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Weddings are becoming smaller than ever these days and as a result, we’re seeing more and more couples take on the catering element themselves. Handling the food for a 250-person wedding on your own might be pretty crazy, but food for 10 people? That’s fairly doable if you put a detailed plan together and set your expectations accordingly.
“These days, less is more,” says planner Elizabeth Wexler, who has been working with clients on their micro weddings during COVID. “My overall advice: Plan ahead, keep the cooking team small, divide, and conquer.”
Meet the Expert
Elizabeth Wexler is the founder of Emlan Events, a New York-based wedding and event consulting company. She has a decade of experience in the events industry.
Whether you’re planning on cooking all the food yourself or coordinating directly with the foodservice team, here is a guide with everything you need to know, from pros and cons to the cost.
The Pros and Cons
Cait Goodman did all of the food for her Brooklyn celebration with her husband Nate, who works in the food industry. “Our dessert was less than ideal because I’m not great at making desserts and my sister, a former pastry chef who was going to make it wasn’t able to at the last minute—two days before the dinner,” she says. “If I could do it again, I would have ordered a dessert from my favorite bakery or simplified.”
- Catering your own wedding can be really fun and rewarding! “It will definitely be memorable cooking with your family," says Wexler. "Perhaps you cook family recipes—how special is that? Create a menu of foods that bring back childhood and fond memories."
- It's a sign of love for your guests. “Food is how we show love in my family so it felt really special to cater and serve our wedding dinner,” Goodman explains. “To look my loved ones in the eye as I handed them a beautiful plate of food that I planned and prepared was the best experience. Totally worth all the effort.”
- Less risk in terms of COVID. “When planning any event during these times, we have to be careful with the number of people we surround ourselves with,” says Wexler. “Catering your own wedding will help limit the number of people at your venue. Less staff and vendors mean less opportunity for exposure.”
- It is a cost-effective option. If you plan and budget accordingly, you can save a lot of money on the food at your wedding—think thousands of dollars!
- It's a lot of work. The stress (and amount of time and work) of catering your own wedding just might not be worth the amount of money you are saving. “It’s tons of work,” admits Wexler. “Who wants to be working leading up to their wedding? You deserve to relax and enjoy every moment of your wedding!”
- Poor planning could lead to high food costs. If you don’t plan accordingly, you might not end up saving much money at all. For example, if you buy all the ingredients at your local, high-end specialty food shop, you are going to pay more for the food costs than you would if you shopped in bulk. The same goes for dinnerware, glassware, serving utensils, and décor items.
Professional vs. DIY Catering
Professional catering costs can vary quite a bit, as they are dependent upon a lot of different variables, such as the kind of food you are serving (high-cost items like caviar and lobster versus burgers and pizza), the number of people you are feeding, location, and the style of service (multi-course, plated meals, buffets, stations, family-style, etc.). “Catering ranges on the spectrum,” says Wexler. “There is drop-off catering, which can start at $50 per person, to full-service catering, which includes food, beverage, and staff and can be upwards of $300 per person.”
Catering your own wedding can bring the cost down hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.”[In terms of a] number range, it is really hard to say. It’s like pricing out chicken: Chicken can be $5 or $25 (think free-range, organic, etc),” says Wexler. “There are so many variables. I am sure you can do something starting at $20 per person, but time is money and it will eat up your time.”
Tips for Catering Your Wedding
Put together a detailed timeline breaking down every detail, from when you will shop for the food to what time and day the cake is going in the oven. No matter what you do, pad in extra time because it’s inevitable that hiccups will happen along the way.
1. Plan both a food and drink menu.
Unless you are a professional chef, don’t get too elaborate with the food and drink menu. Instead, stick to crowd-pleasing options that are easy to tackle, not crazy time-consuming, and preferably items you have prepared multiple times before.
“Plan a menu that's manageable—a salad, a protein, a side dish, a starch, and a fun hors d'oeuvre or two. Divide and conquer the recipes,” says Wexler. “Homemade flatbreads are great for hors d'oeuvres. Set out a beautiful charcuterie board with bunches of grapes and gorgeous dried fruit for cocktail hour. For the protein, try braising short ribs because you really can't overcook or undercook them. For sides, roasted potatoes are great warm or room temperature. Try a veggie slaw or something pickled that doesn't get soggy after a long time.”
As you plan the menu, think about what equipment each dish or drink will require and test them out ahead of time so you are familiar with everything you’ll be using.
2. Work backward on the recipes and plan out the prep.
As you do this, think about how you will be transporting the food (if you aren’t cooking it at the venue), where you will cook the food, where you will store or chill the food if it needs it, all the utensils and supplies you will need if you’re cooking it at the venue, etc. If you are traveling with the food, make sure to consider how each dish travels—some items do much better than others Think: popular buffet items like salad, pasta, roasted or steamed vegetables, chicken, etc.
“We did a lot of prep before the dinner and completely overwhelmed our apartment-sized fridge,” says Goodman, who strongly recommends making sure you have adequate space to store all the food once it’s prepped. “Luckily, our neighbor helped us out by opening up her fridge!”
3. Cook two days before the wedding.
"Assign tasks to family members to make it fun and a group effort,” Wexler says. Make sure everyone is aware of when they need to be there and briefed on your overall timeline to avoid any big delays.
4. The wedding day should just be heating and serving.
Don’t forget to think about what temperature each dish needs to be served at, how you will keep the food warm, where you will reheat it if necessary, and the exact time each dish needs to start re-heating/chilling/sitting out at room temperature.
5. Assign a few people to heat and serve the food.
If you're the bride or groom you do not want to be managing the food while enjoying your day. Plus, you’re also going to want to assign people to help clear and clean-up after the meal is over or schedule a cleaning service to come in after the event.
COVID-19 Precautions to Take
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, here are a few things to keep in mind if catering your own wedding:
- Take everyone's temperature on the wedding day. For anyone handling the food or anything related to the wedding before then, take their temperature before they begin working. If it’s over 100.4 F, kindly ask them to stay home and rest up instead.
- Only have a small group of people in charge of cooking. "You don't need the entire wedding party or family involved,” says Wexler. The fewer people you have touching everything, the better.
- Avoid buffets. You also want to avoid having guests get too close or touch the same utensils. Instead of a buffet or passed hors d'oeuvres, create a beautiful display table with individual portions of the appetizers and have a server (or a few) on hand who can manage the table.
- Hire extra servers. It will add to your costs, but adding in extra servers to handle drink orders—particularly during cocktail hour—will avoid a crowd congregating around the bar.
- Use single-use utensils. To keep things as COVID-friendly as possible, use throw-away, individually packaged cutlery paper or plastic plates during the cocktail hour and dinner. Also, make sure you have hand sanitizer on every table.