I hear it time and time again: Planning portions for a dinner party is one of the most stressful things for at-home entertainers. Take a deep breath—no one's going hungry.
Case in point: Last year, I was asked to cater a very VIP dinner party for 25. By 3 p.m. the day of, most of my food was ready to go, and I was feeling pretty calm. Until I got the text every private chef dreads: "We have seven more people coming! Hope that's okay." Panic. I didn't have time to make anything else, but there were a few minutes to run out and buy extra cheese and bread to help fill people up, and some more greens to pad the salad. I served the main course, boeuf bourguignon, buffet style, since people tend to eat less that way. And I sliced the chocolate cake for dessert into teeny tiny slivers, which looks more sophisticated than big wedges anyway.
The whole experience, though stressful, taught me a couple of things: a) It's never a bad idea to cook a little more than you think you'll need, and b) As long as the cook is calm, the guests will be calm. I don't think they even had a clue that I had to stretch the food. Nevertheless, here are a few tips for figuring out how much to make for your next dinner party.
Sketch out your menu first. Once you've decided what you're having, you can start thinking about portion sizes. As a general rule, the more dishes you serve, the less of each you need to make.
Photos: Eric Ryan Anderson (L) and Elizabeth Rudge (R)
Play the numbers game. Throw out the old-school recommendation for eight ounces of protein per person: With individual pieces of meat or fish, plan for about four ounces per person instead, or roughly the size of a deck of cards. For pasta, plan on about one cup per person, and for other sides like grains or vegetables, shoot for about a half cup each—unless it's a leafy salad, in which case you should budget about ¾ cup per person.
Sometimes less is more. With roasted meats and stews, the four-ounce recommendation can go out the door. If you cook a large chunk of meat—say, porchetta or lamb shoulder—and slice it thinly, people will end up eating far less than if you serve individual pork chops or a rack of lamb. The same goes for a stew, like coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon.
Recipe servings are merely a guide. Recipe amounts are written as though that dish is the only thing you're eating for your meal. So if you see a salad recipe that says it serves four, and you're making it as part of a large buffet spread, chances are that salad will stretch to feed six or eight people. A friend of mine recently threw a party for 40, multiplied every single recipe to feed 40 and ended up with way too much food. Lesson learned.
Plan pre-party bites carefully. Limit appetizers to just one item you have to make—say, bacon-wrapped dates, crostini with zucchini pesto or a crudité platter with lemon-parsley tahini dip—and fill things in with other things you don't have to prep much, like little bowls of olives or roasted nuts. You don't want people filling up before the main event—you're just providing something for them to nibble on while you finish. If you're having cocktail hour before dinner, plan on serving enough for people to have three to five bites of food along with their drink.
Keep dessert servings small. At the end of a three-hour dinner party, your guests aren't going to want a big slab of pie or wedge of cake—just a little something sweet will suffice. A flourless chocolate cake recipe might say it feeds eight, but you can slice it into 12 slivers and garnish each with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and raspberries to fill out the plate. The goal is to leave your guests wanting more, not waddling home stuffed.
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