes to waste.

As much as I love not having to cook for the week after a good party [planned overs are a great thing!], there is such a thing as too much.  So here’s a few guidelines for figuring how much food you’ll need at your next party.

First: How many people are coming and how long does the party last? The first bit is obvious: the number of people is directly proportionate to how much food you need to feed them. Party length, on the other hand, can slide the portion scale up or down. Longer parties will need more food since people will have had time to digest and want a little something more as the party progresses, even if it’s a sit-down dinner it’s a good idea to have some nibbles (sweet or savory or both) out if the party will be lasting several hours past supper).

Second: What type of party is it? Plated dinners are the simplest to factor–3-5 oz of meat per person, 6-8 oz of side dishes, and 4-8 oz of wine (erring on the side of refills) or 8-10 oz of punch or tea. Easy. Buffet? Consider doubling it unless you have waitstaff to serve the guests. Now, if you have an entree choice or numerous sides, divide the total food needed in each category by the number of options within and add a bit–say 10%–for margin of error. That done, you should be good.

Cocktail parties require a little extra math in that you need to multiply the number of guests by the length of the party in hours  and then by the number of bites or servings per hour appropriate. A general rule of thumb would be 5 pieces per person per hour (5ph) but even this is subject to some adjustments.

1) What time is the party? A cocktail party held at an off hour (mid-afternoon, instance) can stick with the 5ph idea but one served at a normal meal time (noon, 6 pm or later) should increase the servings per person to accommodate the guests’ usual appetites.

2) Who’s coming? You wouldn’t serve finger sandwiches and petit fours to a Superbowl gang, would you? No, you’d serve heartier items. It’s the same with quantity. The heartier the expected appetites, the more items allowed per person.

3) Will a meal be served after or not? This can get tricky, but going back to the time of the party–if you’re serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before a dinner, stick to 5ph. But if you’re not serving a meal or it’s at such a time as your guests may substitute your party offerings for an actual dinner elsewhere, go up to 10ph.

4) Will there be alcohol served? If so, add a few more bites per person to try to offset the impairment alcohol can bring to the table. Cocktails on a full stomach are a lot less damaging than those on an empty one [though hosts should be careful to watch their guests’ consumption and call a cab when necessary].

Finally, adjust your numbers for the just-in-case factor. For smaller parties, add 25% to your expected number of items or servings to allow for an unexpected guest or two or some really hungry folks. A little extra never hurts. The larger the party, the smaller the bump-up needs to be to grant a similar allowance, never adding less than 10%, though. Once you have your total number of pieces, it’s a simple matter of dividing that by the number of different items you plan to offer to find out how many of each you’ll want to serve. Of course, the smaller the guest list, the fewer options otherwise these formulas might give you ridiculously small numbers per option that will look just pitiful on a buffet!

Happy holiday party planning!