Appetizers, side dishes, main dishes. How many hors d’oeuvres for the party? How many people are coming to the party? It’s all a lot to calculate, even when ordering catering services, because you never know how much food is too much. Or, even worse, too little.
Fortunately, there are ways to calculate portion sizes for your main courses and get a rough estimate of how much food you’ll need for different types of events- a cocktail party, dinner party, corporate meeting, or other significant event. It will depend upon the number of guests, of course, but once you nail a number down, you can hand the rest over to a caterer and relax. The only question is: what are the rules of thumb that can help you determine portion size when catering?
How Do You Determine Portion Sizes for Catering?
Between guessing serving sizes, how big the entree should be, or the type of food, you’re serving, determining portion size can be more complicated than you first imagine. After all, these catered platters should be appropriate for each person. Too small, and you leave people hungry. Too large, and you have too many leftovers—and probably spent too much money.
So what’s a rule of thumb for gauging the amount of food you need? It will first depend on the style you’re using. If you’re going for “buffet-style,” portion sizes aren’t a concern. You can let people determine their portion sizes, using the number of guests to approximate how much food you’ll need per person. If you choose buffet style, your caterer can likely give you a ballpark figure for how much food is required depending on the size of your guest list.
But not every catered event is going to be buffet-style. A catering menu might be part of your event, in which catering portions have to be determined per entree or on an individual basis. Again, caterers may be able to help you—but it will require a “headcount.”
The headcount is vital, so make sure that you ask for RSVPs for anyone planning on coming to your event. Everything from alcoholic beverages to the catering portions you serve may be affected by this number.
Another important factor is the time of day of your event. If you are having a breakfast meeting at your office at 7:30 am, you need larger portion sizes than if the meeting begins at 10am. Guests attending a meeting that doesn't begin until 10am might have had a chance to grab a bite for breakfast at home or on their way to work that others rushing to make an early meeting might not have had a chance to do, so they will be more hungry.
Similarly, corporate events beginning mid afternoon like 3pm require less food than those beginning at 5 or 6pm when guests are often expecting a meal or at least 'heavy appetizers 'rather than a 'lite bite'.
How Do You Calculate Food Per Person?
Working with a caterer on food portion estimations might be easy if you use a buffet-style approach. But what if you have a significant event with sit-down-style food? Catering services can only offer you so much help. Eventually, you’ll learn that they typically calculate their food estimates on a per-person, per-head basis.
This means that you may want to think about how much food is going to every person. Most caterers will have suggestions here, such as entrees, appetizers, and dessert options. When calculating how much food you want everyone to have, it typically means consulting with the caterer’s services. You might decide to tack on additional options for every person, or you might cut it down to the bare bones.
Another factor to consider, especially since Covid, is whether individually packaged items are required. Notwithstanding the guidance above, there is a different rule of thumb if items are served in individual packaging you have to assume enough for everyone to have one serving size of a comparable item. So if there are 30 people, you can't just offer 20 individually packaged sandwiches. But you can offer 20 individually wrapped sandwiches and 10 entree size individually wrapped salads. Similarly with beverages-offer a variety but make sure there are at least 30.
Your “food-per-person” count will then depend on your budget. Hopefully, the caterer you’re working with will have some feedback to provide you with here. They can present you with smaller budget options, such as a basic entree with a creamy dessert. Or they can bump it up to appetizers, entrees, and a dessert buffet.
Once you have your guest count, you can choose from these options. But that’s the trick: knowing exactly how many people to tell the caterers to expect. Consider using an online RSVP service or app to encourage people to quickly respond to emails with a simple “yes” so you can get an accurate headcount.
What Does a Typical Catering Tray Feed?
Generally, a catering tray can feed 15-20 people. For example, a full tray of chicken breasts should have enough protein for 15-20 people. However, remember that people may choose sides like salads and desserts, which may not factor into this. A “full” catering tray may feed up to 40 people to handle every aspect of the meal.
Ask your caterers what a typical full tray will feed when in doubt. They often charge by the tray, so they’ll be able to give you a ballpark estimation. If you have a crowd that likes to eat, then err on the side of the lower end of this ballpark—i.e., a 15-20 person tray will more likely feed 15 than 20.
How Much Food Do I Need for 30 Guests?
The advice above—that a full tray can feed between 20 and 40 people, depending on which caterer you’re asking—has a lot of variety. What if you have 30 guests to feed? What if you’re not sure if you’ll have 25 or 35 guests?
Your best bet is to follow two steps: first, confer with your caterer, so you know how much their food tends to feed people. After all, portion sizes differ. One caterer’s definition of a single portion might be a chicken thigh; another caterer might consider a giant chicken breast to be a single portion.
Then, once you have an idea of how they estimate their food portions, you should refer to your guest list. Go for the “optimistic” number: the number of highest people you think can show up. Then aim for that.
Why Should You Always Plan for More?
It’s simple: pick between two problems. Would you rather have too much food or too little? Too much, and you have leftovers. Not a terrible situation to manage. But too little, and your entire event can change, with people going home with grumbling stomachs. That’s not what you want. Err on the side that doesn’t cause trouble, and go on the higher end of your estimates. Your guests will thank you.
Get in contact with Milk Steet Cafe today for your next Boston catering event!