Tips on Stretching Food for Company

In this classic episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, Mary throws a dinner party. Her obsessive-compulsive friend Sue-Ann offers to make dinner, but  prepares exactly six portions. Watch the first minute or two of the scene, when a guest takes more than his share.

Has you ever run out of food for your guests? As hosts, we have to balance preparing more than enough with having to throw out leftovers. And just like at Mary’s party, the unexpected can happen: Someone who offers to prepare food doesn’t bring enough, extra guests turn up, or one guest is unusually hungry. Maybe a dish you plan to serve gets ruined.

Here are some tips for when you realize that you may be short on food when company comes.

  • Relax. Most of the time, hosts prepare more than enough food, and in the end there turns out to be plenty. Guests naturally take an appropriate amount—ones like Lou are rare.
  • FHB. This stands for “Family Hold Back.” Politely inform family members to take a small portion or wait until everyone else has been served (good manners even when there is plenty, particularly for children).
  • Bring out food from the pantry. You can make an excellent tuna, bean or corn salad from cans and a raw vegetable or two.
  • Serve it yourself. Notice how, in the video, Mary offers the entire platter to Lou? She could have asked him to hold it, then served the portion directly to his plate. Or she could have filled the plates in the kitchen, like caterers often do.
  • Cut portions small. This helps most when you have one item you are afraid will go fast.
  • Distraction. If some of the serving platters get scraped clean, remove them from the table and pass around the rest. Or just move on to dessert, start a game, or ask a provocative question.

If you do run out of food, don’t apologize. Your guests are probably full, and may not have even noticed.

Food is only one part of entertaining. They key to good hosting is keeping a smile on your face even when things don’t go as planned.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

Individual Plates or Family Style? A Comparison of Serving

Estimating Quantities

Simple Entertaining

Do You Admit to Guests That the Food Isn’t Great?


  1. I always make at least one thing that there’s a lot of – either salad or a side dish. That way, if there isn’t plenty of the main dish(es), the guests can fill up on salad/rice/kugel.

    Another thing that helps is to bring out some fresh, uncut fruit (apples, oranges, plums, peaches, pears, whatever’s in season) when you bring out dessert (if you’re serving dessert). That way 1. if anyone is on a diet, they have a healthy alternative and 2. it’s something extra for people to fill up on that you’re likely to have some extra of on hand.

  2. I have yet to see it happen. Almost always there’s so much redundant food… Especially if my mother-in-law is in charge. You can be sure of having 3-4 times the amount of food necessary. She says we can always have the leftovers over the following week.

  3. Leah, those are good ideas.
    IM, I’ve written how my mother often heated up the exact amount of soup, some of which boiled away. She didn’t eat it so I often did without.

  4. yeah – I don’t get that – soup stretches so easily that it’s one of the things I always make tons of. In my dorm days, we’d buy a big challah, make a huge soup, eat tons of soup (with challah dipped in), and then by the main course, people were mostly full, so we’d get away with serving much less of the expensive stuff.

  5. Leah, my mother made the exact amount a) so she wouldn’t have to heat up extra and b) so she wouldn’t have to store the leftover (if you recall she had a complex system for leftover soup). I never recall her running out of other food. There was always enough, with extra. She calculated carefully but it didn’t look skimpy.

  6. PS and for company she always served good cuts of meat. There was no intention to dissuade guests from eating it, and she also served meat to guests first, before the side dishes.

  7. This reminds me of the old joke:
    When unexpected company shows up, the mother calls her children into the kitchen and tells them that there’s not enough food to go around. “So when I bring out the chicken, just say that you’re not hungry. But don’t worry, because I made a huge apple pie for dessert.”

    Sure enough, each one of the kids says, “no thank you,” when the main course is passed around.

    But when it comes time for dessert, the mother brings out a mouthwatering apple pie and then announces, “Whoever didn’t eat their chicken doesn’t get to have dessert…”

  8. I remember making a chicken dish for a Shabbat meal where we had guests. I made the mistake of putting that out before the sides.

    Since I’m the only one who really likes to eat white meat, my standard is to make 1 whole chicken and then a kilo or so of bottoms.

    By the time I sat down to eat, the white meat was gone (and both people who took the white meat later took seconds of dark meat). I took my husband aside and told him I was rather annoyed that he hadn’t ‘looked out for me’.

    I suppose it also begs the question… what does Miss Manners say about starting to serve/eat before all the dishes have hit the table and the hostess has returned to the table.