How to Cook for 12 People

people around table at dinner party
Photo: Getty
Throwing a dinner for a dozen guests doesn't have to be overwhelming. Whether you need help with the prep work or the cleanup, here's your dinner party action plan for pulling it off - without missing all the fun.
  1. your equipment

    1 roasting pan with an elevated rack (or disposable aluminum one)

    3 lasagna pans

    1 2-qt. saucepan

    2 10x15-inch cookie sheets

    1 stock pot

    1 10- to12-inch skillet

    6 2-cup serving bowls for snacks

    1 chef’s knife

    1 meat thermometer

    Find more tips for throwing a successful dinner party 

  2. bring home the meat

    Plan your main course first -- it’ll determine your timing and side dishes.

    Turkey -- whole bird

    Size: 18 lbs. for 12 people

    Defrosts: 1 day in fridge per 4 lbs. to thaw

    Cooks: 3½ hours unstuffed or until 170°F inside

    Pork -- tenderloin

    Size: 4½ lbs. for 12 people

    Defrosts: 1 day in fridge per 5 lbs.

    Cooks: rare tenderloin, 45 to 60 minutes or until 150°F

    Beef -- pot roast

    Size: 4½ lbs. for 12 people

    Defrost: 1 day in fridge per 5 lbs.

    Cooks: roast 20 minutes per pound or until 170°F

    Not sure what to make? Search through our recipe finder!

  3. know how to stock up

    Before you stock up your grocery cart like a supermarket spree contestant, know how much you really need to buy.

    Apps: Three to four pieces per person is plenty. Pair cheese with olives, fruit and mixed nuts to bulk up the platter.

    Salad: Plan on 1 to 1½ cups of lettuce per person, especially if you’re adding nuts, dried fruit and cheese.

    Sides: Allow ½ lb. per person of a fresh, uncooked vegetable. If you're serving two vegetable sides and one potato side, start with 3 lbs. of each vegetable, which is enough to serve six people on its own, and keep the potatoes at the same ½ lb. per person. With rice, grains and pasta, estimate about 2 oz. per person.

    Drinks: With wine, have one bottle for every two guests. Serving a signature cocktail? Have at least a gallon for 12 people and add a sprinkle of edible gold leaf to each glass for extra sparkle. ($26 for 100 mg,

    Dessert: One cake will serve 12 people.

    Tip: Make mashed potatoes and biscuits (partially bake first) and put in the freezer one month ahead.

    Please everyone with a Picky Eater-Proof Menu

  4. there’s no turning back now (the invite’s out!), so here’s your 24-hour timeline to get it done

    7 p.m. day before -- Set table, stock bar and put premade frozen sides into the fridge to thaw.

    10:00 a.m./noon -- Rise and shine! Start your veggie side dishes and stash in the fridge to be reheated later.

    3/4:30 p.m. -- Preheat oven and then put your meat in depending on type.

    4:30 p.m. -- Make cheese plate and set out to warm to room temperature.

    4:45/5 p.m. – Shower and get ready.

    6:15 p.m. -- Fill ice bucket.

    6:20 p.m. -- Meat is done! Take out and let rest. Put premade sides in oven or on stove.

    6:30 p.m. -- Guests arrive! Pop open the wine and enjoy the company.

    7:00 p.m. -- Dinner is served.

    Have a cooking question? Find the answer!

  5. what to stuff -- besides the turkey

    Mushrooms -- pack with pancetta, onions and sage before baking till tender. Make these the day ahead and store in the refrigerator. 

    Artichokes -- load with parmesan, fresh oregano and buttery bread crumbs and serve as a first course couples can share.

    Acorn squash -- stuff with apples, squash, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter for delicious smells in your kitchen (bonus: even if everything else flops, the smell coming from the kitchen will be amazing!).

    Mini peppers -- stuff with pancetta, ricotta and parmesan cheese for one-bite, sweet and savory appetizers.

    Find more yummy side dishes

  6. secrets for serving a crowd

    Photo by Jim Franco / The Nest

    If you don’t have enough seating in your living room, don’t be shy about pulling your dining room chairs in there during the cocktail hour.

    -Make sure to have a drinks station so no one is left holding an empty glass and you don’t become the cocktail waitress all night long.

    -Stack coats out of the way (on your bed is always good) so the hallway stays clear and you don’t have to empty a closet for just one night.

    -Keep snack bowls filled with nuts or candy on end tables, so guests can graze while sitting.

    -If you have the room, stow a trash can and recycle bin on your back deck or patio to keep the trash out of sight.

    buffet vs sit-down dinner

    For family and close friends, who won’t mind serving themselves, have a buffet (it’ll take some of the pressure off you!). But for more formal groups (think boss or coworkers), a sit-down dinner makes a good impression. Get your partner to help serve plates.

    More Hostess-How-To's 

  7. cleanup duty and gifting

    While it’s tempting to start cleaning after dinner, removing all of the dishes from the table will make your guests feel like the party is over.

    -Clear plates and serving dishes and stow them in a plastic tub in the kitchen, then tend to them after everyone has left.

    -While you’re clearing, serve hot chocolate or an after-dinner drink in the living room and ask guests to hang out in there.

    -Never run the dishwasher during dinner. People want to escape from their routine. If people hear a dishwasher, it’s clear that work is going on.

    What to do when guests offer to help 

    Have guests do things like cutting bread, arranging cheese platters or serving drinks. Don’t shy away from letting guests help with cleanup!

    Send guests home with something

    -Stock up on paper takeout containers and let your guests help themselves to leftovers before they leave. 

    -Send them home with a glass filled with the ingredients for a cookie you’ve served or the recipe for your signature cocktail.

    Now that the party is over, check out our clean-up tips.