overhead view of friends gathered around a table set with a Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving Planner: How Much Food to Make for Your Small, Medium, or Large Gathering

Not too much, not too little, but just right.
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The holidays are right around the corner, starting with Thanksgiving, and for many of us, our Thanksgivings may look a little different than last year — perhaps more similar to the gatherings of family and friends of the pre-pandemic years. As buoying as that sounds, a lot of of us are a little rusty when it comes to planning holiday meals, but help is at hand.

We reached out to a handful of professional chefs and restaurateurs for their insights, along with tips to help Thanksgiving preparations go smoothly in your kitchen: Executive Chef Travis Schultz from Sparrow + Wolf in Las Vegas; Holly Arnold Kinney, owner of The Fort in Morrison, Colorado, and author of "The Fort Restaurant Cookbook: New Foods of the Old West from the Landmark Colorado;" Allison Williams, senior marketing manager at 4Top Hospitality in Memphis, with 16 restaurants across the Southeast; and Nik Fields, aka "Nik the Chic Chef," celebrity chef, author of "The Chic Chef Approach" and founder of Waste Not Want Not, a non-profit organization that encourages households and restaurants to limit food waste

How Much Food to Make for Thanksgiving

Just how much food to prepare depends on the size of the gathering and how many leftovers you and your guests like to enjoy over the remaining days of the holiday weekend — think sandwiches, casseroles, soups, and plenty more.

First things first — make a list of who you'll be hosting for Thanksgiving dinner, and then use this handy chart to figure out how much to make of each dish, including the main attraction on most tables: the turkey itself. You'll see how much food on average to make for the size of your gathering: small (2-4 guests), medium (6-10 guests) and large (14-20 guests). We've included all the major menu items, from apps and desserts to turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pretty much everything else you can think of serving.

Menu Item

Small (2 to 4 )

Medium (6 to 10 )

Large (14 to 20 )

Appetizer

1

2

3 to 4

Soup

4 cups

8 cups

16 cups

Turkey (whole)

6 pounds

8 to 13 pounds

18 to 25 pounds

Salad

1

1 to 2

2 to 3

Stuffing/Dressing

3 cups

6 cups

12 cups

Mashed Potatoes

3 cups

6 cups

12 cups

Sweet Potatoes

3 cups

6 cups

12 cups

Vegetable Side

1

2

3 to 4

Bread (rolls or slices)

6

12

24

Cranberry Sauce

2 cups

4 cups

8 cups

Gravy

3 cups

6 cups

12 cups

Dessert

1

2 to 3

3 to 4

Wine

1 to 2 bottles

3 to 5 bottles

7 to 10 bottles

Small Gathering: 2 to 4

illustration of how much food to make for a small-size group for Thanksgiving, including turkey, stuffing, gravy, sides, appetizers, and dessert
Credit: Meredith Design Studio

Medium Gathering: 6 to 10

illustration of how much food to make for a medium-size group for Thanksgiving, including turkey, stuffing, gravy, sides, appetizers, and dessert
Credit: Meredith Design Studio

Large Gathering: 14 to 20

illustration of how much food to make for Thanksgiving, including turkey, stuffing, gravy, sides, appetizers, and dessert
Credit: Meredith Design Studio

Thanksgiving Menu Planning: Tips From the Pros

Now that you know how many people will be around the dining table, it's time to plan your menu.

"When I put together the menu for Thanksgiving parties, I like to take into account any traditions the guests I'm serving are accustomed to and expecting, as well as any dietary preferences and restrictions they may have," Schultz told Allrecipes in an interview.

"For the most part, Thanksgiving is pretty straightforward in terms of the dishes. People usually expect to be served traditional offerings," he continued. "I like to put my twist on things and elevate things where I can. One year I made Oyster Rockefeller stuffing and it ended up being a huge hit!"

Kinney agrees with Schultz regarding including familiar flavors on your menu, what she calls "taste memory."

"Home cooks should remember their childhood and what they liked best in their 'taste memory' for their holiday Thanksgiving meal," she said. "If they have become vegetarian, or have any other dietary restrictions, look for recipes that substitute ingredients but give you the same 'taste memory' without the fat, gluten, or meat, etc.

"The traditional turkey dinner, including yams, giblet gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are the basics, but there are many creative alternatives to create new traditions by mixing with the family 'taste memories' of your favorites," Kinney added.

Williams said that for any gathering, they like to recommend planning a menu that includes versatile options that appeals to a variety of tastes.

"For example," she said, "at Thanksgiving, the cornbread dressing not only serves as a side dish but can also be a vegetarian offering, if prepared as vegetarian-friendly."

Fields takes inspiration from her local market when it comes to planning her menu, and suggests home cooks let the ingredients speak to them.

"Sometimes, when I don't know what to cook, I go to my local supermarket or farmers' market and build my dinner based on what's on sale, the season, or simply because the color was beautiful," she said. "Have fun with it; cooking has no rules!"

Time-Saving Tips

woman chopping fresh vegetables
Credit: yulkapopkova

Now that the guest list has been finalized and you've decided which dishes you're going to make, here are some time saving tips from the pros.

"Although Thanksgiving is so predictable, it can be a daunting task to execute at home due to the sheer volume of food and quantity of offerings," said Schultz. "To save time, I recommend writing your menu and prep and shopping lists at least a month in advance. Many Thanksgiving dishes can be made ahead of time as well.

"I like to set myself up by doing as much as possible ahead of time to make the day of the event stress-free," he added.

As far as other time-saving ideas, Schultz said that cranberry compote can be made a couple weeks ahead of time; potatoes can be peeled ahead of time for mash and stored in water until it's time to cook them; blanch vegetables ahead of time and shock them in ice water, like green beans for the beloved casserole; and there is "no shame or loss in quality by making your gravy ahead of time and freezing it in Ziplock bags or deli containers."

Kinney agrees with pre-making sides to save time, and said to "be sure to refrigerate them up to 40 minutes before serving, and then heat them up in the oven and serve immediately."

When it comes to the turkey itself, if you're planning to cook a bird that weighs in at more than 15 years, Fields suggests opting for two smaller turkeys that total the weight needed to cut down on cooking time. Schultz adds that he thinks "smaller birds taste better."

More time saving tips from Fields include baking pie crusts in advance if making homemade pies; using an ironing board (remove the cover) as a cooling rack and to act as additional counter space counter for prep; and chill wine or Champagne in 20 minutes with ice water and a handful of salt.

In the end, remember why you've agreed to host Thanksgiving in the first place — to be with friends and family.

"Take your time, plan it out, recruit some help, and most of all, have fun," said Schultz. "Food made with love tastes extra good."

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