7 tips on stretching your wedding food budget

December 5 | meganfinley
Photo by Honeysuckle Photography
Photo by Honeysuckle Photography

We know that you can NEVER have a shortage of budget-stretching ideas. I previously gave you these recession-friendly wedding budget ideas, but let's get food-specific in this installment, shall we?

1. Time is on your side

Have an afternoon wedding and stick to appetizers, serving heavy appetizers instead of a seated meal. Remember, appetizers don't always have to be fancy! Think fresh fruit, gourmet cheeses and crackers, salsa bar, mini tea sandwiches, local veggies, or deli platters.

Alternately, consider a brunch wedding. Take it from Tasha and Andrew:

Our reception was a brunch with lots of music and dancing. We saved so much money having a brunch wedding.

2. Potluck weddings!

Ah yes, the ever-controversial potluck weddingIs it tacky? Is it the best idea ever? I'd say that depends on how well your friends and family members can cook. ;) In Sarah & Chris' case everything went wonderfully:

I handmade all of our invites and asked the guest to bring food instead of a gift, something home made, special to them — their favorite food. Everybody ate, and raved about each other's recipes.

Luke & Suzanne's Muppet wedding

3. Rent a food truck.

I know MY favorite wedding reception dinner has been from the In and Out truck. But not all food trucks have to be um… not so great for your health. Food trucks are going gourmet these days, but the prices are staying reasonable. Try googling "food truck catering" in your area! Plus the photo ops are always fun:

4. Bake it yourself

Bake your own wedding dessert. You can always do cupcakes or make wedding cookies instead of a fancy wedding cake. Our combine the potluck idea with the cake baking idea and pull off a collaborative wedding cake quilt.

5. BBQ

If a potluck sounds like a lot of work (logistics and what-not) then a barbecue wedding might be right up your alley. Turn your wedding reception into a cookout with hamburgers, hot dogs, and grilled veggies. (Ok, I'm getting hungry now.) If you don't want to man the grill yourself, hire a local barbecue joint to cater a la Charla and Joel:

As graduate students, we had to do it on the cheap. The main cost was the catering — pulled pork, ribs, chicken, honey rolls and sides a la Slow Ride BBQ out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. At $11 a plate, the yummy food didn't break the bank.

6. Skip fancy cocktails

Just serve beer and wine. You can always use our tutorial on how to use custom wine labels to save money on your wedding booze. Or, hell, save a bunch of dough and skip alcohol all together.

7. Friends are your friend!

Know one or several people who are culinary whizzes? Talk to them about whether they'd feel comfortable sharing their cooking skills as their wedding gift. I've seen this exchanged pulled off flawlessly at many a wedding.

Now I turn it over to you — what ways did you come up with to save money on your food and catering?

  1. We made the food and drink for our wedding, catering for 150 to have two hot meals, champagne for toasts and a couple of cocktails each. It cost us around £400. We did it by brewing our own elderflower champagne for toasts, making Ginger beer and strawberry vodka for cocktails. Food wise, for evening meal the week before we cooked two massive pots of chilli ( one meat, one veggie) and froze them, defrostig them the day before the wedding, and heating then up on the day. We barbecued chicken too, and bought cheese, nachos and tortillas to accompany the chilli. We asked friends to bring salads and deserts if they liked instead of wedding gifts. At night time we barbequed baked potatoes, and served them with haggis and cheese and left overs.

    13 agree
  2. Our venue is a summer camp and it's part of the agreement that we use them for catering. So for us, some of these options won't work. But what we did do is pick a menu that is cheaper to make, and thus cheaper to serve. We are doing pasta dishes, which are way cheaper than a typical chicken/beef dinner plate, and easy to customize for our special diet guests (for vegans and veggies we can get vegan pasta and for my uncle with Celiacs we can do gluten-free pasta). We'll spend more than if we did potluck, but at least we're doing the cheapest option while still using the camps kitchen.

    4 agree
    • i really hate when venues do this. they will lose my business if they try to do something like this with me. my boyfriend and i are both chefs, and so for our dinner (for our hypothetical future wedding lol) we want our other chef friends to each cook a course. venues that you have to use their catering just wont even be an option for me…..

      15 agree
      • For small specialized venues that are not generally geared for weddings, this policy actually protects their facility and their equipment. Also, if the kitchen is used to run the camp, that means there is probably no way to cordon off the "camp food" from whatever "event food" might be on hand, and they simply can't afford to risk some irresponsible group deciding to eat something earmarked for camp next week. Neither can they afford someone wrecking a major piece of equipment. If you use the kitchen, you use it through the kitchen staff, period, and the kitchen staff has a set repertoire. This is just a risk of using a venue that is not designed for weddings.

        6 agree
  3. So, my fiance and I decided to do a brunch wedding as well, but the problem we've run into is that the venue we're using does not allow outside catering and they're somehow trying to charge us $60/head for brunch!! Everytime we try to lower it, the menu just looks sparse. I love the idea of serving predominantly appetizers, but what other suggestions do you have for this one?

    3 agree
    • Ditch that venue and find another one. It can't be worth it for $60 a head. That's nuts.

      We got married at a modern art museum that charged us only 24$ per head for brunch WITH an omelet station, fresh fruit, bacon, pastries, eggs, home potatoes, french toast, and mimosas.

      13 agree
      • Agreed. Sounds like "wedding tax" to me. Have you looked at their menu for non-wedding (eg corporate) events? If you really can't leave the venue I would try to leverage any price difference you see to argue that they're trying to price-gouge you.

        11 agree
  4. We had BBQ from our favorite place here in Raleigh, NC! It's my favorite food, so I was happy to be able to eat what I really loved. We also made our own beer and served wine from Trader Joe's that we love. We still have food left over (that I need to rescue from our kind friends with the deep freeze…) and people still talk about how great the food/beer was. I wouldn't have it any other way!

    4 agree
  5. We had HUGE food budget issues. Our original plan was to do a cookout DIY, but the size of the wedding (130 folks) and the fact that we were also hosting made it untenable.

    Eventually, we went for pizza and subs from a local joint and grocery store sides. Everyone was satisfied, vegetarians were accommodated, and it shaved $400 off our budget. The pizza was way more popular than the subs – there were a ton leftover.

    1 agrees
  6. We knew we wanted Mexican food, mostly enchiladas, at the wedding, but were a little concerned about the cost, and practicality of having kind of a messy food options. We found out that a local family owned taqueria we eat at at least once a week will cater a buffet. Guest will get to choose from 2 or 3 entrees with their choice of meat and rice and beans all around $7 a plate.

    10 agree
    • YAY for local ethnic eateries!! If you aren't locked into a catering thing via your venue, this is the BEST choice EVAR! Local Indian place, or Chinese place, or Thai place, or Mexican place, or whatever you love. So affordable, so yummy, and so kind to your local economy and your own pocket book!

      6 agree
  7. This is pretty much exactly how we did our afternoon wedding, and we spent $280 on food for 60 people. We had fruit and vegetable trays from Publix, chips, hummus, salsa,guacamole, mini bagels and tubs of cream cheese. My stepmom made punch and cheesecake,and one of my girlfriends baked a gazillion cupcakes. Extra win: These were all cold foods, so no one had to worry about stuff coming out of the oven or staying warm.
    I felt a little guilty for not having nicer food, but no one complained.

    6 agree
  8. We used Hy-Vee (grocery store) for a buffet dinner of fish, ham, Chinese, & tacos. 80 people, less than $800. We had lemonade, coffee, and water for drinks. We paid a woman from the church to do a dessert buffet $350 with tons left over. Considering the catering route would have cost at least $25 per person, we had good food at a great price.
    That said, if we hadn't had so many guests traveling to attend our wedding, I would have suggested having a pot-luck wedding dinner. I LOVED pot-luck dinners when I was a kid. You can't beat spaghetti at a pot-luck dinner.
    At the bowling alley after dinner, we spent about $300 for beer, soft drinks, and snacks. I'm very happy with what we spent on food & drink, and we could have spent less b/c we ordered too much food from each vendor!

    2 agree
  9. It's almost like I special requested this post! Thank you, OBB! Having good food is SO important to me at our wedding, but I am not swimming in money! I am feeling a brunch reception. A potluck is definitely something we've thought about doing, but IDK how it's actually going to go. Thanks for reassuring me that tacky is okay :D.

    3 agree
  10. At our wedding we saved a bundle by only paying for a wine bar. If guests wanted cocktails, they had to pay for them themselves. We also skipped a fancy hor dourves course and only served fresh fruit and veggies. No one noticed the difference!

    1 agrees
  11. Hell yes I'm doing a potluck and making my own cake! The downside to going potluck is that you have to rely on your friends and family to actually bring stuff, which sometimes can be nerve-wracking (a worry I have myself), but between my mom, myself, and a few core friends, I think we should be fine if that happens.

    1 agrees
    • A friend of mine had a potluck wedding this summer, and as part of her online RSVP, she had a sign-up for the potluck (with categories: side, main, salad + dressing) If you signed up for the potluck, you got a reminder email two weeks or so before the wedding. There was plenty of food!

      Don't worry about people bringing stuff— they'll take it seriously. It's a wedding, not just a backyard potluck.

      12 agree
      • Do you know what online website she used for her RSVPs and potluck signup? What a great idea.

        3 agree
  12. We had a brunch reception, and man oh man did it help to keep costs down. Our main dishes were eggs benedict, eggs florentine, and mini pancakes with all kinds of toppings, and we also had salads, fresh fruit, meat and cheese platters, and the most delicious cold salmon I have ever eaten. A ten a.m. ceremony followed by brunch also helped to keep alcohol related costs down, as people don't really booze it up that time of day (we offered mimosas, orange juice, punch, tea, coffee, and had a few bottles of Baileys on hand in case people wanted to spike their drink). Brunch is a great option to keep costs down, and also if crazy party drinking isn't your thing. Plus: eggs benny! I don't remember what the cost per head was, but I think it was about half of what we would have paid for a supper reception in our region.

    4 agree
  13. These are great ideas. An unexpected perk of making your own cake is also that you have to test the recipes, so you get to have cake tasting parties! I had one last night and it was fun, and then I had a huge platter of leftover cake wedges to bring to my holiday potluck at work today :D

    And a comment based on having limitations due to venue, as a couple people have mentioned – we have serious ones, i.e. professional catering required, from a list of acceptable caterers, and only available for events at night, so not so much with the brunch. We just said, "ok, we will spend 60% of our budget on food and make the really serious budget decisions elsewhere." Totally happy with this choice.

    2 agree
  14. I love the idea of brunch instead of a supper. But our date is on a Thursday so I don't think that will work. I think it's going to be an afternoon wedding/reception, but potluck might work. Thanks for the tips.

    1 agrees
  15. I'm doing a 2:00 wedding in December, and having Christmas-y desserts for food! Cookies, fudge, brittle, summer sausage…We're going to gather friends and family in the church and have a huge baking party :3

    1 agrees
    • I just LOVE that you're listing summer sausage as a dessert! My kinda woman!

      11 agree
  16. The thing to consider with potluck weddings is not just whether or not your friends can cook, it's whether or not they:

    a.) have the time to cook – is your circle generally super busy?

    and

    b.) live near enough that they can actually bring a dish. If even a large minority of your guests our out of town, they won't be able to prepare and bring anything to a potluck: hotels don't generally provide kitchens, not everyone can borrow a local friend's kitchen …and who has the time to cook when they've flown in from out of town anyway? Plus they'd have to buy all the ingredients locally, rather than raiding their own pantries. Potlucks really only work when everyone or very nearly everyone is local.

    4 agree
  17. I would also say to save money, beer and wine at a place that charges per-head or bar prices per drink to the couple is still expensive (although cheaper than full open bar). If possible, find a venue/food plan that allows you to stock your own bar. We did that and for $600 had a nearly full open bar (beer, wine, whiskey, rum, vodka and gin and a small bottle of Kahlua with basic mixers – soft drinks and juices, some lemons…no tequila, bottled mixers or ingredients for fancier mixed drinks). It was so much cheaper than even the cheapest beer-and-wine-only per-head bar option at other venues.

    It could have been slightly cheaper without the spirits, but we would have provided the soft drinks/juices anyway, so cutting out hard liquor would have saved comparatively little.

    1 agrees
  18. We are going to do the potluck but we are doing it as part of a Cherokee wedding tradition. The tradition is the town, community, or clans provided a wedding feast and then we party as long as we can.

    9 agree
  19. I saw a wedding on the telly once where they had a baked potato buffet for the food – loads of spuds and loads of toppings (think chilli, coleslaw, cheese, onion, sour cream, salads etc). I always thought it was a groovy idea.

    15 agree
  20. I honestly didn't know people served "food" food at weddings until I started reading wedding blogs! I've been to just one wedding recently where they served dinner and had an open bar.
    Most weddings in our area serve cake, punch, and have some mints and nuts in a bowl. That's pretty much it. And alcohol would be seen as rather risque, generally.

    3 agree
  21. If you really want to do a full dinner, going vegetarian can save a ton of money. One of my friends, a vegetarian, had a minimum amount she had to spend at her venue and after going veggie they actually had to add an hour of open bar–not a bad problem to have!

    3 agree
  22. One of the nice things about marrying into a majority-Mormon family, my booze budget is awesome! I'm probably going to just get a case of prosecco and a bunch of orange juice for mimosas, the rest is a whole lotta pop and sparkling cider. As for food, I'm figuring some sort of fingery stuff, all I really demand is hummus, my most beloved appetizer.

    7 agree
  23. We're doing a food truck, and I'm really excited about it! Most of the gourmet food trucks in LA will serve unlimited food for two hours for $15-$20/person. We got really lucky and found a venue with a roll-up garage door, so no one will have to go outside to get the food.

    7 agree
    • Nice! We finally locked down our venue which is a weekend retreat with flexible catering options and booze options. We were thinking of the food truck route too as well as a street taco stand (we live in san diego, CA) for cocktail hour. Praying i can keep the food budget under 2 grand for 150 people.

      1 agrees
  24. So I just thought of this, and now that I have, I feel really smart, so I thought I would share.

    As long as you have kitchen access at your venue/around your venue and a friend/family member with freezer space, why not just make, say, a big pan of lasagne a week up until your wedding?

    That way, for budget minded people (like me) you're not blowing a ton of money on the catering at once, just 20-30 bucks here and there (and hell, just make 2 after your paycheck if you get paid every other week like I do). You could also save a bunch of money by ordering wholesale noodles and sauce, or ask your family members to help you out by making their famous meat sauce or whatever.

    Then, just wrap them (well!) and freeze until the day of your wedding. Get to the venue, set the ovens to 400, and in like an hour, lasagne for errybody, at little to no stress to you.

    If you get engaged, say, 6 months before the wedding, that's a potential of at least 25 lasagnas, and assuming your lasagna feeds 20 people, you just fed 500 people for 20 minutes of work every Saturday night. Not bad!

    It could be fun, too: you could try different recipes and variations and types.

    Just saying.
    Love me some lasagna.

    21 agree
    • This was our rehearsal dinner! A couple lasagnes went in the oven while we were setting up the day before, voila! Dinner!

      1 agrees
    • All I would say is make sure you REALLY think through the logistics on this one. My stepmum did exactly this when she married my dad but as the oven at the venue wasn't big enough for lasagnes for 100+ people, she had a ridiculously complex rota of neighbours cooking one each for her. Plus keeping them warm. You can't guarantee that everyone will be ready to eat exactly when they are ready. We paid a couple of waiting staff too, otherwise the happy couple would have spent the time they should have been greeting guests plating up lasagne. There were several of us serving the bread and salad and things in addition to the paid staff. Also, my friend did a potluck and they made sure they had all the plates, cutlery etc etc and when it got to the day they realised they only had one pair of oven gloves so it took ages to serve everything and get it out onto the tables! I'm not saying don't DIY, just make sure you know how much work it needs on the day. There's a reason professional catering companies exist! x

  25. We used our favorite local restaurant for catering (good 'ole southern cooking). With extra side items, beverages and mountains of rolls – it still came out to only $15 a person. They made sure all our side items were vegetarian friendly and were super awesome to work with. I say check with your local restaurants and see if they cater…can't hurt…

    2 agree
  26. These are all awesome ideas. As a caterer I would love to say that all weddings should be catered. The reality is that this is not always practical or even necessary. For smaller weddings, it just makes sense to self cater. As the number of guests grow, keep food safety in mind as you ask friends and family to provide food. The last thing you want is food poisoning episode at your wedding. Just some food for thought. Also, consider drop off catering and hire your own server. This also saves a ton.

    7 agree
  27. The potluck thing has to be handled just right or it comes off badly. Once I was invited to a wedding (just me, no plus one) and I was instructed on the invitation to bring two potluck dishes as well as informing me where they were registered so a gift was expected as well. I didn't have enough hands to carry everything so I didn't go.

    5 agree
  28. Be careful with brunch or finger foods-If going through a traditional caterer they are not always cheaper than a sturdy main course. It's all about the ingredients and what the caterer can do with them. Mom was a part time caterer for years, and she'd have people who were very adamant that they'd save money if they did one of these things. She'd show them the breakdown of cost, and until they saw that, they couldn't believe it.

    1 agrees
  29. The only thing we did in this respect was to get our own dessert, a cupcake tower from a tiny independent vendor. We got our reception at a hotel, which had a number of advantages, but the disadvantage that they had to do the food. The cake was going to be a wedding gift of someone who changed his mind later, but seeing that the hotel desserts cost double or triple what they would at a fancy restaurant, we looked like crazy for an independent vendor. It turned out that we could get a cupcake tower for about 2 euros/person (fancy dessert: 3-4€; hotel dessert: 7 euro).

    Also, if you have a sit-down meal consider skipping a course. Here, weddings have up to three stages before main course (stand-up finger food; sitting finger food; salad or appetiser; main course; dessert). We skipped the "sitting finger food". It's different in other places of course, but if you live in a place that does starter, first and main, maybe you can skip one.

    1 agrees
  30. Our catering was from a locally owned grocery store. They had an awesome hot lunch bar (not to mention an excellent selection of gourmet sodas and beers). I used to go to it when I worked nearby, and on a whim one day, I asked if they catered. Turns out they had the longest list of options, since their hot lunch menu rotated every day, and they were the cheapest around at $12 a person!

    Check out Apple Market in Pensacola if you're in Northwest Florida/Southern Alabama.

    1 agrees
  31. I made 12 pies for dessert at my wedding!
    I made them in the weeks before the wedding and stuck them (un-baked) in the freezer. The day before the wedding I spent a couple hours rotating them in and out of the oven, and we had delicious, homemade dessert for everyone.

    3 agree
  32. We don't have a lot to spend ourselves, and I approached some friends who cater and I still can't afford their prices. There is no kitchen at our outdoor venue, so my chef fiance can't whip up anything ahead of time that can be reheated there. So we are having a cold brunch buffet we are buying/making ourselves, with croissants and pasta salad, etc for our small ceremony guests. And then for the reception of over 200 people we are having…a taco cart! There are tons of them in LA and we will end up spending about $10 per person, and it's interactive, cooked in front of you…it's like a fun activity in itself. They are even bringing a margarita machine, lemonade, churros, and they provide all the cups and plates and napkins, too. It is better than "wedding food" to me!

    7 agree
    • This is an awesome idea! And you're right – so much more fun than the traditional stuff.

  33. The option we are using for our upcoming spring wedding is Breakfast for dinner. Our caterer is only charging us $12 per person for food. We are having a brunch style dinner with beer, wine, and mimosa fountain for 200 ppl for a little over $5000.

    2 agree
  34. We're also facing the daunting task of feeding 150-200 people (we're two months engaged and eighteen months from the big day, so details are patchy) and even though I'm a chef myself, I'm a little overwhelmed by the idea of finding something affordable that will please both my anarchist vegan gluten-intolerant friends and my ancient newfie nan. Fortunately we're having a weekend event at my father's house during prime seafood season, so I'm hoping to use our connections in the area to get a good deal on bulk lobster and other magic gifts of the sea.

    But really, so far, all I am certain of it that there must be a waffle bar.

    Fortunately, though, we're endowed with many brewing friends as well as being brewers ourselves, so a yearlong festival of booze-making has begun in our community. Even if our guests are hungry, they'll be too loaded to notice!

    2 agree
  35. We are catering it ourselves brunch style! Costco (or Sam's) card gets you cheap bagels, croissants, muffins as well as sheet cake! Costco has a pretty awesome cheese selection, and their fruit is also well priced in bulk. Add this to the fact we have a friend who is home brewing a keg (or two) of beer and we have our catering down to $8.00 a head INCLUDING BOOZE! Brunch weddings FTW!

    1 agrees
  36. My advice would be to consider restaurants, particularly non-traditional ones. We're having the best Mediterranean place in town cater our wedding for much less than a traditional catering company. Honestly, I think the food will be better too.

  37. Word to the wise: unless you have a ton of patience and even more practice, DO NOT make your own cake. I'm a pastry chef, it's my job to make cakes. I have talked to far too many people who tried to DIY the cake with high expectations and it looked like a Pintrosity post. Besides, you want your cake to be absolutely perfect and if it's not, you'll beat yourself up over it and rain on your own parade. However, if you're determined to DIY it, sign up for some cake decorating classes at Hobby Lobby or Michael's. Another option is to rent a dummy cake from a bakery, have it all fancy lookin' and purchase a sheet cake to serve for a fraction of the cost of a legit 3+ tiered cake. You can even get the dummy with a real top tier for the couple. There are tons of options.

    Publix does wedding cakes for pretty reasonable prices if a proper baker isn't in the budget.

    But trust me, making your own cake is very stressful. So think hard before you fully commit to the endeavor.

    2 agree
  38. My fella and I are on a super low budget of 2000. Most of our stuff is coming from a tight knit fgroup of about twenty friends and family for everything from food to venue to decorations. For food we are doing a light "taco" bar. It's going to be all the essentials for a Mexican feast that you put together yourself at the buffet. To achieve this were going to ask several people from our gang to brown meat or cook chicken of a certain amount we give them and bring it on the day of. It'll be great because the expense would be cheaper through SAMs or something and with limited kitchen space the person we put in charge of day-of cooking just has to heat it all up and add seasoning! All the rest are cold items to be put out before.

  39. We set our wedding time at 10:30 knowing that we would be finished with the ceremony in time for lunch. My mom shot down the idea of a pot-luck wedding, and after reading some of this, I think I'm glad she did. I'm a southern bride on a budget, so my groom and I decided to do a classic southern one-pot wonder: low country boil. My aunt was recently laid off but she really wanted to offer some sort of gift, so we asked her to handle the food. We found some local fishermen that will provide us with the shrimp and crab. The morning of the wedding, she is going to pick up the seafood and throw the potatoes, corn, sausage, and seafood into a pot to boil. Then she will be off to the wedding. Everything should be done after the ceremony. This is a wonderful idea… in theory. I'll let you know how it goes come June!

    2 agree
    • Please do! I like the idea of a one-pot wonder and would like to hear about how it's received.

  40. We are doing the potluck thing. really not a big deal. We are part of a Medieval Recreation society and Potlucks are normative for us. Plus we have some pretty brilliant people. I'm sending out an email with links to all the nerdy food posts I can find. LOL

    1 agrees
  41. We are planning an "international finger food" potluck. My finance and I love travel and most of our family / friends love food / cooking so we think this will work well. My sister (who is a chef) will be making a centerpiece item for dinner (likely Moroccan kebabs and couscous salad because we were engaged in Morocco), my mom, aunt and I will make pie jars (http://greenweddingshoes.com/diy-pie-in-a-jar-treats/) for dessert, and the guests are being asked to bring all sorts of international appetizers to round out the meal — the more electic the better!

  42. We are getting married in a beer garden with a grill, we are still figuring out the details, but we have a minimum to meet, for 100 people or so, full (including top shelf) open bar and grill (burgers, veggie burgers, house made sausages and kielbasa, and anything else we ask them to throw on the grill made to order all night) tabs probably won't even completely make it there! We are having a caterer come in to do passed appetizers, salad buffet table and a welcome cheese table and hiring an ice cream truck to come for dessert and coffee. All of this for $2000 less than the restaurant we originally wanted! To be fair, we do have a bit of a budget to work with $(15,000 max total budget), but here in NYC the average is $150 a head at an inexpensive venue, which means I will be naked and barefoot and there won't be any photos haha!

  43. We are on a really low budget and we've decided to do a potluck reception. I'm doing my own RSVP cards and I plan on asking for guests to bring their favorite dish. Its a bbq potluck at the end of summer so its more informal and casual fun foods then anything. We are very laid back people so this potluck bbq suits us. plus the costs of it fits into our budget.

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