Don't give your guests botulism: the secrets of a self-catered wedding

February 4 2015 | Guest post by octalpus
Jennifer Langridge - Wedding Photography
Photo by Jennifer Langridge Wedding Photography

We didn’t mean to self-cater. One day, we were looking at an all-inclusive venue. The next day we decided we hated it, hated all the caterers, and the only way to possibly represent our relationship was self-catering. Sure, there were some other discussions in between, but literally, the decision was made in a day. We wanted things the caterers couldn’t provide and we wanted an atmosphere not found in the all-inclusive places.

So we went for it. Our venue included a “caterer's kitchen” (two huge wood-fired stoves, a ton of charcoal grills, and a spigot with running water), so how hard could it be?

It turns out, catering involves a lot more than showing up and cooking food, especially when you’re expecting around 200 guests.

Here are the things I failed to anticipate, in hopes that if you decide to go down this ridiculous path, you can avoid surprises…

Caterers provide more than food

I got an amazing deal on linens from Craigslist ($500 for tablecloths and chair covers for 178 people). I went with eco-friendly disposable (compostable) palm plates and birch flatware, with recycled napkins which came out to around $400 with some incredible online deals. Chafing dishes, beverage dispensers, beverage holders for mixing and chilling beverages before they go out, and rental service items added another $400. That’s around $1300 just for the “stuff” required to serve the foods day-of. I recommend Craigslist, webstaurant.com, and local rental outlets that might have less selection but way better prices. I ended up buying a lot when it was only a few dollars less to rent, because I figured I can use a lot of this again, or loan it out to friends.

You’ll probably overestimate the amount of food you’ll need

And whatever you don’t serve, you have to deal with afterwards. The pickled/preserved route is saving me here. We’re leaving for two weeks on our honeymoon immediately after the wedding, but any jars we don’t open can simply go straight back to the cellar.

You have to be able to store your food

We bought 60 lbs of Columbia River coho salmon only to realize when we got home that it didn’t fit in our freezer (our standalone “fish freezer” had immovable shelves that couldn’t accommodate even a single whole salmon). So, we had to buy a separate freezer just for the wedding.

What you freeze, you must thaw

Additionally, anything you can prep in the days leading up to the event must be refrigerated, along with anything that comes home. We solved most of this problem with one of these. This turns a huge chest freezer used in the months leading up to the event into a huge chest refrigerator for the last week of prep. Additionally, we cheated by going full Viking… We’ve pickled/canned/preserved the bulk of our appetisers and sides to avoid needing refrigeration before, during, or after.

Food has to be held on site

Except for what is being held in chafers, or in ice serving trays, all food has to be held on site. Our venue has no refrigeration on site. See above about how we cheated to get around this. We’ve also purchased large coolers, at around $150 each, to transport fish from where we obtained it as well as to hold prepared foods day-of. Luckily, most of our friends also have huge coolers for various reasons, so we were able to borrow more. Otherwise, these giant coolers rent for around $20/each. Drinks have to be prepared and chilled in larger batches than the 1-3 gallon decorative dispensers, so add a few of those 6 gallon bucket type drink dispensers for preparation and holding.

Nathan and EJ
Wedding pies made and catered by the bride's parents from EJ & Nathan's wedding

The less you can prepare day-of, the happier everyone will be

Pies, and similarly sugary pastries, are very robust and can be prepared up to a week in advance, as the high sugar content will keep them fresh. They’re also a lot easier to handle than cake. Lentils and potatoes can be prepared a day or two in advance before serving. Sauerkraut and other fermented/pickled things only need to be chilled when you’re ready to serve. Produce in particular is fragile, so try for recipes that use cooked vegetables that will hold up a bit, or don’t require much preparation.

Breweries have case sales at the end of every season to clear out stock

If you hit these up, you can get craft beer for roughly the same price as mainstream cases. Wineries are less inclined to have blowout sales since their product gets better with age, but you can frequently find great case sales or two-for-one deals through larger volume stores. Watch for sales and rebates on liquors as well, if you want to provide those. Select one or two signature cocktails that you can pre-mix punch-style for maximum savings and day-of ease.

You don’t want to be remembered as the couple that gave everyone botulism

You should probably brush up on safe food handling procedures. In Washington, the online class and exam for a food handler’s permit costs all of $10 and is easy to breeze through. It’s not a bad idea to take it (and have everyone who will be overseeing food take it, too). Food thermometers are cheap, but someone needs to check them at least hourly. To ensure no one gets distracted from monitoring food that’s out and keeping empty dishes rotated, consider hiring help. I’m hiring three students from a local community college’s culinary programme (they’re already licensed for food handling!) at $100/person flat for eight hours of work. $300 is a tiny blip when it means knowing everyone will have safe food readily available.

It’s not always cheaper, but self-catering guarantees you can get what you want

We didn’t necessarily do it “cheap,” but it was incredibly important to us to use locally sourced foods and game foods native to our region. We managed to offset a few pricier ingredients by preparing the rest ourselves and getting good wholesale deals. If we’d done a less fancy menu, we probably could have gotten away for cheaper. It’s all about deciding what’s important to you. Even with the splurges and stuff I can re-use, we still only came out to about $10/head (for food, not including beverages or table settings) for a MUCH nicer menu than what a low-cost caterer could get us.

I hope that if I get folks thinking about these things in advance, you’ll be in a better position to decide whether it’s worth going this route before you’re committed to it. Nothing like realising a week before the wedding that you need to buy a new refrigerator because you lack space for all the prepared foods!

Whatever you decide — good luck! Hopefully your day will reflect all the love and care you’ve poured into it.

  1. I think it really does depend a lot on the specific things you have in mind for a self catered wedding dinner. In my family, it's fairly standard tradition for the wedding meal to be a buffet, and we've usually done it ourselves, so I have the advantage of being able to let my experienced older relatives walk me through it all!

    It helps to keep it simple, and enlist help. The way we usually do it, all the close relatives will bring a dish each towards the buffet – that'll cover salad, home-made coleslaw, jars of bought-in dip, a couple of different pasta bakes, a chilli and probably a big, resealable tub of cold, cooked chicken drumsticks. Mum will be doing one of those massive paellas you see in markets – a sausage and chorizo one, most likely. There will be a table of fruits, cheeses, breads, crackers, sliced cured meats (maybe we'll pick up one of those whole dried and cured legs of ham – those keep for months at room temperature and we'll be able to enjoy the leftovers for a long time to come!) and chutneys. Bake up a bunch of potatoes and there'll be enough main course for everyone to stuff themselves silly. Much of that can then be kept to one side in a cool room for hungry party people to nibble at later between drinks, or for midnight feasting for those staying for the camping overnight. As far as dessert goes, we'll be having a traditional British fruitcake for the wedding cake, so a selection of pies and cupcakes would probably be the simplest way to handle things – nothing using fresh cream, of course, because that'll put a short shelf-life on the food and make it necessary to bring in refrigeration.

    With the exception of the wedding cake, almost everything will be coming in at the same time as the wedding party and guests themselves and just getting dropped off straight in the building the reception takes place in, and very little of it will need to be kept cool for long – everyone will be bringing stuff in ice-packed freezer bags, anyway.

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    • Good point! This is entirely from the perspective of self-catering, rather than a potluck. Potluck meals are an entirely different beast and we weren't willing to jump into that particular game of roulette, but maybe my fellow tribesmaid Emma (and my FH's groomsmaid) might have something to post about that! We wanted a very specific menu, but not one local caterers could provide, which had some challenges we weren't entirely prepared for, but that we managed to overcome.

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      • Pot Lucks are a touchy subject.

        I know when one of my husband's friends got married. The wedding invite said "Pot Luck."

        I flipped my lid. We were one of the few people who were coming out of town (wedding was in Maine. We live in Maryland). We stayed at my mother in law's place and I was not about to ask my mother in law to use her kitchen (plus it was a very quick turn around. We had enough time to drive to the wedding the day before we were wiped out, never mind having to worry about cooking something, unless we went and got a bucket of chicken at the grocery store on the way to the wedding).

        The person was lucky that we drove 800 miles one way to be at his wedding, bring a gift, AND bring a dish. No way. The person said he know he was going to have enough food and told us not to worry about it. Luckily there was stuff I like (I am picky and I don't eat pork or cheeseburgers).

        My point being is that pot luck is fine if it is family members only and maybe very close friends or they will be doing the "catering" for the wedding if it going to be more people past family members and close friends. But to invite 100 people to your wedding (which in this case a lot of the invitees were above casual friends, but not close friends to help out with the wedding if that makes sense) and expect people to bring themselves and a gift and a dish is pushing it (unless the gift is the dish, like more time involved items like baking a turkey, brisket, baked bean, or the actual wedding cake/cupcake/pies (and expensive also).

        I did mention in a posting a while back on another subject, that sometimes doing something yourself might not be the cheapest way to go, esp. if you are doing everything yourself, unless you enjoy crafting or baking and don't mind doing that part of the wedding yourself or you have friends that as their gift to you for your wedding (or baby shower or other religious or non-religious life events that require gifts or planning (like birthday parties)).

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  2. My fiancé and I own a catering company… We already own all the chafers, linen, service ware, etc… Even the chocolate fountain! As much as my family is "forbidding" doing all the work on our wedding day, I don't think I can relinquish control to an outside caterer! Especially for what they charge, when I know exactly what it cost to buy the product.

    I really just want to rent a charcoal grill and go to town cooking steaks in my wedding dress!

    We're also planning on a food truck for a late night snack. And a smores bar with marshmallows made by yours truly.

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    • Hi, Chelsea – I love your ideas and your wedding menu sounds fantastic! I do love a s'mores bar. However, as much fun as it sounds to cook/assemble food in your wedding gown, please, from one hospitality professional to another, I implore you to delegate that to a trusted employee or colleague. This isn't just the biggest catering gig of your life … this is your wedding day. I've been there, I've been you, and it's different. Hire a line cook who wants to audition for a job with your company and have your best banquet captain coordinate the day … or hire a local coordinator to help you pull it off. Please promise this married, 25-year veteran of the wedding industry that you'll at least look into it? xoxoxoxox

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  3. Great post. We are planning on a semi-self catered wedding. We are looking at a large wedding–between 200 and 250–and we are going to make tamales for the entree and then cater in beans, rice, chips, salsa, and guacamole from Chipotle. Tamales seemed like a good idea because we can make them up to a month ahead and then freeZe them. And then we are planning on hiring someone to do the set up/ serving the day of.

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  4. Holy bajeezers! Kudos to you not only for self catering a large number of guests but also for keeping all those other things into consideration including taking a food safety class. I swear, some of you ladies sound like you could run small companies. Amazing!

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  5. OMG! What you are describing sounds like the wedding we are planning for this December at Kitsap Memorial State Park! lol. Originally we were going to have it catered by a local company but some life circumstances changed our budget and now we're on the fence on whether or not we can afford to do it that way. And from the beginning my mom has been nagging me about "why don't you just save money and do potluck?". So now we are considering it since most people are no more than an hour away. But I still want people to have fun and relax, so we're going to ask a little shop by the Kingston Ferry terminal if maybe they can cater their AMAZING crepes for a reasonable cost and ask everyone to bring their favorite side/appy or dessert. Although mom also had the idea to things in the afternoon so people don't expect as much food but I think that may put too much strain on getting everything done for the day.
    We've tossed around doing a BBQ in their "cater's kitchen" but just don't know if we can pull it off. And it doesn't usually get super cold here but its still winter, likely to rain (and if I get my wish will snow) and will probably be cold enough that most people will not want to hang out in the outdoor covered kitchen.
    Thank you for the tips tho!! Those may come in handy!!

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    • Betsy – Ours is at Kitsap Memorial, too! Hit me up on the Tribe. We should totes be friends so you can learn from my disasters… er… experiences. 😀

      • Er, sorry… I mean Becky! My bad… I was replying from my phone. But yes, the entire post was written about my upcoming wedding at Kitsap Memorial. We're using the "catering kitchen", as rustic as that is. The ranger suggested covering everything in foil as the salt water causes the grill tops to rust at an astronomical rate. Also, the roof of the hall leaks when it rains. If it's been raining for a while, the shingles will absorb the water and swell and then the leaks are sealed, but if we have a dry spell and then rain, you will totally get a few drippy spots inside. I hope it's not an issue for either of us, but definitely something you should be aware of!

        Also, with people being an hour away, I always forget but it's totally an ordeal to get out from Seattle. If you drive around, Tacoma traffic can be a cluster on the weekends. The "super quick" ferries from downtown or Edmonds get backed up and people have to get there early to wait. So while technically you can get there in 1-1.5 hours, it's usually 2-3 hours on the clock from the time someone leaves their house… and it doesn't always align with your projected start times. Just something to consider if you have folks bring a dish. Fortunately, it also means that they'll probably bring a cooler or something to keep it cold on the way, so that's one problem solved. 🙂

        Another thought is Mad Moose Pizza. They've been doing a truck that they had at Valholl Brewery on Fridays all summer and their prices were super reasonable. I had thought of asking them if we could arrange them for our event (because pizza pies for Pi Day!!), but ended up going the self-catered route instead.

  6. Where did you acquire the culinary students? That is EXACTLY what I need! I have been thinking about self catering but didn't want to be completely in control and responsible for the setting up and serving but I didn't know where to hire cheap help besides some random craigslist people lol

    • I searched all the local community colleges to see if any of them offered a culinary arts programme, then emailed the instructor. He had me send the details which were posted on a bulletin board in the classroom and students who were interested were able to email me directly. I wasn't sure it would be an option since the school didn't run a catering service, but they were happy to offer an opportunity for a day's work to their students.

      • Thank you! We are getting married in the Seattle area as well. Any colleges in particular that you had luck with?

        • I was out on the peninsula where Olympic College was my closest bet, but if you're in Seattle proper, Seattle Central has a *fabulous* culinary programme. There's also Edmonds Community College up north, Lake Washington Institute of Technology for the east side, South Seattle Community College for West Seattle, Renton Technical College down south… tons of options! You're best off finding a school closest to your venue, since travel time can be excessive to some areas. I ended up pulling in a couple friends to help as well, but none of them were very familiar with how the ferries work and they all ended up running super late.

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