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How to Estimate a Catered Dinner

by Aya Pauli, studioD

Planning a catered dinner is not an easy task, especially if you've never worked with a caterer before. You have to make important decisions, such as menu, as well as fitting everything into a budget. Whether it's a small dinner party or a large wedding reception, an important part of staying on budget is correctly estimating the cost and amount of the dinner to be served.

Send out invitations with RSVP notes to every one of your guest list. Count the returned RSVP notes to determine how many people will be attending the dinner. Decide your budget, taking the size of your confirmed guest list into account.

Determine the type of dinner you're going to provide and how many courses it will include. Determine the menu you will use. For a sit-down dinner, estimate one main dish of about four to six ounces, and two or three side dishes of about three ounces each per person. If desired, estimate at least two appetizers and a four-ounce dessert for each person. If you're planning a buffet-style meal, estimate up to twice that amount for each course, excluding the dessert. Estimate beverages as well, counting at least three beverages per person.

Determine the total cost of the dinner per person by checking with the catering company. Ask if the price includes drinks, appetizers or dessert, and if not, get the prices for these additional courses. Multiply the cost of each dinner, plus extras, by how many guests you're expecting, calculating tax if possible.

Discuss additional details with your caterer to help you estimate the cost of the catered dinner. Decide if you want the caterer to provide the dinnerware, if they're doing the serving and if they're performing the cleaning up. Check how much these services add to the overall dinner cost.

Review the cost of the dinner to see if it fits into your budget. Change the menu or portions for your dinner if your estimate is over your budget. Re-calculate the dinner cost as needed until your estimate and budget match.

Items you will need
  •  Guest list
  •  Invitations with RSVP notes
  •  Caterer


  • Always round up when estimating the guest list and amount of food to serve at a dinner. For example, if someone sends back a RSVP with a maybe, count them as part of your guest list to be on the safe side. This way you don't run out of food and drinks.
  • Expect to serve more food and drinks the longer your dinner lasts. For example, a four-hour dinner will require more drinks and appetizers than a two-hour dinner.


  • Don't leave anything to chance or assume the caterer knows what you want. Make sure to plan and discuss every detail with the caterer to ensure a successful dinner party.
  • Don't expect all caterers to allow you to choose portion sizes for a sit-down dinner. Many caterers have planned plates with set prices. If customization is important to you, choose a caterer who will tailor the meal to your desires..


  • Catering Handbook; Edith Weiss, Hal Weiss
  • A Passion for Parties: Your Guide to Elegant Entertaining; David Tutera, Laura Morton
  • Handbook for Hosts: A Practical Guide to Party Planning and Gracious Entertaining; Adam Bluestein

About the Author

A writer since 2000, Aya Pauli has covered a variety of topics including food, fashion, beauty, health, parenting, education, decor and crafts. Her award-winning recipes have been published in food magazines such as "Taste of Home," and she is also the author of a salad cookbook. Pauli's craft projects appear in major manufacturer websites, including Dow Styrofoam. She also holds a CDA in early childhood education and works as a preschool teacher in Wyoming.

Photo Credits

  • Photos.com/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images