Entertaining

How to Cook for Small, Medium and Large Dinner Parties

Make just the right amount of meat, sides and sweets
How to Cook for a Dinner Party
Dinner at San Francisco's Lazy Bear is always served communally. | Photo: Kassie Borrenson

All December long, we're bringing you the recipes, tips and tricks you need to Feast your way through the holidays, no matter how you celebrate the season.

There's no better time to host a dinner party than when the mercury drops. Firing up the oven and stove will make your kitchen and home delightfully toasty, while a braise or a freshly baked loaf of bread will perfume the house. (Bonus: You can leave the snow boots in the closet where they belong.) Whether you're planning a party for a group of six or 16 guests, there are some hard-and-fast rules about the number of dishes and the amount of protein you will need. Here's a handy guide to keep printed on the fridge all winter long.

Main Dish

The first place to head when prepping for any non-vegetarian dinner party is your butcher (or fishmonger). Bryan Mayer of Fleishers in New York says he generally likes the philosophy, "Eat less meat; eat better meat," which for him translates to four to six ounces of meat per person, a good place to start for everyday cooking.

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"But in the words of Homer Simpson, 'You don't win friends with salad,'" he says. "That's especially true around the omnivore's holiday table. So with that in mind, we can indulge a bit." If meat is going to be the centerpiece of the meal, aim for ¾ pound of bone-in meat per person, whether it's ham, leg of lamb or steak, and ½ pound if there's no bone, he advises. But if it's a weeknight get-together or you're concerned about having too many leftovers, you could trim down the numbers a touch and be just fine.

6 guests: 4½ pounds of bone-in meat, 3 pounds of deboned meat or two 3-to-4-pound chickens

8 to 10 guests: 6 to 7½ pounds of bone-in meat, 4 to 5 pounds of deboned meat or two 4-to-5-pound chickens

12 to 16 guests: 9 to 12 pounds of bone-in meat, 6 to 8 pounds of deboned meat or three 4-to-5-pound chickens

Side Dishes

Sides might be our favorite part of a meal, so we never like to skimp. They are also the perfect assignment for your friend who likes to cook—leave the wine and dessert to someone who doesn't have time to cook or simply doesn't enjoy it.

6 guests: 3 sides
For six diners, three sides is enough, so you will need to be judicious about which sides you pick. Aim for at least one starch, like a Neapolitan pasta with lentils; one vegetable dish; and a bright salad, like Michael Solomonov's kale tabbouleh to break everything up.
Pasta: 1 pound, cooked; roast vegetables: 2 pounds

8 to 10 guests: 4 sides
For a slightly larger party, you will want at least four sides, but the same rules above apply, and make sure to keep things balanced. One starch, one vegetable dish and one salad is a good base. Use the fourth side as your wild card and try something new like sweet potato chaat.
Pasta: 1½  pounds; roast vegetables: 3 pounds

12 to 16 guests: 5 sides
With a big party, five sides not only fuels the meal but makes sure that everyone (no matter their dietary preference) has something to enjoy. A salad, a vegetable dish and a starch are a decent place to start, leaving you two dishes to play around with.
Pasta: 2 pounds, cooked; roast vegetables: 4 pounds

Salad: Average 1 to 1½ cups of salad per person. If you are concerned about making too much, transfer about 30 percent of the salad to a separate bowl and set it aside before you dress the majority of the salad. You can always pop into the kitchen for more greens and a quick toss. This way, you won't be left with soggy, sad greens after everyone leaves.

Dessert

Since dessert brings the dinner party home, so to speak, no one wants to run out of the sweet stuff. A good rule of thumb is to average 1½ servings of sweets per person.

6 guests: 1 pie (try a chocolate pecan) or cake, or approximately 18 cookies

8 to 10 guests: 2 cakes (we recommend Ina Garten's devil's food) or pies, 1 of each, or 1 pie and a batch of cookies

12 to 16 guests: Aim for at least 3 desserts with this big party, so 1 pie, 1 cake and a batch of cookies should suffice.

Wine

The right amount of wine will depend upon the mood and occasion, but a good place to start is half a bottle per person (that's two glasses). It's always smart to have an extra bottle lying around in case the party's flowing.

6 guests: 3 to 4 bottles

8 to 10 guests: 4 to 5 bottles

12 to 16 guests: 6 to 9 bottles

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