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Running out of refreshments at a party is never a good thing, whatever the occasion or age of your guests. It can be hard to figure out how much alcohol to allow per person, for example, but ice cream amounts are relatively straightforward. You just convert the ice cream from pints or gallons to individual scoops and decide how many scoops to allow per person.

What Kind of Party Are You Having?

The biggest single consideration when you’re deciding how much ice cream to have on hand is the kind of party you’re hosting. If the ice cream will be just one of many refreshments set out alongside cake, cookies, pastries and a number of savory dishes, you’ll be able to serve less.

If ice cream is going to be the focus of the event – perhaps an old-fashioned ice cream social or a lavish sundae bar – you’ll need to allow correspondingly more. You’ll also need to allow for larger portions if you let your guests serve themselves as opposed to your controlling the portions. Finally, you’ll need to consider your guests and their appetites. A surprising number of otherwise-sensible adults can work their way through a pint of ice cream without really noticing, and rambunctious kids or high-school athletes are no slouches either.

Guests per Gallon of Ice Cream

A standard ice cream shop portion is a half-cup scoop, or 4 ounces. Calculating the scoops of ice cream per gallon, then, is just basic math. It’s 2 scoops to the cup, 2 cups to the pint, 2 pints to the quart, and 4 quarts to the gallon. That works out to 32 scoops per gallon of ice cream, though in real life, your scoops won’t usually be that exact.

If you’re serving ice cream alongside cake, pie and other foods, you can usually assume that a gallon will serve approximately 20 to 25 people. If you need to estimate ice cream for a party that’s focused on the frozen treat, the math changes radically. You can probably expect most guests to eat, on average, about three scoops of ice cream each, which means you’ll need roughly 2 gallons to serve 20 people.

How Big to Buy

You’ll also need to decide whether you’re looking to provide lots of variety or just one or two of the more popular favorites. If you want variety, a collection of pints in interesting flavors might be the way to go. You may need to buy some extras if you go this route, because one or two varieties will always prove less popular than the others.

If you’re more interested in cost effectiveness, gallons of vanilla, chocolate or Neapolitan will satisfy most guests at lower cost. For large groups, you might be able to pick up commercial 2.5-gallon or 3-gallon tubs from a local wholesaler. Then you can add variety through toppings, sauces and garnishes.

Calculating the Toppings

As for the toppings themselves, you’ll need to provide them generously. Even at a tablespoon or 2 per serving, the sauces will add up, so allow at least 1/4 cup per person. Chocolate, fudge and caramel are safe bets, though you also may want to provide crushed pineapple and a raspberry- or strawberry-flavored sauce if you’re doing sundaes.

Fresh fruit or berries can work well as a topping or garnish, though they’re relatively pricey. Other toppings – nuts, sprinkles, candy or crushed candy – are often more cost-effective, and leftovers are less likely to go to waste because they keep well in the pantry. It’s always a good idea to check with your guests about food allergies just in case. When in doubt, it’s not a bad idea to skip the nuts.

A Few Practical Details

You’ll always go through more ice cream if your guests serve themselves as opposed to your dispensing carefully measured portions. You can exercise a modest degree of control by setting out relatively small scoops and small bowls or dishes for eating the ice cream. The same goes for toppings: Put them out in small dishes with small spoons, and refill them as needed.

Unless you plan on running to the store once your guests arrive, which is a high-risk scenario, you’ll need a way to keep all of that ice cream cold. Ideally, that means having freezer space enough to fit it all. If that’s not the case, you can fall back on picnic coolers filled with ice or dry ice as your refrigeration method. Dry ice is more effective, but it also poses an injury risk if you’ll have a house full of kids – or intoxicated adults – who might be tempted to play with it.

About the Author

Fred Decker

Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.