It doesn’t matter if you live to eat or eat to live, when it comes to your wedding day, good food is a non-negotiable. (Simply put, nobody wants to deal with hangry guests.) Choosing the right caterer is one of the most crucial tasks on your to-do list; however, it can be a particularly nerve-wracking decision if you can’t taste a sample menu before signing on the dotted line. Not to sound too dramatic, but there’s always the risk that a plated meal will not be up to the hype. The good news is that it is possible to cast doubt aside and choose a caterer with confidence—yes, even without lifting a fork or finger.
So, we turned to both wedding planners and catering companies to figure out how exactly to separate the sizzle from the steak. With any luck, the smart tips below will have your guests satiated and begging for seconds. Bon appétit!
Outline Your Preferences
Whether you’re putting your foodie status on full display with an innovative assortment or paying homage to your and your partner’s favorite dishes, a menu should be as personal as every other part of your wedding. But, can a prospective caterer rise to that occasion?
“Everyone wants to know what everybody likes to eat,” says Carla Ruben, founder of a culinary design agency called Creative Edge Parties. “The answer is nothing; the best weddings are when the bride and groom choose the menu they want to have. This makes it truly personalized.”
Before you even discuss the logistics, make sure that a prospective caterer understands and embraces your vision. While you’re at it, you’ll also want to make sure that a caterer can accommodate your guests’ allergies or dietary restrictions. If they’re not willing to accommodate your and your guests’ needs, it may not be the right fit.
Pay Attention to Preparation
Honestly, very few things can ruin a meal like a cold or soggy dish. Before you commit to a caterer, ask them how each course is prepared. “This can make a big difference between how an item will taste at your sample tasting versus how it will taste on your wedding day,” explains Lynne Kennedy of The Gilded Aisle Weddings. “Is it prepared fresh and cooked to order on-site or is it prepared ahead of time and kept in a warmer or under a plate cover?”
Chilled bites like gazpacho, ceviche, or homemade ice cream might be (understandably) prepped ahead of time, but warm plates are best served piping hot. “Any food with a crispy crust such as breaded chicken entrée is going to have a lovely crunch when prepared fresh and brought directly to the table,” Kennedy adds. “That same breaded crust will get steamed under a plate cover and the texture of the outside crust will be soft instead of crisp.”
Research Reviews and References
If you can’t taste the food for yourself, you might as well see what everyone else has to say about the menu. “Catering is going to be a large part of your event team, so be sure that you enjoy your conversations and the booking process, and also that you see good reviews online,” Meg Walker, CEO and executive chef of Made by Meg Catering in Redondo Beach, California.
While reviews should always be taken with a grain of salt—especially since everyone’s taste buds are different—you might start to notice some common themes. Do previous clients rave about the service? Is everyone saying the pork tenderloin was bland? Well, you should expect a similar outcome.
But, if you’re not willing to put the fate of your wedding menu in the hands of the world wide web, look into a catering company’s experience. “Choose catering companies that show a long list of venues that they work at,” Walker shares. “This type of list means that large event establishments and venues have already vetted their service, and that other couples liked them enough to keep them on the venue list.” While everyone’s food tastes vary, a long list of happy clients is a good sign a catering candidate knows what they’re doing.
Find the Best Bang for Your Buck
As the saying goes, money talks. Though a catering company’s website or social media platforms might be filled with perfectly plated courses that are worthy of a Michelin star, it’s important to understand what they can actually do with your budget. For wedding planner Camille McLamb, a sample menu based on your spending limit can offer a lot of clarity. “Not only will you see if the caterer can accommodate your budget, but you will also get a sense of the variety of options and their creativity with their menu,” she adds.
Before you sign any paperwork, you’ll want to understand all of a caterer’s fees. “When you get your catering quotes, make sure that everything is included,” Walker adds. “Not an ‘estimate’ of staff, or a list of open-ended items, because a big bill may await you after booking. On that same note, also look through the staff closely on your quote. You want to make sure that it says a specific number of team members, not just categories like servers, bartenders, cooks, [and so on].”
If the sample menu isn’t cutting it from either a financial or appetite standpoint, you might want to explore other options. Starting your catering search from scratch may be a tad disappointing, but having a mouth-watering (and budget-friendly) menu to pair with your special day will be so worth it.
Ask for an Alternative
According to Melisa Brown and Chef James Lubin—a wedding planner and caterer who work together to create beautiful weddings—it’s not always the caterer who prohibits a tasting beforehand. Whether you’re planning a destination wedding or navigating the ever-changing CDC recommendations, it can be a logistical nightmare to book a sampling—especially if you’re working with a tight timeline.
Instead of entering a contract blindly, ask a prospective caterer if they are willing to work around your physical restrictions. “We always want to guarantee the quality of the food their families and friends will have at the wedding,” the duo shares. “We would advise the client to have a close friend or a family member attend the tasting in their place and conduct a Zoom meeting during the tasting so they are able to see the presentation.”
Another idea? Request a virtual tasting. “We offer our clients a selection of five flavors and fillings they would like to taste,” they explain. "We will then ship the cake tasting box and conduct a virtual tasting via Zoom with the clients so they can taste the cake [as well as] discuss design and pricing.”
Naturally, there are downsides to opting for a virtual tasting—the food won’t be as fresh and the presentation might’ve been altered in transit, for starters—but having a caterer who is willing to work with you will be one of the best wedding presents you could receive.