Your Wedding Catering Cost Guide (Plus 10 Tips to Maximize Your Food Budget)

Brides and grooms typically devote up to 40% of their budget to wedding food costs.

Good food is central to any successful celebration — and that includes your wedding. Making sure your guests are well-fed is a huge part of your responsibility as hosts.

In fact, finding a good wedding caterer is right up there with finding the right wedding venue and the perfect wedding dress.

So, if you want to find out more about wedding catering prices, read on. Our wedding catering cost guide can help you to get the most out of your budget without sacrificing the quality of the food you’ll serve your guests.

How to Find Good Catering Companies 

Before you start thinking about the price of wedding catering, the first step is to find a good caterer. If your wedding venue has in-house catering, you’re already one step ahead. If not, asking your wedding venue for catering recommendations can save you a lot of time and research.

Even if your venue doesn’t insist that you choose from a list of their preferred wedding vendors, the manager can probably offer you at least a few recommendations based on past weddings held there.

Once you have some names, check out the different websites and set up meetings with the caterers you’re most interested in. You can also learn a lot about service providers like caterers by checking their online reviews on Google and Facebook. If you have a wedding planner, he or she can take care of this for you.

When meeting with the caterers you’re considering, be sure to ask them:

  • What is included in a wedding catering package.
  • If they have set wedding menus or allow you to customize the food to your liking. 
  • What food service options they offer.
  • Who will oversee the food service.
  • If they can accommodate food allergies and dietary restrictions.
  • If they have a liquor license.
  • If they provide dinnerware and other rental items.
  • If they offer menu tastings.
  • If they have liability insurance.
  • If they have any other events booked on the same weekend.
  • If a security deposit is required.

How Much Does Wedding Catering Cost?

Now that you know how to find a good caterer, it’s time to focus on budgeting for this significant wedding expense.

If you’re like most couples in the U.S., you’ll need to allocate 30-40% of your overall wedding budget to your reception menu. But how much does wedding catering cost the average couple?

The truth is, cost varies widely based on the location. Catering companies in New York City and Los Angeles will charge more than a small-town caterer, for instance. Other factors in your catering cost will be the size and the style of your wedding.

It’s these three factors that make it so difficult to determine a median catering price. While some wedding industry experts report a national average cost of $4,000, others peg it much higher at just over $9,000.

The one thing you can be sure of is that the larger and more elaborate the wedding reception, the more your food cost will rise. The key is to match the guest count and menu complexity to your wedding budget.

What Comes in a Wedding Catering Package?

Whether your wedding venue has an in-house caterer or you need to hire an outside catering company, there are a number of industry standards that you can expect. 

For instance, your wedding catering cost will likely be on a “per person” basis, meaning the more guests you have, the higher the bill. Many wedding venues and caterers also have a food and beverage minimum. That means you have to purchase a minimum amount of food and drinks to secure their services.

 While wedding catering packages will vary slightly depending on the vendor, most will include:

Food

The most obvious part of any catering package is, of course, the food. You’ll be paying for any food your guests eat from the cocktail hour and main meal to a help-yourself snack or dessert table later in the evening. In most cases, your wedding food bill will not include the cost of a wedding cake. While many wedding caterers can provide a traditional wedding cake for an additional fee, not all offer this service. Find out if your caterer has experience with wedding cakes or if you’ll need to hire a baker.

Drinks

In most cases, your caterer or wedding venue will provide all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages for your reception as part of your wedding catering cost.

Staff

Servers, bartenders and, of course, cooks will be part of your wedding catering cost as well. This is an area where you won’t want to skimp. Make sure there are enough servers to provide a good experience for your guests. 

Rentals

Your caterer or wedding venue will likely provide everything you need for your reception from tables and chairs to linens and dinnerware. If they do not, you’ll need to rent the items from a wedding or events rental company at an additional cost.

Bonus tip: Watch out for hidden costs like corkage fees and cake cutting fees. This can quickly inflate your wedding catering bill, so be sure to read your contract over carefully before signing anything.

Serving Options for Your Wedding Reception

There are a number of different ways your wedding meal can be served. It’s a good idea to ask your wedding caterer what your options are but, in general, you’ll be able to choose from:

  • Plated — Wait staff will serve you and your guests at your tables, restaurant-style.
  • Family-Style — Wait staff brings large platters of food to individual tables and the guests serve themselves.
  • Buffet — Guests serve themselves at designated buffet stations.
  • Cocktail — Guests are standing or sitting and wait staff offer hors d’oeuvres on trays. There may also be designated food stations. 

The most popular service styles are plated and buffet, but always choose the one that best matches your budget and wedding style.

How to Save Money on Wedding Catering

Are you looking for ways to cut down on your wedding catering costs? These simple tips will help you stretch your catering budget without sacrificing delicious hors d’oeuvres, entrées and desserts.

1. Attend Wedding Shows

If there are any wedding shows in your area, it’s worth your time to attend. Packed with wedding vendors — including caterers — you might be surprised by how many details you can check-off your wedding to-do list after an afternoon at a wedding expo.

You’ll be able to taste the wares from every wedding caterer in your area in just a few hours, giving you a good idea of whose food will best suit your tastes. If you book a caterer at the show or shortly after, you may be able to score a nice discount on your wedding food.

Bridal shows are also a great way to get freebies and win giveaways, door prizes and gifts. 

2. Choose Lower-Cost Foods

One of the easiest ways to keep your wedding catering costs down is by choosing less expensive menu options. Forgoing filet mignon or prime rib in favor of chicken or turkey can be a major cost savings.

Keeping salads and sides as well as hors d’oeuvres and desserts simple is another way to maximize your budget. For instance, if you choose a simple garden or caesar salad as a starter followed by turkey, potatoes and vegetables, that can be a huge cost savings compared to steak and lobster with all of the trimmings.

If you want a barbecue-style meal, opt for chicken and pork over more pricey beef. If you have your heart set on a beef option, marinated and well-seasoned flank steak or sirloin tips can be just as delicious as more expensive cuts.

Remember, going simple doesn’t have to mean losing out on taste either. A good caterer can make any meal delicious. Tasting a caterer’s cooking before committing could be the difference between a ho-hum meal or a dinner that blows your guests away.

3. Choose Buffet Style Over a Full-Service Dinner

Service style can have a huge impact on your overall catering costs. 

The cost per person for a plated meal averages $40-$70 while buffet-style is $27 per person, offering you at least a $13 savings per guest. To put it into perspective, if you invited 100 people to your wedding, you’d pay at least $4,000 for plated meals and $2,700 for a buffet. That’s a $1,300 savings if you choose to go with a buffet.

A buffet style reception meal also requires fewer serving staff and that can save you hundreds of dollars in labor costs and reduce the number of people you need to tip. 

While a sit-down full-service dinner is indeed elegant, a buffet style wedding meal can be just as enjoyable for your guests. Not only is it more apt to save you money, your guests can control what goes on their plate as well as their portion size and they can even go back for seconds after everyone has been served.

Bonus Tip: To keep your buffet at that $27 per guest average, avoid serving expensive foods like lobster, shrimp or steak. Also, avoid offering more than two choices of meat or going overboard on the number of sides. If you want a huge variety of food, it will up your wedding catering cost.

4. Avoid a Large Wedding Cake

As beautiful as a large wedding cake looks, it will significantly increase your final food bill. If you want to have a traditional cake cutting ceremony, opt for a small cake. You can then have your caterer or baker provide sheet cake to your guests. If a wedding cake isn’t important to you, a dessert table offering three different options is still cheaper than a large cake and allows your guests to choose what they want to eat.

5. Keep Cocktail Hour Simple

Some couples go all out for the cocktail hour with a wide selection of intricate delicacies for their guests to nibble on. But who says you need to serve shrimp, crab cakes or other pricey morsels? 

The average cost of hors d’oeuvres is around $20 per guest. For 100 people, that’s a whopping $2,000! If you’re trying to keep your budget in check, serving simple finger foods like fruit and veggie skewers and flatbread with different toppers can cut costs considerably. 

6. Consider Disposable Dinnerware

While you’ll definitely want real china for the main meal, it’s totally acceptable to use high-end disposable plates and forks for the cocktail hour and for dessert. That means fewer dishes to clear and wash for the waitstaff and that, in turn, saves you money.

7. Pre-Select Meals

If you’ve opted for a sit-down meal, have your guests select their entrée on their RSVP card. This means your wedding caterer will be able to cook exactly what’s needed and results in less wasted food.

8. Get an Accurate Headcount

Knowing exactly how many people are coming to your wedding means your caterer can cook the proper amount of food for your guests. You certainly don’t want to be paying for people who don’t show. Remember, even if you’re planning a buffet meal, your caterer’s food cost is still determined by the person.

9. Get Married Earlier in the Day

Having a daytime wedding means you can serve brunch instead of a traditional dinner. Your catering costs will dip considerably with a brunch menu that features items like omelettes, quiche, bacon and ham. Just be sure to offer a wide selection of sweet items like fresh fruit, croissants, cinnamon rolls and muffins. This is the type of food that can be served in abundance without it skyrocketing your wedding food cost.

10. Get Married in the Off-Season

Wedding venues aren’t the only thing that’s cheaper during the less popular marriage months. Caterers will often offer their services at a reduced rate during the slower months of November, January and March.

How to Keep Bar Costs Down

Alcohol is often the largest part of your wedding catering cost. On average, the starting price for bar service is $15 per person, but that can quickly go up if your guests like to party hardy.

While the cheapest option is to have a cash bar where guests have to pay for their own drinks, couples rarely opt for that unless they themselves don’t drink. If you do want to provide alcohol to your guests, you have two options: an open bar or a limited bar. Let’s look at the best ways to keep your costs down based on which option you choose.

Open Bar

An open bar offers a wide variety of wine, beer, cocktails and hard alcohol as well as non-alcoholic beverages. The wedding hosts pay for every drink consumed during the reception. If you decide to go with this option, you can choose to pay per drink or a flat fee. If you know your guests like to drink, paying a flat fee offers better value. However, if your guests are light drinkers, paying per drink can mean a much lower bar tab.

Limited bar

A limited bar offers a small selection of beer and wine, usually one hard alcohol option and non-alcoholic beverages. While this is far cheaper than an open bar, you can get costs down further by eliminating hard alcohol from the bar altogether. Hard alcohol is much more expensive than wine and beer, so offering not to serve any can keep your costs down.

Bonus Tip: Another quick and easy way to control alcohol spending is by eliminating the traditional champagne toast. Champagne is an acquired taste and not all of your guests will partake. Instead, have a toast in which the guests simply raise a glass of what they are already drinking. Not only does it cost less, your guests will enjoy it more.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for a great caterer but are concerned about the price of the food, make our wedding catering cost guide one of the chief weapons in your wedding planning arsenal. If you budget carefully and use some of our handy tips to keep costs down, you and your guests will be enjoying a fabulous dinner at your wedding reception without breaking the bank.

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