Buying turkey for Thanksgiving dinner is a big choice. Do you want a heritage bird or a classic grocery store bird-in-a-bag? Fresh or frozen? Whole or parts? And, arguably the most important consideration of all: Just how much turkey per person do you need?
To calculate how big your Thanksgiving turkey should be, you’ve got to figure out the number of guests you’re serving and how much turkey each might eat. After all, if you’re hosting Thanksgiving, it’s your mission to send everyone home as full of delicious food as possible.
Here’s how to buy the right size turkey for the job:
How many pounds of turkey per person do I actually need?
The general rule of thumb is 1–1½ pounds turkey per person. If that seems like a lot, remember that a whole turkey comes with a lot of parts that don’t end up getting eaten. “When you buy a whole turkey, a lot of it is bone,” says recipe developer (and former BA staffer) Jessie YuChen. The smaller the bird, the higher that percentage may be. For smaller gatherings, Jessie recommends scaling up to 2 pounds per person to maximize leftovers (more on that later). “For four to six people, 11 to 13 pounds is a good range,” Jessie says. (Most of our recipes call for a 12-to-14-pound bird.)
Beyond the bones, the total mass of a whole bird accounts for cartilage and less favorable cuts of meat around the shoulders, neck, and back that are better suited for making stock the next day than for presenting on a platter. Just because you’re buying a pound per each guest doesn’t mean it’ll yield an equivalent amount of turkey meat.
What if I’m afraid of underserving my guests?
“Most people put out so many sides that running out of turkey really isn’t an issue,” says contributing editor Amiel Stanek. “Turkey is, in my experience, the thing people want least.” As a host, you can even take some of your attention away from a cartoonishly large Rockwellian bird and think deeply about the Thanksgiving side dishes. This is where you can customize your selection based on the size, tastes, and needs of your crowd. Serving a few extra vegetarians this year? Go all-in on mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and roasted veggies (we recommend balsamic-roasted brussels sprouts, which are a test kitchen favorite).
If you’re wondering, How big of a turkey do I need, really?, Amiel points out that the bigger the turkey, the less likely it is to cook evenly. He would much rather serve smallish portions of perfect poultry than massive servings that are half-raw, half-dry. “In terms of ensuring that the breast meat is delicious and moist and the dark meat is cooked through, I think you’re going to get the best results from a 14-to-15-pound turkey, max.”
Turkey size per person
Our advice: Go for a smaller turkey. We promise, there’ll be enough to go around.
If a 15-pound bird sounds teeny compared to your guest list, Amiel and Jessie recommend supplementing with a different meat or protein (no matter your party’s size). “I like to do steak or lamb chops,” says Jessie, “which are very festive and a lot easier to prepare than a whole turkey.” Having a second meat on the table provides a backup if your bird is on the scrawny side, but it also makes your turkey stretch further. Aim for 1–1½ total pounds of protein per person, including your supplementary main, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.
What if I’m serving turkey to a really big crowd?
If you’ve ended up with a massive bird and are now worried about cooking it evenly, consider breaking it down into smaller parts for more control over individual cook times. Spatchcocking is a popular choice, but Amiel suggests going even further: “Take the legs off and cook them separately from the breasts,” he says, “slow-roast them until they’re really tender and falling apart the day before, then reheat them while you roast the breasts.” Food director Chris Morocco’s Stock-Braised Turkey Legs recipe is another great option—or if you prefer white meat, try these dry-rubbed, bone-in breasts.
Even broken down, that jumbo bird is going to take up lots of oven space. To save precious real estate, take parts of the meal prep outside, weather permitting. Separated turkey breasts, thighs, and legs are all perfect candidates for grilling. Not only will this get you out of the kitchen for a minute (and let’s be honest, anyone cooking a Thanksgiving feast could probably use some fresh air), it’ll bring smoky flavors to a protein often considered bland.
What if you STILL end up with way too much turkey left over?
It happens to the best of us. No matter how much turkey per person you prepared for, there’s bound to be one cousin who went vegan last year, or an uncle who got stuck at O’Hare, or too many too-appealing appetizers to fill up on. However you got here, you’re stuck with very many resealable plastic bags full of leftover turkey meat.
Fret not, because there are plenty of ways to repurpose those leftovers into delicious meals without letting things get repetitive. “As far as your first couple of days of leftovers consumption are concerned, cold breast meat turkey sandwiches are the way to go,” Amiel says. That’s because the dark meat is slower to dry out, so getting through the white meat should be step one.
From there, you can turn bone-in dark meat and whatever’s left of the bird’s skeleton into homemade stock, which can be portioned and frozen, and will bring way more flavor to soups, sauces, and braises than the boxed stuff.
As for the dark meat that’s already been carved, shred it up for quick tacos at lunchtime, add it to your homemade stock for a comforting soup, or—if you want something truly impressive—mix it up with any leftover gravy and veggies to make pot pie or shepherd’s pie, which freeze well and make incredibly lazy dinners down the road. And that’s just the beginning—we’ve got plenty more leftover turkey recipes.
But before you let the promise of delicious leftovers convince you to buy the biggest Butterball you can get your hands on, think about yourself on Thanksgiving day. Hosting any event is stressful enough without a literal feast to prepare, and an unnecessarily huge bird is just another headache you don’t need.
“My tip is just to plan ahead,” says Jessie. “The goal for the meal is to have a beautiful spread and have everyone fed, and you don’t need a gigantic turkey to do that.” Keep the Thanksgiving menu simple, enjoy the company, and always—ALWAYS—outsource the cleanup.