With You All the Way

by Sharron Campbell,

Certified Meeting Professional, 30 years experience

Food & Beverage Quantities to Order

This is an area that makes even the most experienced meeting or event planner a bit nervous.  Once the food and beverage "guarantee" of the number of people to be served is given to the caterer handling your function, you will be obligated to pay for that number of servings even if your attendance is lower than expected.  You can always increase your guarantee, but you cannot reduce it after the deadline, usually 4 working days in advance of your event (weekend days don't count).  You will also have a contractual obligation called "attrition" that will state a minimum you will pay regardless of when you give a guarantee, so be sure you understand attrition!  More on that in the Contracts link provided below.   

If working with a caterer, listen to what is recommended!  A good caterer will give you good advice.  But, you need to have a basic understanding about quantities to order for the number of people you expect to be served - and the options you can consider when you are watching your budget!  Use the following info as a guideline, not a hard, fast rule!


Allow one beverage per person per hour for a 4-hour gathering to be on the safe side.  Not everyone will drink liquor!  Even those who do may switch from alcohol to water after the first or second drink, so don’t forget to order water. Bottled water will be appreciated, but by-the-glass from a pitcher will definitely be less expensive to serve!

The rate of consumption will decrease if the duration of the party is longer.  The quantities listed below are based on serving only one type of beverage, such as beer or wine.

 Type of Beverage   

 Number of Servings in Each

 Ordering ONE type of beverage for
4 hrs. to 50 people
(see NOTE)

 Beer   1 case = (24) 12-ounce servings  8 cases
 Wine   750 ml bottle = (6) 4-ounce glasses   34 bottles
 Liquor  750 ml bottle = (15 to 18) 1-ounce pours per bottle  13 bottles + assorted mixes
 Coffee  1 gallon = (18) 1-cup servings   3 gallons
 Soda   1-liter bottle = (11) 6-ounce glasses  18 bottles
 Soda  1 case = (24) 12-ounce cans of (2) 6-ounce servings  4 cases
 Punch  1 gallon = (32) 4-ounce servings   6 gallons
 Champagne  750 ml bottle = (6) 4-ounce glasses   9 bottles for 1 toast

This may surprise you –
A “soft bar” that serves beer and wine only will usually be more expensive because there are only 5 pours out of a bottle of wine versus 15 to 18 pours per person from a liquor bottle. 
In recent years, consumption of cocktails has been lighter at group functions than beer and wine but that might not always be the case.  

If you offer a combination, order less of each type to be served.  Order more of the type you think will be most popular and less of the others to reach a total number of one per person per hour.  This can be tricky unless you know the likes and dislikes of your group. 

If the group is mostly men and they enjoy wine, it is usually safer to order more red than white.  A mix of domestic and imported beer is recommended, and don’t overlook ordering soda and bottled water for those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages.

Alert the bartenders – 
At the beginning of the evening, ask the catering manager to alert the bartenders that you will want an accounting of the type of drinks that are served along with your liquor bill at the end of the evening.   Keep an accurate record of the number of drinks and the percentage of the various types consumed.  This will be invaluable information when you begin planning and budgeting for the next function for the same group, and it will be helpful if you are planning for another group that is similar in style. 


 Food Item    Portions per Person  Comments
 Hors d’oeuvres if meal to follow  Total of 2 to 3 pieces per person per hour 
 Heavy hors d’oeuvres as a meal  Total of 5 to 6 pieces per person per hour   Less after 2nd hour
 Chilled salads  4 ounces per person   
 Hot side dishes  3 to 4 ounces per person   Less if more side dishes served
 Pasta as an entrée  6 to 8 ounces per person  Less if side dishes also served
 Pasta as a side dish  3 to 4 ounces per person
 Lunch entrée  4 to 6 ounces per person   
 Dinner entrée  6 to 8 ounces per person
 Dessert  3 to 4 ounces per person 
 Dinner Rolls or Bread  2 per person 

If heavy hors d’oeuvres are to be served as a meal and a substantial food station such as pasta or a mashed potato cocktail will also be available, you can safely reduce the number of cold and hot hors d’oeuvres you order to be passed or set out.  Calculate the number of 3- to 4-ounce servings the pasta station will provide and include it as part of your count of 5 to 6 hors d’oeuvres per person.  It is a good idea to have a food item that is filling served in addition to other hors d'oeuvres so you can control your budget while making sure that no one walks away hungry. 

Calculate quantity of hors d'houevres to order using history from past events - 
Look at the total number registered for your event and order one serving of the most filling item (such as pasta) for each person registered.  Then as a general rule (every group is different with unique needs and preferences), decrease the number you order for all other appetizer items to the number of people actually served at previous events for the same group per recorded history. Work with percentages rather than actual numbers to keep it simple.  In other words if 500 registered but only 250 attended a previous event and your current registration is 300, order one serving of pasta for 100% of registration (300) but only 50% (150) of other hors d'oeuvre items. The count given in the chart above for the dessert order may be high.  Everyone seems to be on a diet these days, and many dessert stations are left nearly untouched.  Expensive!

Best advice -
Know your group!  Study its history.  If history has not been recorded from previous events but the group has held similar functions in the past, contact the venues that hosted the functions and ask for history.  They can usually tell you how many were expected and how many were actually served.  Past invoices can also help.  History is Golden.

If a first time event -
Order conservatively. It is highly unusual for first-time events to be successful at drawing the attendance expected unless it is mandatory. Do not order for the full number of people registered. It is wise to arrange for substitute menu items available for quick preparation if attendance should exceed expectations. 

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