whole baked turkey

Frugal Cooking Guide: Cooking Enough Ham & Turkey Per Person

As a host, one of the hardest things about planning a lunch or dinner at home is estimating how much meat you’ll have to cook for your guests. If you don’t cook enough, you could be starving your guests and end up having that awkward conversation admitting you’re all out of food.

But cook too much, and you’ll have to deal with excess leftovers that will take days for your household to finish. Even worse: it could go bad before you can finish it, which means dollars down the drain.

So, how much ham per person do you need? How much turkey to buy per person? Fish? Beef? We answer all your cooking guide questions in this article to help you estimate how much meat you really need to cook to avoid excess leftovers and not preparing enough.

Always RSVP

Even if it’s for a casual get-together, it’s important to have an accurate estimate of how many people will be eating. This number will also include yourself and your household. If bringing plus ones are allowed, tell your guests that you would appreciate a heads-up at least 48 hours before your party to help you prepare more food.

For events like birthdays, anniversaries, milestones, and holidays, ham and turkey are always a good go-to choice for large groups. But knowing how many people will show up can help you estimate what size of ham or how much meat needs to be bought.

Planning Your Menu

When planning your menu, stick to recipes you know you can do. Never bring out those cooking videos of those dishes you want to try, as you might not know how they’ll turn out. If it turns out bad, you could be wasting food (considering you’re making enough for your guests) or you could end up making your guests find a way to be polite about your food even if it tastes off.

Ideally, your menu should consist of food that is sure to make everyone happy. A good menu should consist of at least one of each:

  • An appetizer
  • A pork/beef dish;
  • A fish dish (you can skip this if you don’t have any pescetarian guests);
  • A vegetarian/vegan dish (you can skip this if you don’t have any vegetarian or vegan guests);
  • A carb side dish (rice, pasta, quinoa, etc.)
  • Dessert

To save on time, you might want to consider doing a combination of cooking your own food and ordering party platters. You may also cook make-ahead dishes: these are dishes you can make in big batches and can easily reheat before the party. These include soups, roasts, lasagnas, and braised dishes. Stick to low-effort dishes or dishes you can cook fast.

How Much Food Do I Need to Make?

thanksgiving meal

Once you have your menu and estimate headcount, it’s time to estimate how much meat you’ll need to comfortably feed your party. Before anything else, take note of these two simple rules:

  1. Portions are much bigger for dinner time.
  2. The more items you have on your menu, the smaller portion you need.

So, let’s say that for a sit-down dinner for 6 people, your menu consists of lasagna, mashed potatoes, and a salad. Given that the lasagna will be the main course of the meal, there’s a high chance that some will ask for seconds, so you might need to have a second tray ready. But if your menu consists of lasagna, mashed potatoes, a salad, braised beef, grilled tuna, and chicken ala king, they won’t be relying on lasagna alone to keep them full, so it’s okay to only prepare one large tray.

With that in mind, here’s how much meat you need to prepare.

How Much Ham Per Person?

For those holiday hams you can buy from your local supermarket, how much you need depends on the weight and whether you’re buying a boneless or bone-in ham.

For boneless ham, a generous estimate would be to provide half a pound per person. So, for a party of 10, a five-pound ham can feed people generously. For bone-in ham, a party of 10 would need a 7.5-pound ham or about a 3/4 pound per person. If you can’t find a ham this big in your supermarket, consider buying two 4-pound hams.

How Much Turkey to Buy Per Person?

The bigger the turkey, the higher the meat-to-bone ratio. A smart estimate is to give a pound of turkey per person. But if you want leftovers to use after Thanksgiving, bump it up to a pound and a half per person.

ratio of turkey to guests

For a party of 10, a 15-pound turkey will fit everyone generously. But if you plan on serving more types of dishes, a 12-pound turkey is also acceptable. Make sure you thaw, brine, and cook your turkey at the right time.

How Much Chicken, Pork, and Beef Per Person?

For other meat dishes where the meat is mixed in with vegetables, pasta, and other main ingredients, the USDA recommends preparing at least three ounces of meat per person. However, other caterers recommend doubling this to six ounces.

In this case, we suspect the USDA recommendation is based on health, but caterers are based on the experience of how much food guests actually eat. So, for your party of 10, you may need around four pounds of meat for your meat dishes.

But for dishes where the meat is the main meal (e.g. steak, pork chops, etc.), estimate 8 ounces per person if you’re serving to those with small appetites and want to minimize leftovers. Or do 12 ounces if your guests have bigger appetites and you want leftovers for a day or two after the party.

How Much Fish Per Person?

Serving whole fish (fish that hasn’t been gutted or removed of any parts) means that the fish should be much heavier with all the parts. So, estimate at least one pound per person. For fishes that have been sliced or dressed, estimate at least half a pound per person.

Ways to Handle Leftovers

Even with the best estimates, you’re bound to have some leftovers. Little leftovers are fine, especially if you know your household can finish the rest within the next day or two. By estimating, you’re avoiding food wastage, making the cost of your food worth it.

But let’s say you got your estimates wrong, several guests didn’t show up, or a few people may not have the appetite you thought. You might be worried about the leftovers, so here are a few tips on dealing with them.

  • Offer to pack some leftovers for your guests. Have disposable food containers ready in your kitchen before any party. This is great because if you know your household cannot finish all the leftovers you can give your guests food for them to enjoy the next day.
  • Combine your leftovers to create a new meal. The problem with having excess leftovers is that you may grow weary of eating these every day. Leftovers after a party can be used to create new meals within the next few days, making it easier to eat in longer periods of time.
  • Give leftovers to your neighbors. This is particularly common during the day following Christmas when many families realize they’ve made too much food for their family to finish. Make sure the food you give your neighbors look appetizing and are still safe to eat.

Tips for Cooking for Parties

  • For parties with more than 5 people eating, avoid meat dishes that can be difficult to cook by batch (e.g steak, pork chops). By roasting, braising, or creating dishes where it can be easy to share from a serving tray, you’re putting less effort into cooking, allowing you to enjoy the rest of the party.
  • The numbers listed in this article are on the assumption that you won’t be serving any other main course during your party. If you intend to add more dishes to your menu or know your guests will be bringing food to share, you can lower the estimated pound/ounce per person.
  • Don’t be ashamed about having to buy party platters. Many people who are overwhelmed with everything they need to cook before a party may feel guilty about getting food trays or party platters and then trying to pass these dishes off as their own. No one is going to judge you for putting rotisserie chicken from your supermarket on the table.
  • You can’t force your guests to bring food, but if you want a potluck party, make it clear that you’re expecting them to bring food to share. If no one gets the memo that this is a potluck party, many may come empty-handed, and you may end up embarrassed as you’ve only cooked enough food expecting others to bring more.

How much ham you need depends on how many guests you have, their appetites, the dish you’re serving, and more. While it’s much better for a host to have too much food than to have insufficient food for their guests, making a smart estimate can help reduce leftovers that can go bad and cost you more money than necessary.

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