How much food do I order? This of course is most likely the most frustrating question that faces the host of any party. You could of course rely on whoever you are ordering the food from and while this seems like the safest bet it could also be the most costly. All you want is to have a party or maybe you need this party. Some parties are actually a “needed” thing such as a birthday or a graduation. In any event you are on a budget unless you’re a Kardashian (oooh don’t get me started). So with budget in mind you need to come up with this magical and almost mythical answer as to “how much food is the right amount?” I have the answer; There is no “right answer” or is there.
Ok so let’s get serious here and break it all down. You have a budget, you need food, you need enough food, however you don’t want tons of leftovers. Most caterers are going to sell you more than you need this is a given. And most people will go into panic mode two days out from the event and start running over the food order in their head and stressing they won’t have enough. There are calculators and elaborate software programs that can be used to decipher this equation. But let me tell you as a young caterer who knew nothing about planning a party much less how much food should be served, I soon came up with an idea. How big is the human stomach? I know this sounds idiotic and Martha Stewart would digress. But seriously… look at the typical holiday dinner and think about how much food is left over and how stuffed you are when you leave the table. I’ll use my own experience with the typical Thanksgiving dinner. All this food is bought and hours, if not days are spent preparing and cooking only to have pounds upon pounds of left overs. In fact two years in a row the sweet potato dish was not even touched.
I guess what I am trying to say and get the reader to understand is a “human being can only put so much food down their pie hole in a given amount of time. Sure uncle Mort will pound down four of those pulled pork sandwiches and most likely never touch the Caesar salad, while cousin Lara with her 110 lbs figure will surely pass over the pork and nibble a piece of chicken breast. When we are ordering food for a party, whether or not we are cooking it ourselves or getting it prepared by a caterer, at the time of ordering we never really tend to think of it in this way. We are more concerned with “OMG will I have enough food.”
I ask you this; think of your favorite place to eat dinner and think about what your favorite meal at that place would consist of. Picture it in your mind. I’ll tell you one of my faves and we’ll walk through it together. When I am out on the road traveling and I want a good sit down meal at a somewhat fair price I will eat at Cracker Barrel. I will order “Chicken Fried Chicken.” The meal is as follows; I’ll eat one biscuit with butter, there will be two pieces of boneless chicken breast with gravy, I usually get rice or steak fries (not both) a veggie and the mac & cheese (it’s a small serving). I drink one or two glasses of unsweetened tea and that’s it I’m done. No appetizer unless you want to consider the biscuit, and no desert. After all that I am full and satisfied and I am a big guy. I walk out feeling very full, but not stuffed. If I were eating that meal at home there would be no biscuit and most likely one piece of the chicken.
So I think by now you are starting to see my angle on this question of how much vs too much. Some people will eat like a pig and others pick like birds. If you are serving all of the same kind of person, let’s say fifty hungry construction workers well sure they are going to eat more than fifty people from the church. I would suggest looking at your guest list and determining things like is it a “normal crowd” or a specialty crowd (like fifty hungry men). If it is a normal mix of people you order a normal amount of food. The guide lines are the standard “full size” catering pan will general hold 25 to 30 servings of food depending of course what kind of food it is. I can fit 26-28 piece of chicken in a full size pan. That is assorted pieces of drumsticks, thighs and breasts are cut into smaller piece (no wings). However that same size pan will hold more than thirty servings of baked beans. But for the most part 25 to 30 servings per full size pan is the standard.
I suggest two meats as the main dishes and four side dishes with one being a green salad. But with choosing the four different side dishes you are going for diversity and not quantity, so there is no need to have enough of any one side dish to serve the whole crowd. In the realm of BBQ having rolls for about 50% of the head count because the other 50% will not eat them.
Other things that factor into how hungry people are at a party is how long you make them wait to eat after they arrive. So it is a backyard party and you’ve told guests to arrive at 4:00pm with a serving time of 5:00pm. You should know, nobody is arriving at 4:00pm, most will arrive at 4:30 and the rest will arrive at 4:55 or later, remember I have been doing this for 20 years so trust me nobody is arriving at 4 o’clock, unless of course it is a surprise party or a wedding and that can force people to be there at a proper time. Either way waiting too long makes people hungry, a few minutes is not going to hurt. However asking guests to arrive at a certain time and making them wait more than one hour will certainly reduce your guest list for the next party. Appetizers of course should handle this problem, so don’t think you can leave guests hanging too long. I know some people reading this may find it hard to believe, but I have seen people of so called “reasonable intelligence” make guests wait two hours for the main serving with just chips and cheese to hold them over. This of course will affect your amount of food you have ordered and could cause a problem. One and half hours with appetizers is pretty much the limit.