4 min read.Updated: 30 Sep 2012, 06:33 PM ISTMadhu Menon
In the first of a two-part series, Madhu Menon talks about quantity, planning and the kind of food to make for a house party
Everyone loves a good house party. Everyone, except the poor person who has to plan it all out, of course. I am regularly asked how much food and drink to get for parties, what should be made, what should be bought from outside. It happens so often that I figured the easiest way is to just write a column on it and then angrily tell friends: “Haven’t you read my column in Indulge on it yet? What is wrong with you?"
The first of this two-part series will deal with quantity, planning and what kind of food to make. Next month’s piece will focus more on party foods and dips and how to construct dishes by formula.
I’m such a control freak that I routinely pull out a spreadsheet on my computer and calculate exact quantities for food and drink when I throw house parties. But even if you don’t go that crazy, here are some guidelines to help you plan.
What type of party is it?
Is it drinks and snacks only, or drinks with dinner? I’ve always preferred the ‘‘drinks and snacks" approach because I can avoid having to reheat large quantities of food after I’m a couple of drinks down, and also because people don’t always appreciate the wonder of your cooking when they’re tipsy. Apart from that, at least in the Indian context, dinner is taken as a signal that the party has ended, and if one person decides he’s hungry and wants some dinner, the rest of the guests soon fall like dominoes and join the queue, and your party may end prematurely, leaving you wondering what just happened.
Here is a formula for calculating how much food you need for various combinations:
Total food per person: About 300gm. For 20 guests, you need 20x300g = 6kg of food—meat, vegetables, and grains. You can divide this in whichever way you want to. You might choose to buy, say, 4kg of chicken (remember to adjust for bone weight; about 40% of meat can be bone) and 2kg of various vegetables, but this number is reliable enough. Males tend to eat a wee bit more, so if it’s a party full of guys, get 10% more food.
Snack portions: Five-six pieces per person per hour is a reasonable estimate. Cocktail parties without dinner will need more snacks. In my experience, most parties go for 3-4 hours on an average. So using the same 20 people in our previous example, we get 20x4x5 = 400 pieces. Now, those seem like a lot, but remember that I’m literally talking about bite-size snack portions, not giant kebabs that you might get from a restaurant (I could’ve used the fancy term ‘‘hors d’oeuvres", but I’m trying to be friendly here). So you don’t need to go broke making food. It’s best to divide this into many dishes. I recommend having at least five-six types of snacks for variety, so that leaves you with 80 portions of five snacks. Count the vegetarians in the group, and add another 25% to your calculation. The vegetarians won’t eat meat, but the carnivores in the group have no problem munching on the vegetarian food, too.
If you’re doing dinner as well, apply the same calculation as above, but reduce the time to 2 hours instead. So for 20 guests, you’d get 20x5x2 = 200 portions of snacks. That’s half the food in snacks. Remember the overall quantity calculation for the party? Just apply half of it now for main course, and you’re set. A common mistake people make is to prepare dinner as if it were the only thing their guests are eating, and then they are surprised to find a lot of food left behind.
I vividly remember the first house party I threw. My chef ego wouldn’t let me make a simple meal. Instead, I made food from six countries, and so much food was left over that I had to pack it for the guests to take home with them. Since then, I’ve always preached this very simple rule for parties—when you have a lot of guests, don’t go for too much variety in the main course. Instead, make larger quantities of fewer dishes (this rule also works well when large group of friends go to restaurants). It’s a practical matter, really. The more dishes you have, the more work you have to do to make them. Second, you risk a popular dish getting over quickly, and other guests not getting any. Third, it leads to more wastage as it’s harder to get quantities exactly right for smaller portions. And lastly, more dishes on one plate make a mess of flavours, and people with a couple of drinks in them can taste less than sober people anyway.
As for snacks, variety is important. So don’t just have six kinds of breaded and fried snacks. Spicy, mild, crisp, soft, creamy, etc., are all variations you can try. The useful book Hors d’Oeuvres, by Victoria Blashford-Snell and Eric Treuille, has such an awesome classification system for snacks that I unashamedly reproduce it here—“Nibbles, Dips, and Dippers," “Tops and Bottoms," “Sticks and Skewers," “Wraps and Rolls," and “Stacks and Cases". This should give you a starting point, and if it still hasn’t, well, just read the next column for more ideas, won’t you?
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb