The Cheap Bastardette's guide to self-catering your wedding

August 22 | Guest post by Meg
dinner-27.jpg
Photo by Whitney Lee.
Our plan: rather than pay $15 per head for upwards of 160 guests (is it just me or is the guest count never where I left it?) we're stretching our $5,000 budget as far as we can by offering a variety of snacky things. Here's how we'll pull it off.

We "update" the expectations

Guests tend to expect a meal, but that's because most weddings take place during or before a major mealtime. We set our ceremony time to 7pm, and included a card in the invites that specified our outdoor reception will feature dancing, cocktails, and heavy hors d'oeuvres. (Which my uber-conservative mom calls the "Heavy Hors." Heh.) Guests will have time to grab a meal before they arrive, they'll snack throughout, and go home kinda buzzed and full of goodies.

We outsource

I'm typically a help-decliner type, but I'm learning to say "yes" a little quicker when people offer assistance. We have a network of grannies and great-aunts who are just dying to get their hands in this, and as long as I don't have to pay for it, I say the more the merrier. I have two lists and a recipe database and they are welcome to them.

We research and organize

These go hand-in-hand, as my goal is to not have to actually cook anything within 48 hours of the wedding. So while searching, I'm focusing on terms like "freezer friendly," "make-ahead," "quick," and "seasonal." The good ideas get Pinned and/or added to a favorites folder, and I've moved onto the stage of culling the list and organizing a very simple spreadsheet. Column A: hors d'oeuvres. Column C: desserts. Column B: the link or store name where the recipe or item can be found.

Click here to download Meg's self-catering Excel spreadsheet!

Anything exotic or dubious (can you really pre-make fancy little grilled cheese and chutney sandwiches?) has been getting tried out on family or friends at a rate of one recipe or so per week. Things get cooked and then thrown in the freezer for a few days, left on the counter for a few hours, etc. The point is to replicate the environment they'll be served in and make sure the recipes still work. So far, so good — but anything that can't be refrigerated for at least 48 hours is either getting the boot or outsourced to the granny brigade.

The best tip I found for figuring out quantities: caterers recommend at least ten "bites" per person. If you have a mini-tart that takes two bites to eat, then count it as two "bites." (Column D on that spreadsheet: Bites. Two bites times forty pieces, with a running tally at the bottom of the column. Scary, but do-able.)

We buy frozen

I walked through the local big-box store and Trader Joe's and used my cell camera to document frozen appetizers that looked do-able, along with their price and quantity per box. When it's closer to the day of, we'll go pick them up. Boom. Done.

We plan raw and buy fresh

Our local farmstand* is cheaper than the grocery store. About one-third to one-half of the hors d'oeuvres are going to be based off of produce that comes from the farmstand. Fresh is delicious, simple is better, and I want there to be plenty of healthy fare alongside the mini peppermint cheesecakes and bacon-wrapped whatevers.

  • A tip about farmstands: if you get in touch with the owner (or whoever does their picking) and give them a list of ingredients and quantities and let them know it's for a wedding, they can pick and pack ahead of time. They'll make sure you get the highest-quality produce they see, and sometimes they'll give you a discount for making their lives easier by not cleaning out their stand.

We multitask the cheapest ingredients

Tomatoes are plentiful and inexpensive in early September and can make raw bruschetta with garlic toast and a hunk of chevre, a basil-tomato-mozarella platter, as well as a big bowl of salsa with pita chips. Bread is also cheap, and cheap bread can become mini-sandwiches, toast wedges for dipping, croutons, and fillers in things like meatballs or tuna salad. The recipes are simple, and can be trusted to the many hands that will be on deck the day-of while I enjoy chillaxing.

And most importantly…

We stop worrying about things in time to actually enjoy the day.

  1. I made most of the food for our wedding. We had 40 guests so it was do-able. I fried chicken wings weeks in advance and froze them. (I bought 40 wings for $6!!) We also had brisket (which everyone liked better) that my husband smoked.

    2 agree
  2. This question might be random but, what is/where did you come up with a $15 a head figure? Is that a common rate for a heavy appetizer catered thing?

    1 agrees
    • Can't speak for common, but that's about what our "heavy hors d'oeuvres" buffet reception came to. Actually, it was $16.20 if we want to get specific.

    • I'd say it's pretty common. We wanted a similar buffet, and the lowest price we could find was $10/head (but with tips and tax and everything added I'd say it was about the same)

      1 agrees
    • I was a caterer for 10 years, and because we were a very small (read: no 'employees ', no storefront, extremely flexible, creative & willing to work for next to nothing) we could feed people well for $15 a head fine dining style or $12 for 'heavy hors.' Most catering is going to cost you a lot more than that, and while it's certainly possible to feed people for about that much or less, you'll find $15 a head is really only the very low low end when talking to a caterer- like continental breakfast low or cake and punch.

      I've handled my own special events by approaching favorite restaurants and asking the head chef privately what they'd be able serve/able to charge for a large private party and I've always been pleasantly surprised at what they were able to do for me through their restaurants.

      3 agree
  3. @Casey – that was a low-end estimate we received to have a catered dinner with no additional options or anything. I asked about app-only, and they said to feed that many people on just apps would cost the same or more because it's more labor intensive. That's when I decided that $15 could feed one person dinner, or 5 people a snack, and went from there.

    1 agrees
  4. Just to clarify, the pieces per person guideline is also per hour.

    5 pieces per person per hour for cocktails with a dinner to be served after
    10 pieces per person per hour when no dinner is planned

    Increase or decrease based on your crowd (in general, little old ladies eat less than football players) and the amount of alcohol being served (free-flowing booze? up the heaviness of your bites to help soak it up, plus cut back on the salty bites, which just make folks thirstier).

    3 agree
  5. If I see "heavy hor d'oevres reception," that to me says that there will be enough appetizers to equal a meal, so I don't think I, as a guest, would eat before going. Just something to keep in mind when planning.

    12 agree
    • Yes, and for many people (though I guess that depends where you live), 7 actually corresponds exactly to dinner time. (I live in Canada, but I'm French and I eat between 7 or 10, usually around 8 or 9. So even if you live in a country where people generally eat early, there are probably some that don't and that will not have eaten when they get to the wedding. Also something to keep in mind!)

      2 agree
  6. One thing to keep in mind about Trader Joe's: their selection can and does change quite often. And to second the Above Emily, if I were a guest I wouldn't necessarily think to grab a bite beforehand, especially if I were travelling more than an hour to get to the wedding. Thanks for all the helpful info though!

    2 agree
  7. i took a look at the spreadsheet (you are a genius) and noticed swedish meatballs. if you're into the idea of getting those frozen, and live near an IKEA, try checking out their market place. they sell excellent chocolates as well and all for super cheap

    1 agrees
  8. The $15/person seemed really cheap to me but then you topped it by declaring you'd get the job done for $3/person! You my dear are a SUPERSTAR!

    I think you should post your whole budget ( I know there's a super spreadsheet for that! ) and really show us how it's done!

    4 agree
  9. Potatoes can be iffy to freeze, just so you know ;) Gallons of milk/whole presliced cheesecakes freeze pretty well, we used to do both at coffeeshops I've worked at!

    Also, you may want to stop by and talk to the manager of the Trader Joe's you're going to if you're getting alot of stuff there–not just for clearing shelves, but since you're giving them monies, they may even have it waiting for you! I have a friend who does functions; the local grocery is happy to oblige AND for the heads up! Good luck– I think there's nothing so wonderful as eating and dancing with those you love!

    4 agree
  10. "freezer friendly" and "make ahead" are my two favorite phrases right now!

    Thanks for the advice on "bites" — going to add another column to my food prep spreadsheet for that :)

    We'll only be cooking for 20-35 people, and 99% of it can be made in advance, so I'm feeling pretty confident right now! Thanks again

  11. How did you (or any other self caterers) handle the day of logistics? Warming/serving/seating. You have given me hope that I might be able to pull this off.

    1 agrees
    • I can't speak to past experience, but we're planning to do self-catering of this nature for our wedding next month. "Self-catering" is a bit of a misnomer, as we aren't going to do the actual work day of – we've hired (at a HIGHLY discounted rate) friends of Chef to do the warming/plating/serving on the wedding day. This was relatively easy for us as he has so many friends in the restaurant world. For those who don't have those connections, I recommend talking to the culinary programs at local community/technical colleges!

  12. 160 guest, ten bites each, 1,600 bites for you and the Grannies to prepare, plate, display, keep food safe, refresh the display, and clean up. What's the back up plan if a hail storm ruins the crop the day before it is to be harvested? Plan the pickup and storage of all the raw products, find enough freezers for the frozen, coordinate oven times, watch that pesky food safety issue again and do all the other things going on with a wedding that can't wait. When will the "chillaxing" happen exactly?

    Seriously, I know it can be pulled off. More power to you if you decide to self-cater. If you have never hosted a party of whatever size you plan you may want a practice run for a reality check. Just planning the food station lay out is a big deal. For a home party you can do what you want but many venues are not going to let your granny brigade near their food prep areas – it's that liability issue that no one wants to discuss. (If it is a home party your home owners liability insurance might cover you if you give the guests food poisoning but you might want to check on that.)

  13. We are currently looking for a caterer who will take on our wedding, and oh my, they have me on the verge of wanting to DIY the food so much! Either they don't respond at all, don't offer tasters (how can they not, if they want short of 2K from me for just one meal?), can't be flexible outside their menus or packages … am wondering if this is something common and if they don't need to "cater" for their clients … maybe I should consider wedding caterer as my next career, as in my current job, the client is king, and I quite fancy a change … :-(

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