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How to Calculate Food for a Party


group of friends enjoying buffet of food during party

When you’re throwing a party, one of the most important aspects is to determine just how much food and drink you’ll need. You want your guests to have enough to eat so they feel satisfied, but you don’t want a ton of leftovers. You definitely want your guests to quench their thirst, but who among us wants to be left with liters of liquor we’ll only be using for the next party? Calculating what you’ll need ahead of time, instead of playing the “uhhh, let’s try this much” game at the grocery store, is a great way to ease your mind, and budget, when you throw a party.

Calculating the Amount of Food Per Person

There is no magic formula or standard for exactly how much food you’ll need for a party. Some people will eat more or less than expected, a few guests might not show up, or someone might even bring an extra person or two. It’s best to overestimate the amount of food by just a bit than to run out.

Calculating Food for a Party Infographic

Basic Guidelines

Following some general guidelines when planning your meal can help you determine the right amount of food. In the grand scheme of things, an adult will eat roughly a pound of food at a party, while children (except for male teenagers), will eat roughly half a pound of food.

The more food options you offer, the less each partygoer will eat of each food. If you only have hamburgers and chips, you’re going to need a lot of both. But if you have burgers, hot dogs, chips, macaroni salad, and green salad, you can expect that your guests won’t need or want as many chips. And, if you’re hosting the party at night rather than during the day, you can expect your guests to munch and imbibe more than in the daylight hours.

Hands reaching for appetizers on table
  • Appetizers – For parties in which only appetizers and finger foods are being served, base your estimate on five to eight appetizer bites per person, per hour. If there is a meal included, you can cut back to four or five per person per hour before the meal. Offer more types of appetizers for a larger crowd.
  • Charcuterie – A meat and cheese spread always looks good at a party. You’ll want to offer roughly one to two ounces of cheese per person and one to two ounces of meat, with at least four to six pieces of crackers or small bread. Don’t forget a dollop of jam, honey, and mustard for each guest, as well.
  • Full meals – If you’re offering a choice of dishes, try to anticipate which one will be the most popular and have extras on hand. Serving sizes will depend on the dishes, so if you go the buffet route, make sure you have enough for everyone to sample each dish. Side dishes can be tricky, but you can estimate about four ounces of each dish as a serving.
  • Prepared salads and beans – For potato, pasta, or other prepared salads, anticipate roughly one cup per guest. If you’re only serving one prepared salad at a BBQ, expect guests to grab a little extra. For bean dishes, guests will eat roughly a half-cup of baked beans or bean salad each.
  • Green salad – For leafy vegetable salads, plan on about one cup to one and a half cups per person, before dressing. For dressing, if the salads are a main, offer three tablespoons per person or just two tablespoons per person for a side salad.
  • Grains – If you’re serving rice or other grains, plan for approximately a quarter to half cup per person. If the grain dish is the main dish, expect a three-quarter to full cup each.
  • Fruit and veggie trays – For fresh fruit, about half cup per person should do the job. With veggies, estimate about six to ten pieces per person. Have plenty of dip available as well.
  • Dips and Chips– For every ten guests, plan on approximately one and a half cups of dip, roughly an ounce and a quarter per person. Be sure to have roughly a half to full cup of chips per guest.
  • Breads – Aside from an obvious pairing of one hot dog bun per hot dog and such, you’ll want to serve roughly one to two pieces of bread per person if it’s accompanying a meal.
  • Desserts – It’s best to offer desserts as single servings so you can easily calculate how many you need. Have some extras on hand for big eaters or those with a particularly sweet tooth. One 9″ layer cake will serve 10 to 12 people; one 9″ pie will serve 6 to 8.

Appetizer Amounts for a 3-Hour Party

A three-hour party is a good place to start when you’re planning to host. If you’re planning a longer party, change the calculations to accommodate the additional time.

Food Up to 10 guests 10-20 20-30 30-40 40-50
Dips 1 pint 1 quart 3 pints 2 quarts 5 pints
Fruit 5 cups 10 cups 15 cups 20 cups 25 cups
Veggies 60 pieces 120 pieces 180 pieces 240 pieces 300 pieces
Chips 1 pound 1½ pounds 2 pounds 3 pounds 4 pounds
Canapés 8 per person
Punch 2 gallons 3 gallons 4 gallons 6 gallons 8 gallons
Wine 3 bottles 5 bottles 7 bottles 9 bottles 11 bottles
Coffee or Tea 20 cups 40 cups 60 cups 80 cups 100 cups

Food for Dinner Parties

Plan for a main dish, such as chicken, turkey, beef, pork, ham, or casserole, plus salads, sides, desserts, and drinks. For protein, expect to serve eight to ten ounces per person. If the casserole is not a main dish, cut the suggested serving size in half.

Food Up to 10 guests 10-20 20-30 30-40 40-50
Whole chicken 2 (4-pound) 4 (4-pound) 6 (4-pound) 8 (4-pound) 10 (4-pound)
Whole turkey 1 (12-pound) 2 (12-pound) 3 (12-pound) 4 (12-pound) 5 (12-pound)
Boneless beef roast 5 pounds 10 pounds 15 pounds 20 pounds 25 pounds
Pork roast or ham 5 pounds 10 pounds 15 pounds 20 pounds 25 pounds
Casseroles 2 (13×9″) 3 (13×9″) 4 (13×9″) 5 (13×9″) 7 (13×9″)
Side dishes 5 cups 10 cups 15 cups 20 cups 25 cups
Green salad 10 cups 20 cups 30 cups 40 cups 50 cups
Fruit salad 5 cups 10 cups 15 cups 20 cups 25 cups
Rolls or bread slices 20 pieces 40 pieces 60 pieces 80 pieces 100 pieces
Cakes 1 layer cake 2 layer cakes 3 layer cakes 4 layer cakes 5 layer cakes
Cookies 20 40 60 80 100
Pies 2 3 4 5 7
Wine 3 bottles 5 bottles 7 bottles 9 bottles 11 bottles

Dessert Party Foods

Desserts can be the star of the party, so be sure you have enough, so everyone ends on a sweet note! If you want to avoid leftover desserts, you can invite your guests to take a bite or two with them when they leave.

Food Up to 10 guests 10-20 20-30 30-40 40-50
Cakes 1 layer cake 2 layer cakes 3 layer cakes 5 layer cakes 6 layer cakes
Pies 2 3 4 5 7
Trifle or crumbles 2 (9″ x 13″) 3 (9″ x 13″) 4 (9″ x 13″) 5 (9″ x 13″) 7 (9″ x 13″)
Cookies 3 dozen 5 dozen 7 dozen 10 dozen 13 dozen
Bar cookies 3 dozen 5 dozen 7 dozen 10 dozen 13 dozen
Ice cream 1 quart 1½ quarts 1 gallon 1½ gallons 2 gallons

Drinks for a 3-Hour Party

No party is complete without drinks on hand, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. Don’t leave your guests thirsty or let your supplies run dry early. Expect guests to imbibe in two to three drinks for every two hours of the party.

  • For every two guests, have a bottle of wine ready to go. If you’re hosting a four-hour party for roughly ten people, you’ll want 10 bottles of wine total or two bottles of wine for every two of your guests.
  • If you’re planning a four-hour party with 10 guests, then anticipate needing approximately 40 drinks. However, this number can and will change based on the occasion and just how much people will actually drink.
  • To determine how much ice you’ll need for the party, you’ll want to know how many drinks to prepare for. If you’re offering wine and beer in addition to cocktails, you can take that into consideration and not supply quite as much ice. But, the rule of thumb is a half pound of ice per drink, or approximately a cup.
  • Depending on the crowd, mocktails might be a big hit, or they’ll be more of a secondary or tertiary choice. If you’re worried about anything going to waste, you can suggest tips to turn the mocktail into a cocktail by supplying the appropriate liquor. You can estimate approximately one to three mocktails per guest over the course of the evening, depending on the age of the guests and how much they’ll be drinking. If you’re exclusively serving mocktails, then three per hour is more appropriate.
  • Guests will drink roughly two 12-ounce bottles of beer per hour, although this average will often tapper off, so approximate with one to one and a half beers per hour per guest.
  • You won’t have 188 drinks, 45 mocktail servings, 75 bottles of beer, and 11 bottles of wine on hand for a 50 person three-hour party. That would be nearly seven drinks per person. That is A LOT. Instead, focus on what you do want to serve your guests and scale back where you know your guests won’t drink. If you know you have friends that enjoy wine more than cocktails, don’t have as many ingredients for cocktails on hand. If your guests love beer, then approximate for two beers an hour instead of one and don’t have as much wine on hand.
  • How much mixer you have on hand will depend on the cocktails you’ll be serving. If you’re going to offer vodka sodas and gin and tonics, you’ll simply calculate the cocktails spirit and mixer you’ll need based on the recipes and the number of servings. Start with your recipe, multiply the number of servings you’ll need, and that’s the amount to stock on hand.
Drinks Up to 10 Guests 10-20 20-30 30-40 40-50
Cocktails 38 drinks 75 drinks 113 drinks 150 drinks 188 drinks
Mocktails 10 drinks 15 drinks 25 drinks 35 drinks 45 drinks
Beer 45 beers 90 beers 135 beers 180 beers 225 beers
Wine 3 bottles 5 bottles 7 bottles 9 bottles 11 bottles
Ice 19 pounds 38 pounds 57 pounds 75 pounds 94 pounds

Calculation Tips

If you’re panicked, overwhelmed, or don’t know where to start, follow these tips, and you’ll be just fine:

  • Always err on the side of too much food and drink. It’s much easier to take home some leftovers or send them home with your guests than to let people go home hungry.
  • Include both “heavy” and light options. Some people will be hungrier than others, so offering more substantial food items will allow them to fill up without consuming more of each dish.
  • If you think a certain dish or drink will be very popular, plan to make or purchase extras.
  • Be wary of suggested serving sizes on packaged foods. Keep in mind whether the servings will be meal or snack-sized and then determine yourself how many servings are in each package.
  • You can leave it up to your guests to pick and choose the cocktail they’ll want, but by following the formula above and supplying basic ingredients for classic and popular cocktails, you’ll have enough mixers and liquors for everyone.

Considerations to Factor In

The number of guests is the most important factor, but there are a few other considerations, too.

Food spread at a party

How Many Guests Will Be Attending

The number of guests at your party will determine the amount of food you’ll need. Make sure you ask guests to RSVP, but if you don’t hear from someone, it’s safest to assume he or she will attend. Remember, it’s better to have well-fed guests than hangry guests.

Time of Day for the Party

The time of day dictates the types of food and drinks you’ll serve. If the party is scheduled at mealtime, for example, you’ll be expected to serve something substantial. If your party is at night or mid-afternoon, you can serve just appetizers and snacks. Serving beer at a brunch party may not be a hit, so carefully consider your cocktail menu.

Age Range of the Guests

You wouldn’t think that the age range of the guests would be important for party planning, but consider this: How much food would you prepare for a group of 10 teenagers? Now, how much food would you prepare for 10 senior citizens? Generally, there can be a vast difference in appetites between different age groups. The same goes for the beverages you plan on serving. You’ll want more mocktails for the underage crowd, but perhaps some extra wine for a parents-only occasion.

Type of Food Being Served

If you’re planning on serving a meal, or have lots of food to choose from at a buffet table, you can cut back on the snack foods and appetizers for your party. Conversely, if you’re relying on finger foods only to fill up your guests, you’ll need to have more of them on hand. For lighter foods, steer away from the boozier drinks. You don’t want a guest to feel intoxicated.

Type of Beverages Being Served

If you know your group loves wine, plan on a higher average and buy appropriately. It all comes down to knowing your audience. Should your party be in the afternoon, you may not need as many cocktails or as much ice on hand.

Follow Guidelines for Success

It’s almost impossible to know precisely how much food you’ll need for a party, but with these guidelines, you’ll be able to give yourself a good idea of how many servings of each item you should plan for. Err on the side of having a few leftovers if you’re not sure the RSVPs are accurate; it’s always best to have a little extra than to run out! Grab your phone, get the invites going, and let’s party!

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