We all know the big day is, well, kind of a big deal, and everything needs to be flawless. And one of the major considerations of your reception is your food and drink choices. Whether you’re hoping for a full, sit-down dinner or a cocktail hour with passed apps, it needs to go off without a hitch, and finding an awesome wedding caterer is a key piece of that puzzle.
Hiring a wedding caterer can be pretty complicated, especially as you’re trying to figure out the budget, guest count, and menu. But the good news is that hiring the right wedding caterer will help you in figuring out all of these things. If your wedding venue doesn’t have in-house caterers or a list of preferred vendors, start the search by narrowing down a list of caterers you love. Once you settle on a few options, strike while the iron is hot and set up appointments.
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What makes a wedding catering so expensive?
Ingredients: It’s a no-brainer that lobster costs more than tilapia and organic, seasonal, or farm-to-table ingredients cost more than bulk staples purchased at wholesale restaurant suppliers.
Service style: It’s not only what you serve; it’s how you serve it. There are six service styles of wedding catering to choose from
- Plated – Like a full-service restaurant, guests stay seated while individually plated meals pre-ordered from response cards are delivered by waitstaff
- Family-style – Guests eating family-style serve themselves from a large central platter brought to their table by waitstaff
- Buffet – Guests go to a table where pre-prepared parts of the meal are either added to their plate by the guests themselves or by servers manning the buffet
- Stations – A series of buffets each specializing in different types of food or parts of the same meal; stations can either be self-serve or manned by a chef that prepares dishes made-to-order (often referred to as an “action” station).
- Cocktail-style – Bite-sized hors d’ oeuvres are served all evening instead of having a sit-down dinner
- Food trucks – Mobile kitchens designed to serve food anywhere; typically orders are taken at the window, and guests wait briefly while food is made-to-order
Ultimately the cost associated with each of these food service styles comes down to three not-so-obvious factors: kitchen infrastructure, staffing and the amount of food served per person.
What are the tips for budget-friendly catering?
We considered most of the ideas on this list, followed through with several, and wound up hosting a memorable reception that didn’t break the bank.
Tips to Reduce Wedding Cocktail Hour Costs
Try these strategies to reduce the total cost of the stretch between the end of the ceremony and the official start of the reception.
Encourage Guests to BYOB
It’s not as tacky as it sounds. BYOB doesn’t mean “bring your own flask,” after all – though you’ll probably look the other way if guests do pull out their flasks, as long as they’re not making a scene.
Make it clear in your wedding invitation, or on your wedding website, that you won’t be serving booze during cocktail hour. Then, set the stage for a respectable cocktail hour by doing any of the following:
- Post or send out a recipe for a signature cocktail that guests can pre-mix themselves and bring to share.
- Set a theme for your cocktail hour drink, such as craft beer, and encourage guests to bring their favourite examples of the theme.
- Use a shared spreadsheet – or your preferred organizing tool – to organize a drinks potluck, in which guests bring a variety of drinks to share.
These are examples only; your BYOB cocktail hour can look; however, you want it to look.
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Stick to One Drink
If you’re not sold on a BYOB cocktail hour, consider keeping things simple and offering just one drink between the ceremony and the official start of the reception. You might:
- Tap a keg from your favourite local brewery or cidery.
- Hand out recyclable champagne flutes and break open the sparkling wine.
- Offer your venue’s house wine or purchase your own lower-shelf red or white in bulk.
- Pre-mix a signature cocktail, perhaps you and your spouse’s favourite.
Your guests’ tastes won’t be uniform, so don’t agonize about choosing a drink that pleases everyone. White wine might be the safest choice since many drinkers avoid beer or hard liquor and some guests might be reticent to knock back cocktails before dinner.
Keep the Booze Locked Away
Nowhere is it written that wedding cocktail hours must feature cocktails – or any alcohol at all, for that matter. Whether BYOB flies at your venue or not, keep the booze locked up until dinner. In the meantime, mix a signature mocktail – perhaps your favourite cocktail, sans liquor.
Get Photos Out of the Way Before the Ceremony
At many weddings, cocktail hour’s primary purpose is to keep guests occupied while the wedding party poses for photos. If you can get wedding photos out of the way before guests show up for the ceremony, there’s no need to draw out a cocktail hour. Indeed, if the reception and ceremony take place in the same location, there may be no need for a formal cocktail hour at all.
Serve Bar Snacks
Don’t break out the serious appetizers until guests are seated for dinner, or at least in the room where dinner will be served. At cocktail hour, whet their appetites with a variety of bar snacks, such as nuts, pretzels, and dried fruit. Those who partake will probably eat less during the official appetizer round, keeping your wedding’s food costs in check.
Tips to Reduce Wedding Appetizer Costs
These tips could reduce the cost of appetizer service at your wedding reception, whether you’re passing out apps during cocktail hour or waiting until guests sit down in their dinner seats.
Put Out an Open Call for Contributions
Why not crowdsource your appetizer options? In your wedding invitations and on your wedding website, invite guests to sign up to contribute homemade – or store-bought – apps of their choice.
- Check with the venue beforehand to confirm that outside food is permitted (and think twice about holding your reception at a venue closed to outside caterers – more on that below)
- Use a spreadsheet to organize contributions
- Cap total contributions at a number you’re comfortable managing, keeping in mind that you may need to field questions from contributors in advance and accept their submissions on the day of the wedding
- Specify serving count in advance (most guests won’t be able to cook for 150 or 200 guests, but 25 contributors making 25 servings each means more than enough to go around)
- Ask guests to disclose serious food allergies in advance
- Specify any universal dietary restrictions (for instance, if you’re having an all-vegetarian wedding or hosting guests with life-threatening food allergies)
- Follow applicable safe serving regulations (in some jurisdictions, you may need to prep food on site)
Limit your hors d’oeuvres served
While having a plethora of delicious hors d ‘oeuvres for your guests to snack on sounds like a must, in reality, you don’t need more than 2-3 different bits and bites to serve your guests before dinner especially when you consider that the more appetizers you add, the higher your catering bill!
Have a Wedding Party Potluck
This is a more manageable twist on the crowdsourcing theme. Instead of gifts, ask each member of your wedding party to make their favourite app (or an app you assign) for the reception.
The same guidelines apply here. Since you’ll have fewer contributors, take extra care to confirm sufficient supply; depending on party size, each contributor might need to make 50 or 75 servings to ensure every guest can try more than one item.
If the entire wedding party is available the night before the wedding, consider hosting a cooking marathon in a low-cost commercial kitchen near the venue. It’s common for houses of worship to rent out their kitchen facilities for nominal fees, for instance.
Use Off-the-Shelf Appetizers
Forgo the kitchen altogether with a selection of relatively low-cost store-bought apps, like crudités trays, pita and hummus, and cheese plates – sans exotic or fancy cheeses, which quickly add up.
You don’t want your guests to think you’re phoning in the appetizer round, of course. Try these tricks to elevate your off-the-shelf offerings:
- Put colourful fresh veggies on skewers for maximum visual impact, tapping guests to help if extra labour is necessary.
- Arrange multi-part apps in recyclable wine glasses or champagne flutes, rather than on disposable plates.
- Break out old family recipes for sauce and topping ideas.
- Type up cards to label dishes and origins, especially for unique or locally sourced ingredients, such as cheese.
Avoid Passed Appetizers
Although passing apps – having servers walk through the crowd offering individual appetizers to guests – invariably reduces consumption compared with buffet-style apps, it’s not necessarily cost-effective. Those servers need to be paid, and passed apps tend to be pricier since they’re made from more expensive ingredients and require more prep. (Think: shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped scallops, and miniature savoury pies with goodness know how many ingredients.)
Cut the servers and pomp from the appetizer equation and have guests help themselves to their apps at well-spaced stations. You’ll encourage mingling this way too.
Offer a Hearty Soup Option
As long as it’s not sweltering outside, offer a hearty, locally appropriate soup option to fill guests up before dinner. Creamy clam chowder or savoury tomato bisque is far cheaper per serving than seafood ceviche or Caprese salad.
Play Up Color Contrasts
Visually attractive appetizer ingredients, such as in-season vegetables, are often cheaper than drab fancy alternatives. In summer, a colourful garden salad sourced from your local farmers’ market will almost certainly cost less than a two-toned shrimp cocktail or monochrome lamb skewer. It also looks equally fancy.
Make the most of cost-effective, colourful app options by:
- Making them in larger quantities
- Giving them prominent placement on buffet tables or stations – for instance, on the ends where guests are likely to see them first
- Slimming down low-colour options’ portion sizes
- Replacing costlier ingredients with colourful alternatives – for instance, swapping out lump crab meat for diced mango and peppers.
Tips to Reduce Wedding Dinner Costs
Follow these tips to cut the cost of your wedding reception’s dinner service.
Write Off Venues That Require In-House Catering
This is probably the single most important thing you can do to reduce the cost of your reception dinner, and it doesn’t require much effort. Simply call the venues you’re considering and ask whether they allow outside food. If venues that require in-house catering tell you there’s no wiggle room in their policy, then eliminate them from your list.
Research Ingredient Costs Ahead of Time
You don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of ingredient pricing or availability. Still, it can help to have a general sense of the cost of various types of fish and vegetables, cuts of meat, and standard sides.
The more you know about the per-serving costs of individual ingredients and fully composed menu options, the better equipped you’ll be to negotiate menu pricing or swap out costly items in favour of cheaper alternatives. This is especially important if you’re building your menu from the ground up, rather than choosing from a handful of choices presented by your caterer or venue.
Keep the Appetizers Coming
Here’s a bold idea: Why not skip dinner entirely? Instead of formal, seated dinner service, break out heavy apps during the cocktail hour and keep them flowing until toast time.
One wedding that’s always stuck with me followed a hybrid app-and-dinner strategy. They kept the apps going right up until they served a single-course, modestly portioned dinner that was far less memorable than the app round. The idea was to get guests full enough that they wouldn’t care about the skimpy dinner.
Go Completely Vegetarian
If skipping dinner is too bold for you, at least consider skipping the meat.
Most animal protein is expensive, particularly the fancy types and cuts wedding caterers push, such as filet mignon, prime rib, lamb, and sea bass. Swap out these pricey proteins for hearty vegetables and plant-based proteins such as tofu, seitan, Portobello mushroom, eggplant, and cauliflower. Use artistic presentations and complex sauces and dressings to keep things interesting.
Set Up a “Build Your Own” Bar
Traditional dinner service is boring. Engage your guests and cut down on ingredient costs with a “build your own” bar that’s heavy on low-cost sides. Popular ideas might include:
- Burgers or meat sandwiches with plenty of fresh veggies, cheese, and condiments
- Tacos or burritos, with an emphasis on cheaper types or cuts of meat (e.g., chicken, hanger steak) and traditional, low-cost sides
- Fresh salads with chicken, fish, or vegetable-based proteins to bulk things up
If you go the “build your own” route, set up at least two double-sided stations so that up to four guests can serve themselves the same ingredient at once to reduce bottlenecks.
Do a Basic Buffet
This is a slightly less engaging serve-yourself option. Cheap buffets emphasize filling, low-cost sides, such as:
- Potato salad
- Mashed potatoes
- Steamed vegetables
- Corn on the cob
- Rice and beans
- Cooking greens
Limit protein choice to a few reasonably priced meat and vegetable protein options, such as:
- Grilled tofu
- Grilled Portobello mushroom
- Grilled eggplant
- Chicken breast
- Cod filet
- Pulled pork
Go With Simple Serving Stations
Elevate your buffet service by setting out simple, themed serving stations with one or two items. It’s a sensible, visually engaging way to segregate guests who prefer, say, chicken or pulled pork to those seeking out grilled tofu or eggplant. Just be sure to label stations clearly and optimize station placement for flow; you want every guest to have easy access to every station and to avoid bottlenecks to the extent possible.
If you’re not a fan of buffets, or you’re wary about traffic, consider reducing labour costs for dinner prep, plating, and service by serving family-style meals. Family-style service means seated guests serve themselves out of communal dishes placed on their tables – an instant conversation starter and an opportunity for portion control.
Dishes that work well for family-style service also happen to be cost-effective. Consider:
- Mac and cheese, perhaps with an animal protein for added bulk
- Pulled meat sandwiches
- Rice-based dishes
Stick to Two Entrée Options
If you’re set on traditional dinner service, limit the menu choices to two: one vegetarian (or, ideally, vegan) option, and a low-cost meat option.
Limiting the choices reduces prep and plating costs as well as the likelihood of service errors. For your meat option, consider poultry instead of hoofed proteins; chicken is cheaper and more eco-friendly than beef, lamb, or pork.
A stack of takeout pizza boxes on the wedding buffet may not be the most elegant visual, but it’s sure cost-effective. Besides, when push comes to shove, how many guests are going to turn down free pizza?
Rather than accepting pricey in-house catering or opting for a custom menu by an outside caterer, consider ordering bulk takeout from your favourite local restaurant. Takeout is a great accompaniment for casual daytime receptions, and for basic options like pizza, Tex-Mex, and sandwiches, your final cost should be well under $10 per person.
With enough advance notice – a week or longer, most likely – most decent-sized restaurants should be able to accommodate catering for 150 or 200 guests. Fast-casual chains like Chipotle are safer bets and may be amenable to day-before or even day-of orders. Don’t pay menu prices without negotiating first; many restaurants are all too happy to charge less to move perishable product.
If you decide to go this route, you can further reduce the cost by purchasing discount gift cards.
Non-Traditional Cuts of Meat
Who says your wedding day meal has to have hors d ‘oeuvres, a salad, entree and dessert? It’s your big day, so it can honestly be whatever you want!
One good way to get around the cost of serving a whole meal is to time your wedding at a non-meal part of the day — brunch for a morning wedding, heavy hors d ‘oeuvres or even a dessert reception are all appropriate options if you have a wedding ceremony and reception at a non-dinner time of day.
We’ve alluded to this already, but count this as your official notice to swap out pricey cuts of meat – such as filet, prime rib, and lamb chop – for cheaper or non-traditional cuts. Well-marinated flank steak or sirloin tips are nearly as tasty as your basic filet mignon, at a fraction of the cost. Remember to do your research ahead of time so that you can counter your caterer’s suggestions with cheaper alternatives.
Skip the Wine With Dinner
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a traditional wedding without the obligatory wine service at dinner. Don’t get me wrong; I love wine with dinner as much as the next person, but I always thought it odd to compel guests still finishing their cocktail hour drinks to double up so early in the night.
Why not break the mould and trust your guests to enjoy their cocktail hour drinks with dinner? At four or five glasses per bottle, depending on the pour, even a modest-sized wedding’s dinner wine amounts to a case or more.
Price Out Local-Only Menus
Local, in-season menus may wind up costing less than luxe menus with ingredients sourced from the four corners of the world. They’re certain to be more eco-friendly, as well.
Since local producers may not enjoy the same scale as industrial food producers, pricing isn’t guaranteed to work in your favour, but there’s no harm in checking this out in advance. Bear in mind that your local-only requirement may affect your choice of caterer; you may even need to purchase and prepare some menu items yourself using guests as labour.
Opt for a Tasting Menu
Compared with a take-it-or-leave-it main course, a six- or eight-course tasting menu means greater logistical complexity and higher prep costs. But smaller portion sizes and slower pacing may justify these drawbacks; if you serve less food overall, you’ll spend less on ingredients. Think of this as a creative alternative to heavy app-only dinners, with similar results.
Wedding catering is expensive. The more guests you have, the more it costs, so the first step might be to reduce the number of guests you invite.
If you’re committed to your final guest count and you still want to save, stick with food trucks. Just make sure to secure a venue that’s not too remote, and that will allow them.
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