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Potential Ways to Cut Catering Costs

An assortment of dishes on a table with a white tablecloth and blue napkins. Using appetizers instead of a sit-down meal can cut catering costs.

Catered food often makes up much of the budget for any event. However, food is one of the most remembered parts of an event. You don’t want to skimp on catering too much. These tips on how to cut catering costs may help you get the most out of your catering budget.

Decide Your Budget First

It’s easiest to decrease costs if you know your budget and can discuss it with the caterer. The caterer can suggest alternatives that lower costs and offer the best value for your money.

Limit Food During Cocktail Hour

When you offer a cocktail hour followed by a meal, limit the number of appetizers during the cocktail hour. Choose just two or three different appetizers. This minimizes wasted food as people aren’t likely to finish their meals if they fill up on appetizers.

Consider the Serving Method for Appetizers

Choose appetizers on tables instead of passed hors d’oeuvres. You’ll need fewer servers during the cocktail hour which can cut catering costs. These could include fresh fruit and crudites and dips. However, if you serve passed appetizers, the people serving the appetizers can control how quickly people serve the appetizers. This may help limit the overall amount consumed. If serving inexpensive appetizers, consider displaying them on tables. Have more expensive items passed, as this limits the amount consumed by up to 40 percent.

Offer Fewer Dinner Choices

The more options people can choose from for their main meal, the higher the catering bill will be per person. Stick with two options, such as a chicken and a fish choice. If possible, ask guests to let you know of any dietary restrictions ahead of time. Have an appropriate meal available for them. Make one of the two options gluten-free and the other suitable for vegetarians (such as a pasta dish). Opt for a fancier sauce (or pasta) to make less expensive cuts of meat more appealing. If you choose something many people enjoy, you may even get away with just one entrée choice except for those with dietary restrictions. A good caterer may offer one choice suitable for everyone. The right vegetarian entrée can please even meat eaters. This is especially true if it’s something they don’t have the chance to eat regularly.

Stick to Three Courses

Serve soup or salad as a starter, followed by the entrée and dessert. With the appetizers from the cocktail hour, this is plenty to satisfy your guests. The more courses offered, the more the catering budget goes up, especially if each course has multiple different choices. If you serve salad during the cocktail hour, you can even skip this course during dinner. Otherwise, having a fancier salad will make dinner memorable even if the main dishes are less expensive.

Consider a Lunch or Brunch Event Instead of Dinner

The cost of serving brunch or lunch is less than dinner. Many people eat smaller portions for these meals, further helping to cut catering costs. Guests are also likely to drink less, making it possible to save on the bar bill. This is a good option for people who want to serve more elaborate meals.

Serve Seasonal Foods

Choose in-season foods to cut catering costs. It’s expensive to get out of season ingredients.

Give the Chef More Leeway

Items vary in cost and availability from one day to the next. Let the chef pick which vegetables and which fish to help cut catering costs. It means the food is likely to be fresher and purchased locally. The chef may even suggest less expensive, but still delicious, alternatives to dishes you’re thinking about.

Opt for a Limited Bar

If a cash bar isn’t suitable and your budget doesn’t allow for an unlimited open bar, offer a limited bar. Choose a couple wines and beers and maybe a signature drink or two. Stick with mid-shelf options instead of top-shelf options (which can save as much as 30 percent). This helps save money as the bartender need not stock as much alcohol of all different types. People will still be happy, as they’re getting free drinks. Make it interesting by serving lesser-known local varieties of wine and beer and a custom cocktail. Choose one all-purpose glass to limit the cost of renting extra glasses.

Close the Bar Early

Stop serving alcohol about one hour before the event ends. This helps cut catering costs and gives people a chance to sober up before heading home. Offer coffee and non-alcoholic options until the end of the event.

Skip the Champagne

When an event has an open bar, most people have drinks when it’s time for toasts. They can toast with their current drink. This saves you the expense of pouring everyone champagne that may not get consumed. If people have two drinks at once, one may get left behind, wasting extra money. If you want a sparkling wine for toasts, consider less expensive options such as cremant, prosecco, or cava.

Ask About Purchasing Your Own Alcohol

When possible, purchasing your own alcohol can help cut catering costs, though not all venues allow this. You may need to have the alcohol delivered directly and will still need a bartender sometimes. Liquor stores will allow you to return any unopened bottles for a refund after the event. The venue may charge a corkage fee, but the cost may be less than the markup charged for alcohol by a venue or bartender.

Skip the Buffet

With a buffet, the caterer must prepare extra food to make sure nothing runs out. With a plated meal, the caterer can prepare exactly what’s needed. This helps to cut catering costs and limit waste. Just make sure you know the exact guest count. You don’t want too many or too few plates to serve your guests. Another alternative is serving the food family style if guests are sitting at round tables. This can cut catering costs by as much as 20 percent.

Choose Comfort Food Over Expensive Dishes

Some people opt for comfort food instead of a fancier seated meal to cut catering costs. Examples include a taco bar, pasta bar, or burger bar or a food truck. Skip expensive entrees like lobster and filet mignon, and avoid complicated dishes that are very labor intensive, like Beef Wellington. If you really want to use a more expensive ingredient, choose an appetizer that contains it rather than the main dish. Avoid carving stations during cocktail hour, as they’re expensive and very filling.

Opt for a Tasting Menu

Another potential way to cut catering costs is to offer guests a tasting menu. This menu comprises seven or eight smaller courses instead of three or four large courses. This may help you cut catering costs by about 15 percent while providing a different experience for your guests.

Consider Not Serving a Full Meal

A cocktail hour with heavy appetizers and desserts lasts about three hours. People eat less than they would with a combination cocktail hour and plated meal, which lasts five hours. The shorter event length helps cut catering costs and venue costs. Serving non-traditional appetizers will further decrease costs. Ideas include mini grilled cheese bites, small crab cakes with tartar sauce, grilled vegetables, salads, mini cups of soup, or mac and cheese in martini glasses

Skip the Coffee Service

Not everyone drinks coffee, and people aren’t likely to miss it. You could have coffee available at the bar for those who want it. This limits the cost of renting coffee-related serving items for each table and helps cut catering costs.

Use the Standard Budget Rentals

While it might look cool to use specialty linens and glassware, or china, it can increase the cost. Everything will still look fine if you choose from among the budget options.

Consider Using Compostable Disposables

You can bill this as a “green” event since it can make the wedding trash free. It is easier for the servers and can help save money on staffing. The lighter plates allow staff to carry more plates at once without worrying about breaking them.

Ask About Hidden Fees 

Make sure you know what’s included in your contract and what’s extra. There may be fees for corkage, cake cutting, mileage, or other items. There’s sometimes a mandatory service charge or mandatory gratuity. Take these into consideration along with the cost of the food when choosing your caterer.

Serve Vendors Less Expensive Meals

If you’re having plated meals, you may arrange for the caterer to give vendors (who you’re expected to feed, especially at weddings) with a less-expensive meal choice. This can save as much as 60 percent per meal.

Ask Caterer About Children’s Meals

Some caterers offer free or half-priced meals for children. Children often prefer these alternatives to the dishes being served to adults. Choose one of these caterers to save money if you’ve got a lot of children on the guest list.

Skip Elaborate Tiered Cakes to Cut Catering Costs

Even at weddings, it’s becoming more common to have a small decorated cake for cutting. Then have either sliced sheet cake, cupcakes, or a dessert bar for guests. Elaborately decorated cakes can break the bank when on a tight budget. When choosing a cake for dessert, stick to more common flavors and fillings to keep costs lower. Stick to a simple method for decorating the cake using buttercream instead of fondant. With a dessert buffet, save as much as one-third by using bite-size desserts rather than full-size desserts. Most people would prefer just a taste, anyway.