Running out of food has never been a problem at any Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever attended. I’ve never seen it happen. But if this is your first year hosting or (thanks to the pandemic) you’ve simply forgotten how to plan a meal for more than four people, it’s nice to keep baseline minimums in mind, if only to quell your anxiety.
These minimums are, of course, only rough guidelines, and they suppose that your family likes and eats turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and all of the other Thanksgiving staples. But before we get to the food, let’s start with the most important menu item of all.
A single bottle of wine is enough for two people under normal circumstances. I’ve seen some Thanksgiving guides claim a bottle is enough for three, but this is a holiday, and people may want to drink a little more than usual. Don’t stand in their way.
If you’re only serving wine, and every single person at the table likes wine, I would err on the side of one to one and a half bottles per guest. If some of your guests are children, or you have a case of beer in play, you can safely drop it down to one bottle for every two guests. If you have a lot of beer in play, are dining with a bunch of non-drinkers, or have a guest who’s excited to debut the cocktail they crafted for this occasion, you can drop to one bottle for every three guests. I never follow my own advice here, though. I always overbuy the wine, and serve the “extras” at various holiday gatherings throughout the season.
The weight you see printed on your turkey packaging includes the bones, giblets, and all sorts of connective tissue, so a 12-pound turkey is not going to provide 12 pounds of meat, so look at it this way: One pound of packaged turkey per meat-eating guest will leave you with no leftovers, one and a half pounds will leave you with some leftovers, and two pounds of turkey per guest will leave you with a healthy amount of leftovers.
That said, I do not recommend buying a turkey much larger than 14 pounds. Massive 20-pound birds take forever to cook—unless you break them down into pieces prior to cooking—and they’re even harder to cook well. You could buy two turkeys, but I’m a big fan of the supplemental ham, the supplemental duck, or—if you want to really blow everyone’s mind—the supplemental timpano. That way everyone gets to enjoy a little turkey, but they also get to experience variety.
Potatoes and yams
When shopping for Thanksgiving, I find it helps to think in terms of potatoes, rather than pounds. No matter what kind of potato dish I’m making—be it a simple mash or this scalloped yam dish—I look at the potatoes in front of me and ask “How many of these could I eat as part of a normal meal?” If I’m pondering Russets or large yams, I generally conclude that one potato or yam will suit, so I buy one per guest; if I’m looking at smaller Yukons or something similar, it’s two potatoes, so I buy two per guest.
This, in truth, is overkill. Though I am capable of eating a large baked potato when served with a simple protein and a single veggie on the side, that is not the reality on Thanksgiving. Buying one large Russet per person will (in most houses) result in at least some leftovers, and that’s a good thing.
A quarter cup of cranberry sauce per person is a “normal” amount, but you could go so far as half a cup per person if your guests are big fans. A 12-ounce bag of cranberries will yield slightly over two cups of sauce, and a can of the jellied stuff boasts six servings. I usually serve one or two types of homemade sauce, plus a can of the jellied, and it is always too much for the seven or eight people I typically cook for. (I will never stop serving both types of cranberry sauce. A lot of people like both!)
Stuffing or dressing
No matter what you call it, a side of moist, seasoned bread is a must. Half of a cup per person is the bare minimum, but 3/4 of a cup ensures you have a little extra for stuffing waffles, leftover sandwiches, and the like. Most stuffing and dressing recipes makes about 10 cups of the stuff, so a single pan is plenty for most households.
Half a cup of gravy per person will get you through the meal, but I always double that so there’s plenty for leftovers. I usually make the “extra” gravy a week or two in advance, label it “emergency gravy,” and pop it in the freezer.
Do not, under any circumstances, buy fewer than two rolls per person. Everyone will eat at least one over the course of their meal, leaving each person with a single roll on which to build their leftover slider. For this reason, I buy two rolls per dinner guest, then an extra two for every person who will be enjoying leftovers at my home over the course of the weekend. That way, everyone gets to enjoy at least three leftover sliders.
Casseroles and other sides
You could serve nothing beyond what’s listed above and be totally fine. No one would leave hungry. But Thanksgiving is about excess, which is why there are always a few gratuitous side dishes—mostly casseroles. You do not need more than half a cup of sides total per person, and most standard Thanksgiving side dish recipes make 8-10 cups of food. This means one casserole would be enough for 16-20 people, so make as many or as few as you desire, based on your hunger for variety, and remember that your leftovers will increase exponentially with each additional side. That is, the more sides you make, the less turkey people will eat, and the more turkey you will have left over. Meaning you can make more turkey sliders.
Two pieces of pie per person is a reasonable amount of pie for Thanksgiving dinner, but make more if you wish to keep eating pie throughout the weekend. You can get about eight slices from a standard 9-inch pie, so plan accordingly. I do think that two pies is the bare minimum, even if you’re only serving yourself and your spouse. A single pumpkin pie is “enough” for four people, but Thanksgiving should be about joy and abundance, and nothing is more joyful than an abundant amount of pie.