How to Save on Wedding Catering Costs

Don't overspend on catering for your wedding--save with these tips.

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It’s well-known that holding a wedding can set you back financially, and a big portion of those costs involve feeding the wedding party and your guests -- planning accordingly is essential to ensuring that you don’t face any surprises.

To help make those projections a little simpler, we’ve broken down some of the most common catering costs, along with some alternative ideas that can save you money.

1. Differentiate A La Carte Vs. Catering Package

Most wedding venues and caterers offer a complete package that includes the majority of your food and beverage needs. When you use these types of services, you save money by bundling everything together with the same vendor rather than buying each item piecemeal. However, some people fine an advantage by foregoing a package and purchasing their catering items on an la carte basis. This can be more cost-effective if you don’t need everything that the package provides and you instead just want certain parts of the services.

In a standard wedding catering package, you’ll usually see some variation of the following offerings:

  • The food, including appetizers during cocktail hour (when applicable), the meal and sometimes the wedding cake, if you want to include it.
  • Drinks – sometimes this comes in the form of an open bar, sometimes it just applies to the drinks served with the meal.
  • Table wear such as utensils, plates, cups and other items, as well as tables, chairs and other items necessary to consume the food.
  • Staff members, including chefs, bartenders, servers and an event manager.

These options are available no matter which style of service you choose (buffet, plated, family-style or cocktail-only). Typically, the cost of a plated dinner is about $41 per person, and a buffet costs about $28 per guest, according to a report from WeddingWire. When adding bar service to that tab, you’ll expect to pay about another $15 per person, WeddingWire says.

2. Look Beyond Standard Wedding Venues

If your heart is set on the most popular wedding venues, you’ll have less of an opportunity to comparison shop for catering options. That’s because most wedding locations have their own catering staff or they work exclusively with specific vendors for their food and beverage needs.

If you aren’t willing to shift away from your preferred wedding venue, you won’t save as much on catering, and in those cases, the best way to save will be to pare down from a big, plated dinner and instead host a reception with other options. For instance, a wedding with a buffet, appetizers-only, or a brunch/lunch instead of dinner will save you cash in these locations. Another way to save is to ask guests right on the wedding invitation what they want to eat (e.g., “Please indicate whether you prefer chicken or fish”).

Pre-informing the venue about which foods to order (and the quantity) can allow you to save on food costs.

To save even bigger, check out the option of having a reception at a location outside of the standard wedding venues. If you rent a room at a restaurant, for instance, you can usually get a plated dinner for as low as $20-$30 per person, depending on the eatery.

3. You Be the Caterer

If you already have access to a low-cost (or free) venue, then you can arrange the catering yourself, which can save the most money. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make the food yourself (although that is one option!) You can instead order from a local eatery, which can then bring in foods that your guests serve themselves. For instance, if you have a barbecue company or a pasta restaurant bring in the food, you’ll usually pay around $25 per person and they’ll set out the food for you and leave.

If you choose to cater the wedding with your own food, keep guest count in mind. It’s not so difficult to pre-make all the food when serving 75 guests, but if you’re talking about 300 guests, it can be a much bigger challenge. The costs will depend on what you serve, but in general, the cost of making the food yourself and having guests serve themselves will ring up at about half the cost of getting the same meal from a caterer.

Keep in mind that self-catering will require a high amount of planning and preparation. You’ll have to order serving spoons, plates, glasses, utensils, tablecloths, tables, chairs and napkins, among other items. It’s also in your best interest to designate someone you trust to manage the serving and heating of the food. If you set a rotating schedule of items, along with times you want the dishes served and instructions on temperature and time for reheating or chilling each dish, things should go smoothly.

4. Don’t Forget the Tip

If you’re hosting a wedding at a reception venue, private restaurant or even with a caterer, make sure you know the gratuity amount up-front. This can make a big difference in your catering costs, since many caterers will add an extra 15 to 20 percent to your bill to cover gratuity. This is obviously not an issue if you self-cater the wedding.

5. Consider Potluck

Some brides and grooms pay nothing for their wedding caterers because they host potluck receptions. If you already have a venue, you can ask either all of your guests or a few trusted friends/family members who you already know can make high-quality foods to bring dishes to the wedding. This has to be well-planned rather than “please bring an appetizer.” If you assign each guest a specific dish and tell them how many people they’ll be making it for, you have a better chance of creating a cohesive wedding menu that works well to serve your needs.

In this situation, you’ll still need to provide the serving items, such as cups, ice, plates, napkins, etc., unless you ask guests to bring those as well. Remember to plan for the serving and clean-up so you don’t find yourself facing unexpected expenses during the reception.