How Much Turkey Do I Need for Thanksgiving?

Calculate Serving Quantities for Turkey and Other Side Dishes

how much food to buy for thanksgiving
Illustration: Sage Youngblood

Figuring out how much turkey you'll need for your Thanksgiving dinner can be a real head-scratcher. Especially when you start to consider variables like your family's appetite, and whether you like to have plenty of leftovers afterward.

If that weren't hard enough, you have to make the same calculation for everything else: the potatoes, the stuffing, the gravy, even the pie!

Fortunately, we've got you covered, whether you're cooking for a small gathering, or a small army.

Let's tackle the turkey first.

You Need 1 1/2 Pounds of Turkey Per Person

Figure 1 1/2 pounds of uncooked turkey per person. In other words, to feed 12 people, you'd need an 18-pound turkey (12 × 1.5 = 18).

This formula (and this is true for the guidelines that follow as well) will produce generous leftovers. Bear in mind that the suggested quantities are averages, which means they already account for the fact that not everyone eats the same amount.

Even so, if everyone in your group is a big eater, then bump it up to 2 pounds per person just to be on the safe side. (Read on for ideas on using leftovers.)

Another approach you can take if your guest list is on the larger side, is to roast two medium birds instead of a single large one.

If you have the oven space, you can roast two 12-pound turkeys and feed 12 to 13 people, which is about how many one 20-pound turkey will feed. But the benefit of having two turkeys is that it's easier to control the cooking with smaller turkeys, and of course they cook more quickly.

Plus, you'll end up with more dark meat this way, as well as doubling your number of drumsticks and wings.

If your group's preferences lean in that direction, you can, along with your whole turkey, roast an additional turkey breast—either boneless or bone-in.

For a bone-in breast, figure 1 1/4 pounds per person, and for a boneless one, 3/4 pound per person.

(This takes the weight of the bone into consideration).

Thus, for example, a 12-pound turkey PLUS a 7-pound bone-in turkey breast will feed around 12 people.

The reason bigger turkeys feed more people per pound is that it isn't the bones that get bigger as a turkey's overall weight increases, it's the breasts.

Therefore, a larger bird will feature a higher ratio of white meat to bone. Leaving you with one more reason to be thankful during this holiday season.

What About the Side Dishes?

Gravy: Gravy is the fuel that powers your Thanksgiving dinner. Plan on a half cup of gravy per person. Even then, you may still run out! 

Mashed potatoes: 3/4 cup (cooked) per person (or 1 cup for leftovers). This works out to about 1/2 pound of potatoes, or 1 1/2 medium potatoes, per person.

Stuffing: 3/4 cup (cooked) per person (or 1 cup per person if you want leftovers). A 6-oz box of dry stuffing indicates that it will yield six portions, but beware: this calculation assumes 1/2 cup of stuffing per serving.  

Cranberry sauce: 1/2 cup per person (4 servings per can, 8 servings per 12-oz bag of fresh cranberries).

Green beans (or carrots or other cooked veggie): 1/3 to 1/2 cup per person. A 1-pound bag of carrots will produce 3 to 4 servings, which factors in trimming and peeling.

Green beans have a slightly higher yield since you don't have to peel them.

Wine: Two 750 ml bottles per 3 people.

Beer: 8 cans or bottles of beer per 3 people.

Don't Forget Dessert!

Pie: One pie per 6 to 8 people. This assumes one slice per person, and you can decide whether to divide each pie into 6 or 8 slices.

If you love dessert, figure six slices per pie. This might mean modifying the serving sizes of your dinner items in order to save room for the additional dessert (i.e. doing more math).

Alternately, you can simply figure you'll make room for it somehow. After all, that is what elastic waistbands are for.

The table below breaks out the quantities of each item you'll need for various numbers of servings:

Dish4 to 8 servings8 to 12 servings12 to 16 servings16 to 20 servings
Turkey12 to 16 pounds18 pounds24 pounds30 pounds (or two 14 to 16 pound turkeys)
Gravy2 to 4 cups4 to 6 cups6 to 8 cups8 to 10 cups
Mashed potatoes1 to 2 quarts2 to 3 quarts3 to 4 quarts4 to 5 quarts
Stuffing (cooked)1 to 2 quarts2 to 3 quarts3 to 4 quarts4 to 5 quarts
Cranberry sauce2 to 4 cups4 to 6 cups6 to 8 cups8 to 10 cups
Green beans/other veggie (cooked)2 to 3 cups3 to 4 cups4 to 5 cups5 to 6 cups
Pie/cheesecake1 pie2 pies2 to 3 pies3 pies
Wine (750 ml bottle)1 to 3 bottles3 to 4 bottles4 to 5 bottles5 to 6 bottles
Beer (12-oz can)5 to 10 cans10 to 15 cans15 to 20 cans20 to 25 cans

Speaking of Beer and Wine...

The beer and wine quantities shown above assume that you're serving one or the other, not both. If you plan to serve beer and wine, simply halve both amounts. Assuming 5 glasses of wine per bottle, that works out to 3 drinks per person.

This should cover what your guests will consume at dinner, but not a whole lot more. For extended festivities, a good rule of thumb is number of guests × hours × 2. Thus, 10 people for 4 hours equals 80 drinks, or around 8 bottles of wine plus 3 12-packs of beer.

Of course, not every guest will imbibe. Also, beer generally comes in increments of 6 or 12. So you have some wiggle room if you want to adjust up or down.

What to Do With Leftovers

Turkey: Make sandwiches, of course. And once you've picked every last scrap of meat from the carcass, use it to make soup or turkey stock. You can even freeze the carcass to use later. Totally understandable to be done cooking for a while after this.

Mashed potatoes: Make potato croquettes, or use it to thicken your turkey soup. You can even reheat it on a waffle iron to crisp it up and give it a new shape.

Stuffing: There is never any leftover stuffing. But if there is, add it to your sandwiches or try the aforementioned waffle iron trick (perhaps combining the stuffing with the mashed potatoes).

Cranberry sauce: Again, your turkey sandwich will sing if you make it with leftover cranberry sauce. It (along with gravy) also makes a lovely topping for your mashed potato/stuffing waffles.

Gravy: There will not be any leftover gravy. Not to worry, though: Making more is a cinch.

Vegetables: Add them to your soup or chop them up and add them to your stuffing before waffling. If you're feeling really ambitious, take your leftover turkey and veggies and turn them into turkey pot pie.

Finally, this might be the best thing you can do with your Thanksgiving leftovers: divide it all up, pack it into storage containers and send it home with your guests!