So you have volunteered to cater for the yearly office barbecue.
As the date fast approaches, your enthusiasm turns to panic as you realize you have no idea how much meat you need to prepare.
No one wants to send their guests home from a barbecue hungry.
I”m going to share my tried and tested guidelines to ensure you prepare the perfect amount of food, from the right amount of meat per person to the ideal number of sides.
Meat planning guidelines
The first question you need to ask yourself is this:
It is important to look at your barbecue as a whole, as this will save you the seemingly impossible task of planning precisely how much meat you will serve each guest.
- If you plan to serve about three side dishes, aim for roughly ⅓ of a pound of meat per person as a main.
- For children under 12 years of age, count on them eating about half the amount of an adult.
This rough guideline takes most of the mystery and angst out of planning how much meat to prepare.
Of course, there is more that you may want to consider to finetune your menu.
For the side dishes, ask yourself how filling they are likely to be? Will you mainly have light salads and grilled veggies or some potato or cheesy pasta dishes? Creamy, carb-laden dishes like our smoked mac and cheese will fill your guests up quite a bit.
You may even want to serve up some dark and some light meat, such as chicken wings and brisket. This way, guests can load up on the meat they prefer.
If you are cooking for a smaller, more familiar crowd, then preparing individual portions of meat is not as tricky.
Factors that can change how much meat you need to serve per person
There are a lot of different factors that can influence how much food you need to prepare:
- How many side dishes do you plan to serve, and how “heavy” are they going to be? Will you serve dessert?
- Is this going to be lunch or dinner, and how long is the event likely to last? A long lunch that lingers could mean guests will graze. In general, however, people will tend to eat more for dinner.
- Who is coming? Will there be a lot of kids? Are most of your guests men or women? Are some of your guests vegetarians? What age are your guests?
- What kind of gathering is it? Formal or informal? Sit down or mill around? Will there be alcohol? Alcohol usually leads to increased food consumption.
How much brisket per person?
A good rule of thumb is to count on about ⅓ pound of cooked brisket for each person for a main.
This amount may vary between ½ pound if your guests are big eaters or you don’t have many sides, to ¼ pound if your sides are generous.
It is important to remember that the amount of uncooked meat you buy does not equal the amount once it is cooked.
Count on brisket losing up to half of its weight once you have trimmed the fat and liquid has been lost in the cooking process. Counting on a 50% loss could be a slight overestimation, but it will ensure no one is left hungry.
Plus, cooking brisket is a bit of an undertaking so it never hurts to have some left over for yourself.
How many ribs per person?
Consider whether the ribs are the main part of the meal or if they are a secondary meat.
If you are planning on making the ribs the main part of your meal, here is a rough guide:
- Count on half a rack, or six ribs per person if you are serving baby back ribs
- Aim for four or five ribs per guest if you are serving spare ribs
- Plan for two or three ribs per guest if you are cooking up beef back ribs
- As with all of these guides, take into account the gender, age and any inside info you have on the appetite of your guests to fine-tune your quantities.
We have a guide on how many ribs in a rack to help you calculate how many racks you’ll need to buy.
How much pulled pork per person?
As with brisket, plan on losing about half the weight of your meat when you cook it.
Similarly, a third to a half of a pound of cooked pulled pork is a good amount per person as a main.
If you plan to serve your pulled pork in a sandwich, roughly ¼ pound per person is likely to be enough.
Barbecue planning tips
Here are a few more useful suggestions when planning your upcoming event:
- If you plan to set your food out buffet style, line up all your sides and secondary meats first so that everyone fills up their plate before they get to the main meat.
- If you serve other meats, such as chicken or sausages, make sure they are cut up into bite-sized pieces. This will encourage people to eat a little of all your side dishes, spreading your main meat further.
- To avoid a frantic rush on the day, do some preparation the day before.
Get busy trimming your meat, preparing sides that can be stored safely overnight, and preparing and applying rubs and marinades.
Check the pantry and barbecue to make sure you have everything you will need on the day.
How to serve everything hot at the same time
Getting all your meat ready to serve at a certain time is a nightmare for novice pitmasters.
This is where the “faux cambro” will save your life.
In layman’s terms, a cambro is essentially an insulated box. You can buy purpose-built cambros if cooking for a crowd is something you do on a regular basis, but for the casual cook, a quality beer cooler with a good seal will do the trick.
To use one:
- Plan the start of your cook so that your meat will be done at least an hour before you expect to eat. That way, if the meat takes longer to cook than you expected, you will still be on time. If it’s done an hour earlier, this is where the faux cambro comes in.
- Fill it with about three gallons of hot tap water and seal for 30 mins to heat up
- Empty the water and put a towel in the bottom
- Wrap your cooked meat in foil. Set the wrapped meat in a disposable aluminum tray on the towel
- Place another towel on top and seal the lid. Done.
A best practice is to use a meat thermometer. Leave the probe in the meat and let the wire dangle out so you can check on the internal temp from time to time, making sure it stays in the safe temperature zone.
You could also pop your meat in the oven at a low temperature. However, if you are using the oven to cook side dishes or desserts, this may not be a viable option.