When you are first starting out, knowing how to calculate food quantities for catering is crucial. One, you don’t want to run out of food and two, you want to make money on the event.
I hope this post will teach how to turn this process into a science instead of an art form. These general guides will help you calculate your food quantities for 95% of your events.
How much entrée (meat) to bring for caterings
Entrees are usually the stars of the show at catering events. For this reason we really do not like to run out as this will upset your guests.
Especially on events with carving stations or specialty items. However, like I mentioned above, you still need to make some money.
Entrees by the piece
It is much easier to calculate how much food to bring when you are dealing with entrees that are just pieces of meat (chicken, fish, pork, steaks, etc.) Simply add a cushion to your head count like 5-10%.
You might want to also add a few extra portions for your staff to eat if it will be a longer event.
Let’s say you have a 100 person event and are serving grilled chicken breast. If this is going to be a self-service buffet, you may want to add the 10% buffer (110 chicken breast) since you might have some guests take two or come back from seconds and you can’t really control that.
If this is a plated meal then you should feel comfortable bring only 105 chicken breasts (5% buffer) this gives you just a few extra pieces in case an accident happens (plate drops, entrée drops, etc.)
Be sure to communicate this clearly with your client. Let them know you only prepare food for 5-10% over their head count so if they are expecting 110 they need to order for 110 not 100 and hope the food will last.
Also let them know you are pricing out for 1 piece per person, if they want extra like 1.2 or 1.5 pieces per person then simply charge them a little extra for it!
When you cost out your menu items, be sure to include this 5-10% buffer so you are getting paid for it!
Entrees by weight
For entrees that you have to serve by weight (casseroles, lasagna, shredded or sliced meats) we like to use a 4 oz. portion for lunch and a 6 oz. portion for dinner.
So going back to our 100 person example, let’s say you opt for the 10 % buffer, simply multiply 110 x 6 oz. = 660 oz. total. 660 oz. / 16 oz. per pound = 41.25 pounds for dinner.
Or 110 x 4 oz. = 440 oz. total. 660 oz. / 16 oz. per pound = 27.5 pounds for dinner.
Try these for a few events and see how it goes. If you are finding the 4 oz. portion is running to close then bump it up to 5 oz. or vice versa for the dinner portion.
How much sides to bring for catering
Sides can be tricky and as you start catering more events you will better be able to calculate your food quantities.
One of our most popular side dishes is a potato casserole that we know we can only serve 30 people per full pan while almost every other side dish we can serve 50 like clockwork. People come up for seconds and take huge spoonful’s. So if you know you have something that is going to be popular go heavy.
You can calculate portions two ways for sides, by weight or by volume. Most of the time you will probably want to calculate this by weight.
However sometimes you will be selling side dished by the gallon (for us it items like BBQ beans, mac and cheese, potato salad, etc.)
For these items you should be able to get 25-30 portions per gallon which is a 4-5 oz. portion. As your events get larger (over 200 people) or they have multiple sides these numbers start to spread to 40-50 people per gallon.
For example, when we perform large BBQ catering, we know everyone will get mac and cheese but most people will choose either beans or coleslaw. So we still bring one gallon of mac for every 25 people but only bring one gallon of beans/coleslaw for every 40-50 guests.
For potatoes and pastas, we like to bring one pound for every 4 guests (1/4 pound per person). For rice we use ¼ cup of dry rice per serving. For vegetables you can easily get away with 1 pound for every 5 guests (~3 oz. portion).
You should also still use the 5-10% buffer for these sides as well. This will ensure you have plenty for your event.
How much salad to bring for caterings
Salads can be tricky on catering events. You will have some events where they won’t touch it and the next day go on an event the same size with the same quantity and run out.
Plated meals are definitely the easiest way to prepare for salads. Usually guests aren’t expecting huge salads.
We tend to get about 40 salads out of a 3 lb. bag of spring mix. Which is about 1.5 oz. of spring mix per salad. By the time you dress it and add your toppings it turns into a 4 oz. salad which is fine (unless you serving a dinner salad!)
For buffets we like to estimate 35-50 guests per full pan of salad. I know this is a pretty big range but like I said, salads can be tricky.
9 times out of 10 if you brought two really full pans of salad for 100 people you should be fine.
However, one little trick we learned, if you start flying through the salad (or any item for that matter) don’t refill the buffet line until you are absolutely out. Catering guests tend to grab less as they see the items are running out.
If you wanted to take it one step further just refill half of the pan from your back up and let that run out of again. This should at least give you enough breathing room to make it last to the end.
How much bread to bring for caterings
Bread is pretty straight forward. For full service buffets, we like to bring 1.5 pieces of bread per guest. This has served us well because some guests won’t take any bread and some will take 2 (or more!).
For plated meal events, you can probably just use your regular 5-10% buffer since you will be making the plates for the guests. If your rolls are small then you might still want to have some extras as some guests may request more.
After this reading this post I hope you feel more comfortable calculating food quantities for catering events. Remember, these are general guidelines that should be pretty good for most events.
However, you will still need to know your customers. For example, if you land a catering event where you are serving a college football team, well you better be prepared for them to eat some food! You can charge for that as well.
Or maybe you are serving a group of elementary school teachers you could probably get away with going a little light on your portions.
Don’t try to get too greedy though, because you don’t want to run out of food. That reputation is hard to break! It also makes it hard for your staff as you start delegating some of these roles. You don’t want to be the only one to plan every event. Create some formulas and stick to them, your staff will appreciate it.
If you need any further explanation or help with specific events let me know in the comments below!