Entertaining: How Much to Serve at a Cocktail Party

Thanks to a family of extraordinary southern hosts and hostesses, we've inherited particular ideas about how much food to serve at a cocktail party. In short, the rule was "too much is never enough." They think it far better to have entirely too much food than to even begin to run out.

But as we're thinking about wasting food lately, not to mention the rising cost of food, we're starting to examine this rule. We still want to be the epitome of a gracious hostess, with guests never worrying if there will be enough to eat, but we also don't want anything to go to waste.

Here are our new rules for how much food to serve at a cocktail party:

For friends coming over for a drink before going out to dinner, you only need serve one or two things. It could be a fast dip and crudite, or an elegant bite. Give them something to whet their appetite without ruining it. Do one thing well.

But if you're having a cocktail party without a specified end time, be aware that many guests will just eat hors d'oeuvres rather than a full dinner. You'll want to serve enough to fill them up without having tons of leftovers.

Scale Down Entertaining books often advise planning for six to eight bites per person per hour. But we find that the longer an event, the more you can downgrade this total. So for a three-hour party, we'd probably plan for each person eating 16 hors d'oeuvre rather than 24. Invite 20 people and those extra hors d'oeuvre add up.
Be Substantial We like to make one or two "substantial" things that fill people up. For example, a sliced pork loin served with small biscuits and a dish of good mustard or chutney will go more slowly than bite-sized canapes.
Plan for Leftovers Filled phyllo shells will be soggy and unappetizing the next day, but that leftover pork loin can be made into many different dishes. Similarly, we might make a vodka-spiked cherry tomato with a cube of mozzarella. Leftovers get tossed with pasta for an easy dinner. Know which leftovers can be easily transformed, and plan accordingly. I.e., make fewer phyllo shells and more pork loin.
Stock the Freezer We try to have a couple of straight-from-freezer-to-oven hors d'oeuvre. Not only do they allow us to make things in advance, but we can only make as many as we need. Leftovers stay in the freezer for our next party.
Send Them on Their Way Our menus look like a mini-meal. There's something hearty and meaty like we mentioned above, several vegetable-based bites (including the tried-and-true crudite platter), at least a few starchy items, and something sweet to finish things off. But we don't set the "dessert" items out at the beginning of the party. Instead, as the party is starting to wind down, or you see that you're running out of food, put out the sweets. You can then feel free to take away half-empty platters rather than refilling them.

The rules are different if you're planning a dessert-only party, as people seem to get their fill of sweets more quickly. Read our advice on Desserts for a Crowd: Planning Quantities.

Looking for recipes and menu planning ideas? We've got tons of hors d'oeuvre ideas.

Images: Mini Lamb Burgers by Faith Hopler, Elegant Pancetta Cups by Nina Callaway, Roasted Figs with Honey and Rosemary by Faith Hopler, all for The Kitchn.