For this article, a bride of an affordable, self-catered wedding, Jennifer Woolfe, is providing what she learned from catering her own wedding in 2018.
If you’re looking to save some money on your wedding, you’ll want to look at your catering. Food and alcohol is the largest cost of any wedding, accounting for nearly half of your total budget. And the cheapest way to cater a wedding is to do it yourself.
You can cater your own wedding by cooking all the food, serving restaurant food, or a combination of both. The cheapest option is to cook your own food but there’s a lot more work involved. Serving food from a local restaurant will still save you thousands of dollars compared to traditional wedding catering and is a lot less work.
This is just the tip of iceberg when it comes to catering a wedding. Keep reading to get a step by step guide, a cost comparison, and some do’s and don’ts from a real bride who catered her own wedding.
What are the pros and cons of catering your own wedding?
Let’s start with the basic pros and cons. The pros of catering your own wedding are numerous if you’re on a budget and enjoy setting a menu and being creative with food.
- Incorporate as many fun food trends as you want (donut wall anyone?)
- Support your favorite small businesses
- Have a menu that’s as unique as your relationship
- Save money (we’re talking thousands!)
- Serve your favorite food (not just “wedding food”)
The obvious cons are that it’s a lot of work. But here are some cons you may not have thought of:
- It can be expensive to rent the equipment if your venue doesn’t provide anything
- There’s a bit of a learning curve (“What’s a chafing dish?” Don’t worry, I’ll explain.)
- You’ll need to recruit some friends and family to help
- Keeping food at the right temperature
- Making sure there’s enough to eat for everyone
- Ensuring the line for a buffet moves quickly
How do I cater a wedding myself step by step?
1. Decide if you have the time to commit to catering your wedding
Before you commit to self-catering, make sure it’s practical for you as a couple and for your wedding. One drawback of self-catering is that it’s a lot of work. Time and energy are essential to take that project on. You will also need reliable friends and family to help out.
Another thing to consider is your venue and if they allow you to cater it yourself. Some venues like catering halls and hotel ballrooms will insist on using approved vendors, or at least insured ones. DIY catering is best suited for spaces like parks, backyards, or community centers.
Finally, check if self-catering makes sense with your guest list. The more people attending, the more difficult it is to have food prepared and served in a timely manner. Not only are long lines a bad vibe, but you don’t want the food to be cold or run out too soon. If you have more than 75 guests and you’ve never catered an event before, you should reconsider and look into hiring a licensed caterer.
2. Set a realistic budget of 40% of your total wedding budget.
Once you’ve decided to cater your own wedding, the next step is setting a budget. Food and drinks are often the biggest cost at a wedding. And if you’re in a raw, empty space, don’t forget to include essentials like chair and table rentals in your budget.
You should plan on spending about 40% of your total budget on catering. We’ve covered the details of why this is in our cost per person article and how to plan a wedding under $5,000. Divide your food budget by number of guests to know how much to spend per person. Your budget will determine what kind of food you serve to your guests.
For example, if your budget is $10,000, you’re looking at $4,000 in catering. This is about $40 per guest. Below average for traditional wedding catering, but plenty of money to cater it yourself or from a local restaurant. See below for a table of example costs of delivery options. All of them are under $40 per person.
3. Determine if you are cooking or buying food from a local restaurant.
Cooking your own food has the benefit of being cheaper than restaurant food. It also gives you and your partner total creative control over the meal. However, there are drawbacks to preparing your own food–-mainly time and stress.
Even the most experienced chefs have difficulty catering weddings. This is a “know yourself” situation. If you haven’t touched your oven since you moved in, stick to take out. If you are in-between Top Chef and Top Ramen, you might consider making one element of your menu–like salads or appetizers–and ordering the rest.
4. Plan the menu.
For most couples, planning the menu is the fun part. This is where you let your creativity shine and choose your favorite foods. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a helpful tip:
“Select at least one appetizer, one main dish, one starch, and one vegetable. Remember to have items available for guests with dietary restrictions, like those who keep kosher or vegan, or have food allergies.”
If you are cooking, you should choose dishes that you can prepare ahead of time. Regardless of whether you are cooking or ordering, try to choose foods that hold up well after cooking. Hearty hot foods in sauce usually hold up well in a chafing dish–think lasagna, enchiladas, and chicken cacciatore. Avoid delicate food that will dry out or get soggy over time, like salmon, shredded meat without sauce, and dressed salads.
If you’re ordering from a restaurant, make sure you call and give them a heads up that you’ll be placing a large order that day. They may have a specific catering menu that you can order from. Or they may let you know that they can’t accommodate you on that day.
5. Buy, rent, or borrow the supplies you need.
Without a caterer, you will need to make decisions on what are the essential items. Find out if your venue provides tables and chairs or if you will need to rent these from a party supplier.
You have a few different options on table linens, plates, cups, and flatware. The most obvious option is renting from a party supplier. The drawback to renting, besides the cost, is that you will need to wash dishes at the end of the party. The supplier will expect the dishes back clean. Alternatively, you can buy sturdy disposable items from party stores or online.
You will also need chafing dishes (those aluminum trays and racks with a heat source underneath), serving utensils (such as serving spoons, forks, or carving knives), and coolers for drinks.
If renting is a daunting option and starts to increase your budget, ask around to see what you can borrow from friends and family. Many older relatives will have chafing dishes and racks you can borrow from the many years of birthday parties and barbecues. You can also check out thrift stores and Facebook marketplace to score some deals on items.
6. Delegate some tasks to friends and family.
If you’re going to DIY your food, you need help. Most brides don’t want to haul ice in their wedding dress. Look to your wedding party, parents, siblings, and close friends to pitch in.
Ask for help ahead of time and make a list so everyone remembers what they are doing. Here is a sample list of tasks you can assign:
- Point person – Assign your most organized friend to be the point person. The point person is in charge of making sure things go smoothly and handles unexpected emergencies.
- Set up / clean up – Have one team set up and one team clean up, that way no one is burdened with too much work.
- Pick up – Have someone assigned to pick up food (or tip the delivery driver).
- Server – If you have 50 guests or more, you will need a volunteer to serve food. Otherwise, the buffet will move slowly and get messy.
- Bartender – If you have hard alcohol, consider hiring a bartender to ensure your loved ones are served safely. You can find someone by word of mouth or checking apps like task rabbit.
The Do’s and Don’ts of DIY Catering
If there were eight commandments to catering, these would be it. Take it from a real bride who is married to a professional caterer and do as the pro’s do:
- Do offer food that fits the vibe of your wedding. Think southern comfort food for a barn wedding or tacos for your late night dance party.
- Don’t serve steak with plastic knives. Think about what you’re serving and how you will eat it.
- Do thank your loved ones for helping out. Give them a shout out during the toasts and follow up with a personalized gift to say thank you.
- Don’t forget a contingency plan. What if the restaurant’s delivery truck breaks down? Make sure someone is on stand-by to pitch in for last minute emergencies.
- Do serve what you REALLY want. The best part about DIY catering is you can customize every detail. Make sure the food is you and your fiancé’s favorite dishes–not what you think you should serve.
- Don’t try new recipes. Your wedding is not the time to try uncharted territory. Whether you are cooking or buying, serve old favorites so you know what you are getting.
- Don’t place a seamless order. If you are catering a fifty person event, call the restaurant in advance and let them know your plan so they can be prepared.
Is it cheaper to cater your own wedding?
Yes, it is cheaper to cater your own wedding.
The average cost of full catering and bartending service is $75 per guest according to The Knot. You can cater your own wedding for $10-30 per guest. That’s a savings of $45-65 per guest. For a wedding with 50 people, you can save up to $3,350 just by catering it yourself.
The food will be more or less expensive based on what you decide to serve. Homemade food is the most affordable. (Everyone knows how far you can stretch a box of pasta.) Casual restaurants will be less expensive than formal bistros.
Likewise, the amount and type of alcohol you serve will influence the price (if you serve alcohol at all!). Here’s the cost broken down for three different weddings at three different price points.
|Price for 50 guests
|Price per guest
|Low cost – Pizza & soda
|19 large pizzas
|Seventeen 12 packs of cans $50
|Delivery fee and tip
|Medium cost – Grocery store platters with beer and wine
|Charcuterie board, sub platter, greek salad
|20 bottles of wine and ten 12-packs of beer
|Disposable plates, wine glasses, napkins, cutlery, and tablecloths wine glasses
|High cost- RestaurantThai food with a full bar
|Spring rolls, veggie red curry, chicken pad thai, and coconut rice
|16 bottles of wine, six 12-packs of beer, and 5 handles of liquor
|Disposables and bartender for four hours
Factor in a sheet cake from your grocery store or cupcakes from your favorite bakery and you’re still way below the average of $75 per person.
What is the cheapest way to cater your wedding?
As you can see from our research in the table above, at only $8.50 per guest, the cheapest way to cater your wedding is to serve pizza and soda. By keeping the menu casual and cutting out alcohol, you can save over a thousand dollars from other DIY catering options.
Pizza not your thing? Consider tacos, subs, or barbeque chicken for an equally casual, affordable and delicious meal.
Is pizza at a wedding tacky?
Not at all. Pizza is one of America’s most popular foods. There are over 75,000 pizza restaurants in the United States. Even Martha Stewart and Brides agree there’s a place for pizza at casual weddings.
As long as you own your choices, your guests will see pizza as fun and delicious. Heck, a lot of guests will probably prefer it to stuffy wedding food. Here are some tips to elevate pizza for wedding fare if you’re looking for ways to make it feel special:
- Opt for a local pizzeria over a national chain (Say no to Dominos)
- Order diverse toppings from barbecue chicken and margarita and make it a “tasting”
- Rent a pizza oven or food truck if it’s in the budget
- Match the paper plates and napkins to the rest of your decor
- DIY signs with cute sayings to make it a theme. For pun fans, try “You got a pizza my heart.” Or embrace your hometown with “Only in Chicago”.
- Serve it as your after-party or late night snack option
For more information about serving pizza at your wedding, check out this article.
For more information about food trucks at your wedding, check out this article.
Other unique wedding food ideas
If I intrigued you with pizza, you’re going to love these other out of the box ideas to cater your own wedding with some personality.
Host a potluck barbecue
This idea gets everyone and their grandma involved. For best results, serve a main dish, like smoked ribs and veggie burgers. Then reach out to close friends and family and ask them to bring a signature dish instead of a gift–like your mom’s bomb banana pudding or your BFF’s famous ramen salad.
Brunch with Bloody Mary bar
Either make or buy some brunch staples like pancakes, quiches, and cut fruit. Serve with everyone’s favorite 10 am cocktail- Bloody Marys! Make a big pitcher of tomato juice with lime and Worcester sauce. Set up 2-3 flavored vodka and tequilas. Finish it up with over-the-top garnishes- celery, salt, roasted garlic, cilantro, pickles, olives, bacon, pepperoni, and mini croissants.
Who says you can’t skip straight the best part of the meal? For a dessert reception, order a variety of sweets from a local bakery. Try cupcakes, macarons, and cannolis. Display them on a long table with mix-matched plates and cake stands for an eclectic look. FYI dessert receptions are usually shorter parties – about 2 hours max. If you’ve never head of a cake and punch or dessert-only reception, take a look at this article that covers the basics.
Journey of your relationship menu
This is a unique idea that shows off the story of your relationship. Serve food that’s significant to you as a couple. For example, start with Guinness as a throwback to when you met during your study abroad trip to Ireland. Serve chicken parm from the restaurant where you proposed. End the night with cake pops and lattes like you had on your first date. Print up place cards at each food station that explains the story behind the meal.
Go fancy with surf and turf
This is a lot more practical if you are having a smaller wedding since the ingredients are expensive. If you love steak and lobster, you can create a fancy sit-down meal. I have an article that breaks down the cost and tips for serving steak here. And one for lobster here.
Now that you know the basics of catering a wedding and even have some ideas to put your own unique spin on it, you’ll be ready to serve food to your guests like a pro. Need more tips? Check out our free, private Facebook group – Wedding Planning Club – to connect with like-minded brides.