When you’re planning a large gathering, one of your first steps is to find out how much food you’ll need to provide.
Bone-in whole poultry can be especially tricky. In addition to the natural shrinkage that will occur, a lot of the carcass will be inedible. How many people does a 20-pound turkey feed on average? And what if you have big plans for your leftovers?
How Many People Does a 20 Lb Turkey Feed?
When estimating serving sizes, you should plan on about 1-1/4 pounds of turkey per person. That means a 20-pound turkey should feed 16 people. However, your final estimate should also take other factors into account, including the possibility of leftovers.
Average Weight of a Whole Turkey
A whole turkey might weigh anywhere from 14 to 70 pounds. On average, though, the ones you’ll find in the supermarket will weigh about 15 pounds.
Around Thanksgiving, the average size might bump up a bit. Turkey farmers know that there’s a high demand for larger birds. During this time of the year, it’s relatively easy to find turkeys that weigh 25 to 30 pounds.
Birds larger than 30 pounds are uncommon, but not unheard of. The problem with buying larger turkeys is that it takes a long time for the meat to cook through, as anyone who’s ever cooked a whole beef brisket or pork shoulder can attest.
If the size of your guest list requires you to plan on more than 30 pounds of turkey to start, we would recommend buying two smaller birds and cooking them together. That way, you’ll have the same amount of meat with a shorter cooking time.
Muscle tissue contains a great deal of water. As meat cooks, this moisture is forced toward the surface, where much of it evaporates. This is why cooked meat weighs less than it did when it was raw.
You can expect your turkey to lose about 25 percent of its overall weight by the time it’s finished cooking. We’ve taken those calculations into account when making our per-person estimates.
How Much Turkey Per Person Should You Plan on Serving?
As we mentioned, bone-in poultry can make it difficult to estimate how much meat you’ll need per person. For boneless cuts, a per-person average of 1/2 pound is standard, but that won’t work when you’re dealing with a whole turkey.
Even 1 pound per person is too little when you take shrinkage into account. Moreover, turkey is a dish that’s usually reserved for special occasions, at which times people tend to consume more in a single sitting.
When buying turkey, count how many people you expect to entertain, and calculate 1-1/4 pound for each of them. Therefore, if you have 10 people on your guest list, you should buy a bird that weighs about 12-1/2 pounds.
How many people does a 20 lb turkey feed when using these calculations? 16 would be the precise number. However, given the other factors that we’ll discuss in the next section, it could feed anywhere from 14 to 20 people.
Of course, the 1-1/4 pound per person estimate is just that—an estimate. There are other factors that can affect how much meat you’ll need. Take the following considerations into account before you select your turkey.
Age of Guests
Are you expecting a lot of children to attend, or will this be an adults-only gathering? If it’s the former, scale back on the estimated portion sizes.
Young children will take smaller portions than adults, especially if there are a lot of appetizers or side dishes included on the menu (see below). Plan on about 3/4 to 1 pound of raw turkey for every child under 10, and adjust your calculations accordingly.
While you’re making your shopping list, consider what else will be on the menu. Is this a holiday feast complete with rolls, stuffing, casseroles, side vegetables, and cranberry sauce? Or are you just grill-roasting a turkey alongside corn on the cob?
The more side dishes there are to choose from, the less people will eat of each one. You can probably get away with scaling down to 1 pound of turkey per person if there will be a lot of other selections on the table.
The same rules apply when there are appetizers served beforehand. If you’ve just put out a few bowls of chips and dip, people will be hungrier when it’s time for the main course. A spread of heavy hors d’oeuvres, on the other hand, will fill them up.
Time of Day
As a general rule, people eat more at evening gatherings than at afternoon events. Dinner is considered the main meal for a lot of families. If you’re serving the turkey after five o’clock in the evening, expect more of the turkey to disappear.
That said, this rule doesn’t necessarily apply during the holidays, when turkey is a popular choice. If it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, people will probably take generous helpings of turkey even if you have the meal ready at noon.
Because we enjoy getting creative with our leftovers, we like to buy more meat than we think we’ll need. If you have big plans for your leftover turkey, make your estimates following the guidelines we’ve suggested, then tack on an extra pound or two.
How Much Stuffing Will I Need?
First of all, we should point out that it’s not a good idea to stuff the turkey if you’re planning to put it on the grill or smoker.
Because it’s been exposed to raw poultry, stuffing needs to cook to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to be safe to eat. When you smoke the bird at low temperatures, the stuffing might not achieve that safe temperature.
Also, note that it’s better not to smoke larger birds in the first place. 12 pounds is the maximum weight we would recommend for a smoked or grill-roasted turkey. A 20-pound bird will take a prohibitively long time to cook.
If stuffing is on the menu, plan on heating it in a separate casserole dish. Estimate about 3/4 cup of stuffing per guest. That means if you’re preparing a 20-pound turkey for 16 people, you’ll need a total of 12 cups of stuffing.
What To Do with Leftover Grilled or Smoked Turkey
Everyone loves a good turkey sandwich, but that’s not the only curtain call that you can give your smoked or grill-roasted whole bird. Here are a few of our other favorites.
Strip as much meat as possible from the carcass, then boil the bones with herbs and aromatics to create a homemade stock. After straining the broth, add egg noodles, parsley, and several cups of the reserved turkey, then reheat.
Simmer leftover meat in a blend of coconut milk, curry paste, chicken or turkey stock, and minced lemongrass. This is a particularly good method for leftover dark meat.
Stuffed Bell Peppers
Mix minced turkey with onion, garlic, cauliflower, rice, and a bit of tomato sauce, then top with mozzarella cheese and bake in the oven until golden brown and bubbling.
Saute carrots and snow peas in a wok with garlic and ginger, then add cold cooked rice and chopped turkey. Mix in a lightly scrambled egg, if desired. Season with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Mix diced turkey with cooked spaghetti, fresh spinach, and a sauce made from sauteed mushrooms, chicken broth, lemon juice, and cream. Top with mozzarella cheese and bake until cheese is melted and mixture is bubbling around the edges.
The Bottom Line
Depending on the size of your guest list, you might not need a 20-pound turkey. But it’s always better to have more than you need than to allow guests to go hungry. After all, leftover turkey is a versatile and delicious ingredient.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!