When picturing a wedding reception the image you have in mind may still be very traditional. White cloth napkins, expensive glassware, and a tick box option of chicken or fish. This type of catering can very easily eat away at a large chunk of your budget.
The wedding industry is changing, and with that the idea of wedding food is changing.
Now budget food options are more than just the cheaper way: they’re fun, personalized, and brimming with opportunity. Wedding guests are no longer expecting a sit down dinner to keep them satisfied through to the night.
For a small wedding of 75 people that can be $24 per head. Honestly, that’s on the low side. Catered weddings are full of surprising add-ons and minimal negotiations. It doesn’t need to be that way.
Self-catering your own wedding can be an intimidating prospect. The costs may be lower, but the time and effort soon adds up. If you want to cut costs but are unwilling to do-it-yourself, then look for outside caterers.
Especially local companies, outside caterers are much more likely to be willing to negotiate on costs and services.
Still unsure? We’ve put together the best ways to save on your wedding food. Or check out this list at Wayfaring Weddings for some fantastic options.
The best way to cut costs:
The single best way to cut wedding costs is to invite fewer people.
Obviously this isn’t for everyone, but if money is a real concern then start thinking about who you really want to be there. Any wedding, catered or self-catered, is going to have a cost per head.
Avoid a sit down, catered meal. The costs for a sit down meal add up quickly. There’s the food, the staff, the flatware. There’s very little room for budgeting.
Be careful with the venue choice. Some venues will insist on you using their catering, and then your budget is blown.
Any venue that requires you use the on-site catering should be immediately removed from your list. Off-site catering allows you to shop around.
Involve your family and friends. DIY is fast becoming a fairly standard wedding option, with more couples looking to both cut costs and add a personal touch.
Doing it yourself doesn’t mean that every single thing needs to be done by yourself. Talk to family and friends to see who might be willing to help.
Before you start budgeting
Before you start, decide what’s important to you. How important is the food, how important are the drinks, how important is the cake?
Know your guests. What they’ll like and what they won’t like. If you’re inviting a lot of elderly family members they probably won’t enjoy a help-yourself hog roast. Know your wedding as well. If you’re planning a big party, light finger foods aren’t the way to go.
The best way to budget is to get help. Ask people for their wedding gift to be providing assistance. However, if you’re having a wedding with more than 75 people, then look for outside help. By shopping around you can find cheaper staff who aren’t tied to a catering service.
Be upfront with your guests. This is incredibly important to ensure the day runs smoothly and your guests are happy. Be clear on the invitations about what kind of food you’re serving.
If the reception will only have light refreshments, let them know! Hungry guests will be unhappy guests. State clearly what they should expect
Ideas for budget friendly wedding food
If you spend any time browsing Pinterest - you probably have if you’re planning a wedding - you’ll have seen a steady uptick in DIY food popularity. As well as being easier to cut costs on, it allows you to really make the food personal.
Include other people in the set-up to do DIY at its best. Ask family and friends to help with purchasing costs as a wedding gift. Before the day, create a detailed plan of what you want available, where to get it from, who’s free to help, and how to have the day arranged.
Options include: make-your-own tacos and burritos. These are easy to buy bulk and cut the costs. Large bags of rice can be cooked in different ways to add variety, and you can buy cheaper cuts of protein and amp up the flavorings.
Like the tacos, these are easy to bulk set up. Include different burger options, add some crazy toppings, and let them at it.
Save on the basic proteins (rotisserie chickens, flank steak etc.) and add some fancy extras to keep guests full and satisfied.
Choose-your-own topping nachos or fries bar
Both are filling finger foods, so guests can dip in and out as the night progresses.
Choose-your-own topping donut or ice cream bar
Especially if you have an evening wedding, these options can be filling without breaking the bank.
S’mores open fire pit
A little more time on the set-up, but an open fire pit is a great way to get guests bonding and interacting.
Order from a local restaurant
By going to a local restaurant, you can cut costs and make a personal experience. Approach the restaurant openly in advance, and ask them what they can provide, and the pricing available.
You might be surprised by how open they are to negotiation, especially if you’re bulk ordering. A pile of pizza boxes might not seem the most elegant of choices, but it is a crowd pleaser.
Choosing a local restaurant allows you to express something of yourself. Maybe there’s a restaurant that you and your partner love? Or a place you had a memorable date? Getting them involved brings your history together into the wedding.
Picnics don’t have to be wasps and plastic cutlery, it can be a surprisingly elegant communal experience.
Bulk buy sandwiches, purchase a variety of cakes, and load up on the strawberries and cream. Many picnic foods can be made in advance, to save time on the day.
If you do choose to do picnic food, you can play this up in the wedding. Checkered tablecloths and wicker baskets will seem themed without looking cheap.
Wildflower decorations create a meadow effect. Especially if you have an outdoor wedding, picnic food can seem more like playing on a theme than sticking to a budget.
Barbecue weddings are fast becoming a popular choice. They foster a great feeling of community, are relatively cheap to do in bulk, and keep people happy.
With any luck you’ll have a freezer full of leftovers for when you get back from your honeymoon as well.
The food from a barbecue just keeps on coming, so guests can be kept happy throughout the evening. It’s an easy one to divide up tasks for as well, with lots of room for adding sides.
You might find this is one that people are eager to help with. Most families have at least one person who sees themselves as a ‘barbecue master’.
Make them happy by letting them man the grill for a bit while you relax.
This one will definitely need advance planning, and it does depend on the guests, but a potluck wedding can be really fun.
They’re surprisingly traditional, only having fallen out of favor with the rise of the wedding catering industry.
Make sure everyone is clear on what they’re being asked to bring, draw up a plan, and everyone gets cooking! For those with less kitchen skill, they can cover the basics such as rolls. You can even get some to bring booze, to cut down on the bar costs.
‘Cake and Punch’
If there’s one thing almost guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser, it’s a table full of desserts. ‘Cake and punch’ is another fairly traditional option that’s fallen out of style.
Essentially, you serve desserts and drinks, and let the guests help themselves.
If you’re looking to cut costs, the time of your wedding can be a huge saving. By having the ceremony in the morning or later in the evening, you can save money upfront. It also allows you to experiment with the reception.
A ‘cake and punch’ following a morning wedding gives guests time to eat later, while they stay comfortably full at your party. As long as you’re clear about what they’ll be getting, guests can enjoy something sweet to finish the wedding.
As with the ‘cake and punch’, an hors d’oeuvres wedding reception works best with good timing. Either let people leave early, or have them arrive later. This way, the hors d’oeuvres only need to be a nice addition, rather than a full meal.
Hors d’oeuvres can seem fancy with little effort. If you enjoy cooking, pre-made puff pastry sheets can be bought frozen and made into so many things. Alternatively, look in local stores to see what they sell that might be suitable.
This can be done to cut costs on catered meals as well. By sourcing your own appetizers, you can save large amounts of money.
Popcorn, nachos, and hot dogs, and your guests will be full and happy. This is one where you can really play into a theme.
If you can theme the wedding around the food then it seems less like a cost saving measure, and more of a conscious choice.
If you and your partner are both movie buffs, or old Hollywood enthusiasts, then this can be made very personal with only a small budget.
Hire a food truck
We’ve all seen the really cute food trucks that are now available for catering. They look good, they cut costs, and they’re fun to have.
However, if you do choose this option, research beforehand to make sure it really is a cheaper measure.
What extras may be on you? Do they provide glassware and cutlery? Will the truck need to connect to a power source? Does it have a place to park?
While there’s a lot to consider, first you must know how it operates. No one wants to spend a wedding stuck in a huge queue for food. If you decide to hire a food truck then consider the serving options.
It works best with a limited menu, and the food can be made in advance and either handed straight over or served buffet style.
Think about the cake
A huge amount of money can be sunk into a wedding cake, and it might not always be worth it. If you want to cut money on catering, then the cake is a big way to start.
Try buying a selection of ready-made cakes in different flavors to keep the guests happy. Stack a few sheet cakes and decorate with fresh flowers for a budget options that looks great in photos.
Think about the drinks
Like the cake, the drinks can be a great way to save money that most people won’t notice (especially if they’re drinking a lot).
Be upfront about BYOB, provide a smaller range of options in larger amounts, and limit the expensive cocktails.
If you’re catering your own wedding you’ll quickly learn that saving money involves making informed choices. Choosing the right ingredients is essential.
A DIY lobster roll bar may seem like a fun idea, but will probably end up double the price of a more basic burger-bar option. Look for cheaper cuts, items that can be bulk bought, and fancy extras you can get at reasonable prices.
Wayfaring Weddings has put together a list of 3 menu options for those looking to cater their own wedding. These are both complete menus and adaptable starting points, so if you’re unsure on self-catering then give this a look.
How much food do you need?
There’s much to consider when deciding how much food to buy for a wedding. Some guests will eat more, some guests will eat less, some dishes will be popular while others get left to one side.
The vegetarians will have the vegetarian option but so might anyone else who thinks it looks good.
Begin by making a detailed plan. Write what you plan to be a full meal - especially if you’re doing a choose-your-own bar.
Then, multiply your amounts by the number of guests going. Calculate into your portions any appetizers, sides, or desserts that may be included.
It’s better to go overboard than to go under, although factor into your plans that some guests likely won’t eat very much. If you can, buy extra of the things you know will keep, that way they can still be eaten after the wedding.
Especially if you’re doing a dessert wedding, then buying extras of cakes that will be good the following day is preferable over buying food that will quickly go stale.
To cut costs while still serving enough, buy extra of cheaper items. Guests might be upset to see their favorite food ran out, but they’ll be happy knowing there’s still something left to eat.
Costs to consider
Chairs and tables
Even for a picnic wedding, your guests need somewhere to sit that isn’t just a blanket on the ground. These will probably be rentals, and you can shop around for deals.
Glassware, flatware, and dishes
In many cases these will also be rented. However, it’s worth shopping around to see if you can get cheaper options for sale.
To really save money, look for compostable disposable options. They may not photograph as well, but depending on the menu and the venue, disposable is a good choice.
Even if your guests are serving themselves, most probably won’t want to be on clean up duty. Either look to outsourcing, or have a frank discussion with willing friends or family.
When they aren’t tied to a caterer, you can often find staff for cheaper.
Depending on how much you intend to do yourself, make sure you’re covered by insurance. Especially for parties at a private residence.
Other things to consider:
Timing the wedding
An early wedding or a late wedding is an easy way to save money. Encourage people to eat before they come, or head out to eat afterwards, and serve a few simple options.
Especially for a dessert wedding, if people can eat in advance they’ll be able to have fun choosing options without worrying about filling up.
Every part of a wedding needs some serious advance planning, but especially if you plan on self-catering. Create a list of allergies, who may require vegan options, and who might be willing to help.
Advance planning (and a big freezer) means you can buy food over time rather than a rush at the end - and you can take advantage of offers.
You also want to know what you’re doing so the guests can be aware. When sending out invitations be clear about the catering. If you are doing an earlier wedding with only a light buffet, be upfront. Give people a chance to plan their day.
Discuss with your venue
An open discussion will be hugely productive. The venue can tell you what they’re set up to do, and what you need to do yourself. A good venue can even share other ideas, and offer helpful options.
Discuss with your guests
In advance of the wedding, ask around and see what kind of things your guests might enjoy. You might be surprised to find how adaptable they are.
Remember, even with a relatively small guest list, you probably won’t be able to do what everyone wants. DIY bars are good because they allow people to make their own choices.
Even with an expensive, catered sit down meal, there will still be unhappy guests. Food is a very personal preference. Try and please the guests as a group, but don’t get caught up in catering to every person individually.
That said, the guests you do need to cater for are those with allergies or who avoid certain food groups. Good advance planning will navigate that minefield for you.
Keeping a coherent theme
If you’re planning a more casual, help-yourself, style dinner, then reflect that in the rest of the wedding. Don’t insist the guests wear their most expensive finery only to have them serve their own nacho cheese.
A theme can also mask cheaper choices as thematic decisions. A beach themed wedding is a good reason for a barbecue, and picking a theme for the food allows you to reduce options.
What do you want?
Yes, you want your guests to be happy, but you need to be happy first and foremost.
Choose a budget option that you’ll enjoy, that reflects your taste, and will make you happy to look back on. If the food is very important to you, try and find other areas to cut costs instead.
Pick a food you love, and the rest will come easier. If you like burgers, you’ll know how to put together a good burger bar. If you have a sweet tooth, then you can choose the best dessert options.
And if there’s one local restaurant you love, then see how open they are to catering.