Tip From A Caterer: Food and Drink Calculator

Messina's catering display

Have you ever thrown a party where you way over-bought everything? You had liquor in the cabinet you’ll never drink following the soiree, and leftovers that would feed a professional sports team.  We’ve all been there.  Live and learn.  The most foolproof way to avoid this is by hiring a professional to cater your next in-home party.  If that’s not in the budget, we have some tips to help you plan for your next event.

We’re putting our 6-decades of experience to work, and sharing some tips to help you plan whether you’re hosting five or 50 guests.

In General

Of course, every guest is different.  Some eat like birds while others come with the hunger of a lumberjack.  Some drink only iced tea, while others enjoy the finest bourbons. While there is no perfect formula to calculate how much party food and drink you’ll need, we employ some general guidelines when planning any catered event. Keep in mind there are several factors at play including the length of the party, the composition of men, women, and children as well as the richness of the food you plan to serve that can affect the amount of food and drink needed.

The time of the party is also important. Guests tend to eat and drink more at night than during the day. However, an after-dinner cocktail party requires much less food than an all-afternoon cookout.

On average, plan for each adult to consume about one pound of food total (not including dessert). Count on children to consume about one-half pound. Small bites, like passed hors d’oeuvres and miniature versions of larger dishes (like pulled pork sliders), allow guests to sample a lot without consuming a lot and waste is minimized.

How much to serve for catering

Start Things Off Right 

In our experience, guests consume three to four appetizers per person in more formal situations, assuming the event features a main course. Guests may enjoy as many as four to six appetizers in more casual settings. Hosting a cocktail party? Plan for four to six apps per person per hour.

Pro tip: stock up on bulk items that require little work such as nuts, pretzels, olives, and charcuterie so that guests can munch on these items as soon as they arrive before the hot appetizers are served.

catering snacks

The Star Of The Event

The estimations below will help you plan for the main course.  But remember, the more options you have available, the smaller each portion size can be.

  • Meat/Seafood: 6oz
  • Grains: 1.5oz as a side dish, 2oz as a main dish casserole
  • Potatoes: 5oz
  • Vegetables: 4 oz
  • Beans: 2 oz
  • Pasta: 4 oz
  • Green salad: 1 oz without dressing
  • Breads (buns, rolls, tortillas, etc): 1 to 2 pieces (more if each piece is small)

Hosting a buffet? Decrease the main course portion sizes by one to two ounces as people tend to like to try a variety of options from a buffet.

Save Room For Dessert

Remember, there is always room for dessert. Below are some guidelines to follow for your final course.

  • Cake/tart/pastry: 1 slice
  • Creamy dessert: 4 oz
  • Ice Cream: 5 oz

catering desserts, macarons

Don’t Forget The Drinks

The bar can be the most extravagant (and most expensive) part of any party plan. There are several approaches you can employ that meet your preferences and your budget. Below are some planning tips for a variety of scenarios:

  • You can serve one or more signature cocktails to be served punch-style, or pre-poured into glasses. If you go this route, prepare one gallon per 10 guests.
  • If you opt to provide a do-it-yourself array of liquor and mixers, know that a one-liter bottle of alcohol will make about 17 mixed drinks, and pick up a quart of mixer for every three guests. Each guest imbibing in cocktails will consume an average of three drinks each.
  • For those guests who opt for wine, plan on one bottle of wine per two guests. If your party is during the day and/or in the summer, white wine will be a cooler choice than a heavier, room-temp red.
  • Popping bubbly? Plan for 1.5 glasses of champagne per person before the main course, three glasses per person if offered at dinner.
  • Beer drinking guests will typically consume two drinks in the first hour, and one drink every hour after that.
  • Serving liqueurs and after-dinner-drinks? Plan for one drink per guest, and 15 drinks per bottle.
  • If you are not serving alcohol at the party, plan for three non-alcoholic drinks per person. Consider some creative mocktails!
  • If you are offering alcohol, still plan for one non-alcoholic drink per person in addition to the alcoholic beverages.
  • Don’t forget the ice and garnishes! Buy one to two pounds of ice per guest (two if it’s a summer party) and a variety of relevant garnishes.

Note that these are general guidelines, however, if you feel that your guests are heavier drinkers, round these numbers up. The good news is that unopened liquor, beer, and wine doesn’t go bad, and can often be returned (depending on the state and the retailer’s policy). Opened liquor doesn’t go bad either, and can be added to your personal stash and consumed at a later date. So, feel free to stock up.

Reduce Waste And Overconsumption

Ever heard the phrase “my eyes were too big for my stomach”?  When faced with a lion’s share of food all at once, we tend to over indulge, which can lead to waste and added expense.  Here are some hacks you can employ to help reduce overconsumption and waste:

  • Don’t put all the food out at once, instead pace the party.
  • Display food in smaller serving bowls/platters to discourage over-indulging
  • Use smaller plates so guests have to make multiple trips

catering platter

Catering Pro Tips

Here are some tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years:

  • Always round up your estimates, don’t round down.
  • Anticipate what the most popular dishes will be, serve more of them than the guidelines suggest. For example, everyone loves shellfish, so bump up your estimates for the raw bar.
  • Have fun with color! Consider the colors of the food that will be served together, and make sure there is variety for a beautiful display.

In Conclusion

There are a number of “rules of thumb” to use in party planning. However, you know your guests best. Need assistance? A caterer like Messina’s can help you plan the perfect amount to serve for a perfect event.