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For the holidays, I plan to do a turkey, but I need to order in advance since the place I'm buying from is popular and usually sells out in pre-orders. Estimates of how much turkey to plan per person vary widely across the internet; does anyone have authoritative data on how much turkey to buy? There's clearly a difference between a small child and a hefty eater, for example, and I'd imagine the meat-to-bone ratio changes as the turkey gets larger or smaller. I also want to plan to have leftovers, since my family enjoys leftover turkey sandwiches. Does it matter how many sides I plan to make?

Note that this is for Americans at Thanksgiving, so portion sizes are intended to be larger than normal.

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Larger than normal portions including everything, yes, but given the number of dishes in a typical Thanksgiving meal, may well be smaller than normal portions of turkey. –  Jefromi Sep 16 '13 at 19:35

5 Answers 5

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Unless you're feeding 20, chances are you want the smallest bird they have. It doesn't really matter if you should have 1 lb per person or 1.5 if you have 8 people and their smallest bird is 12 pounds - and I'm willing to bet that's the case.

That said, I generally allow 1 lb per person and don't count the smallest children (say, haven't started school yet.) I also tend to send a lot of leftovers home with other people. Our feasts are very veggie heavy, but as I mentioned above you may have less control over this than you think.

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Typically for any whole animal (turkey, pig, or chicken) cooked for a holiday feast I plan for 1lb (dressed weight) per person. If there are going to be a lot of children, you can revise that down a half lb for each child under 12. In my experience this formula usually ends up with enough leftovers for people to take some home, but not so many that you're stuck eating turkey for 3 weeks.

For example, last week I cooked a 5 lb turkey breast for 5 people, after dinner there was approx 1.25 lbs leftover, which is easily enough for 3-4 sandwiches or a pot pie. Keep in mind that this meal did not include a lot of heavy side dishes, so it yielded a few less leftovers than a typical holiday dinner would using the same formula.

Butterball's planning calculator suggests 1.5 lbs per adult and 1 lb per child if you want to be sure to have leftovers and are "light eaters". I think that's probably overkill and/or their way to sell 50% more turkey... especially if you plan on having 3 or more side dishes.

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We found a 7lb turkey which, for the three of us, gave almost no leftovers. So clearly the 1-lb per person measure breaks down at sufficiently small numbers of people :(

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At Serious Eats, Kenji Lopez Alt says:

As a general rule, larger birds will have plumper breasts (a higher meat to bone ratio), so you'll want to use a little bit less turkey per person by weight. [...] if you're the type who likes leftovers (I do). I'd aim for 3/4 pounds of live weight per person to be safe.

This is in line with my own experiences. It matches the Butterball recommendation for Turkey Breast, as well, although they don't seem to post on their main website a recommended estimate for whole turkeys.

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  • You should first know how many people you are inviting for the Thanksgiving, are they five or ten people, are there three or six children. Secondly how are you going to prepare the events; are you going to cook a variety of food such that your guest will have turkey, pumpkin, potatoes, bread, pie, drinks, dessert etc.
  • If you will prepare that many variety, then the guest will likely try all of them, meaning they will just eat enough of turkey, pumpkin, potatoes etc.
  • Turkey will probably be the special part of the Thanksgiving. Many people especially with their family and friends in mind, would normally prepares one full turkey. I suggest you buy one big turkey for this event also considering how many guest you will invite. Also cook it well enough so that people will be satisfied with the turkey even before they get to eat it.
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Is there some estimate or guideline for how large a turkey? –  SAJ14SAJ Sep 17 '13 at 7:28

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