How to Get Great Wedding Catering (for Cheap)

How can you cater your wedding for cheap? As most of us don’t plan events for a living, that means huge sticker shock when we learn how much it costs to throw the most important party of our lives.

If you’re catering on a budget, don’t sweat it. You can feed a crowd for cheap without skimping on quality. While some of the cheapest food to cater includes tacos, burritos, and barbecue, if you’d prefer more formal fare there are myriad ways to cut costs through the process. Making frugal choices — such as food truck catering or cocktail style receptions — can get your price down to as low as $35 per person.

Keep reading this article and you’ll be able learn the following:

  • What is a normal price for wedding catering?
  • Why is wedding catering so expensive?
  • How do I get it for cheaper?

How much is wedding catering?

The average wedding catering cost, according to the Knot’s 2017 Real Weddings Study, is around $9600. That’s for food and drink, and the services needed to serve all your guests. The average number of guests at a wedding is 136, so it all comes out to about $70 per person. This does not include the cake.

And remember that these are average numbers. For major metro areas like New York and Los Angeles, those prices will be higher, where other areas costs will be lower.

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What makes wedding catering so expensive?

Ingredients: It’s a no-brainer that lobster costs more than tilapia and organic, seasonal, or farm-to-table ingredients cost more than bulk staples purchased at wholesale restaurant suppliers.

Service style: It’s not only what you serve, it’s how you serve it. There are six service styles of wedding catering to choose from

  • Plated – Like a full service restaurant, guests stay seated while individually plated meals pre-ordered from response cards are delivered by waitstaff
  • Family-style – Guests eating family style serve themselves from a large central platter brought to their table by waitstaff
  • Buffet – Guests go to a table where pre-prepared parts of the meal are either added to their plate by the guests themselves or by servers manning the buffet
  • Stations – A series of buffets each specializing in different types of food or parts of the same meal; stations can either be self-serve or manned by a chef that prepares dishes made-to-order (often referred to as an “action” station).
  • Cocktail-style – Bite-sized hors d’oeuvres are served all evening instead of having a sit down dinner
  • Food trucks – Mobile kitchens designed to serve food anywhere; typically orders are taken at the window and guests wait briefly while food is made-to-order

Ultimately the cost associated with each of these food service styles really comes down to three not-so-obvious factors: kitchen infrastructure, staffing and the amount of food served per person.

The 3 hidden costs of catering

1. Kitchen Infrastructure:

If you’re like so many couples, you’re on the hunt for a cool, alternative venue that fits you.

But if you’re planning to get married in an open field or an art gallery, it might be incredibly expensive to bring in temporary, commercial-grade facilities to cook dinner on site and clean up the mess afterwards.

Think equipment (like stoves, ovens, fridges, hot boxes, three compartment sinks, prep tables), the generators and propane tanks to fuel this equipment, fresh water, and tenting to keep food sanitary. You might even need to pay to have a fire marshal on-site if there are open flames.

All of this stuff adds up.

2. Staffing:

Labor is a huge cost for a caterer, so anything that adds staff on your special day is going to affect pricing.

The service style you choose might require servers to bring and take away plates and platters, cook at “action” stations, man the buffet, or hand-pass the hors d’oeuvres. More hiring = more money.

And staffing doesn’t stop at cooking and serving the meal.

Another thing to consider is the amount of time and labor required to wash all of the dirty dishes your guests have made at the end of the evening.

3. Food Quantity:

“Let’s make everything self-serve then!” Well, not so fast.

When guests are able to serve themselves, they tend to:

  • Overfill their plates
  • Take “a little bit of everything”
  • Take larger portions of the things they like
  • Come back for seconds or even thirds.

Meaning, your caterer needs to buy and cook more food than they would have compared to a plated, or family style dinner where portions are controlled.

That’s why a staffed buffet or stations with servers are often closer in price to a plated dinner than you might expect.

The same goes for cocktail style service.

More bites are needed for a self-serve hors d’oeuvres station. Because of that, it can often be the same price as passed hors d’oeuvres which requires fewer bites, but additional serving staff.

So how do I save money on wedding catering?

We believe food truck catering is your best bet and here’s why:

  • Quality for less: A lobster roll from a food truck is going to be much less expensive than a whole, plated Maine lobster. And in most cities, you can get every imaginable type of cuisine; from classic tacos to chef-driven menus designed around fresh, seasonal ingredients at super reasonable rates.
  • No infrastructure needed: This is where food trucks have a big advantage – they’re literally kitchens on wheels making them the best choice for alternative venues. Watch the food truck pull up, cook a great meal for your guests and drive away with the mess.
  • Made-to-order meals: A limited food truck menu preserves the ability for guests to choose what looks good on the spot, while controlling for the amount of food served on each plate. Less food waste for the caterer equals more savings for you.
  • Minimal staff: Most food trucks only need to staff 2 – 3 people for your wedding day since guests bring their own meals to the table and couples often choose to use disposable dinnerware.

Entry-Level Pricing for Different Service Styles

For all the reasons listed above, the average cost of a food truck typically falls in the $20-$35 per person range for a wedding reception dinner.

Coming in at #2, is a cocktail style reception. Great for extended mingling but can add up to surprisingly big bucks.

12 – 15 bites in an evening is usually what it takes to make a full meal. Even at a conservative $2 – $4 per hors d’oeuvre, this can add up to a $24 – $60 per person.

The next most affordable option? Buffet, stations and family style are all tied. These service styles are a good fit for couples who want a more traditional vibe than food truck or cocktail style service.

Expect to shell out between $25 and $65 if you spring for family style dinner, a couple action stations, or a manned buffet cooked on site.

Willing to compromise to get a better deal?

Opting for self-serve buffet or stations will likely save a few bucks per person.

You might also want to consider a cheaper “drop off” style buffet with disposable serving ware and trays. This is an especially great option if you don’t have an on-site kitchen, but be prepared for food quality to suffer versus cooking on site.

Finally (and shocking no one) plated service is the loser coming in at a whopping $35 – $70 per person (on the low end) for a basic entree with a salad course. And it only goes up from there, often to over $100 per person.

The most traditional and formal of all service styles, the extra staffing needed to execute plated service before, during, and after the meal drives up the cost.

So you’re saying I can get plated catering for $35?

Probably not. That would be best case scenario. And definitely not if any of the below are true for you:

  • You’re having your event at a hotel, country club, or other venue where they require you to use their in-house caterer – you’re a captive audience so they can charge you more!
  • The cost of living is more expensive in your city
  • You want to serve fillet and lobster instead of chicken and fish
  • You need to rent kitchen infrastructure because your venue doesn’t have one
  • You bought a wedding cake that needs to be cut, plated and served

Expect each of these factors to inflate the price of whatever service style you select.

What’s the bottom line?

Wedding catering is expensive. The more guests you have, the more it costs, so the first step might be to reduce the number of guests you invite.

If you’re committed to your final guest count and you still want to save, stick with food trucks. Just make sure to secure a venue that’s not too remote and that will allow them.

Want help booking a caterer your wedding? Roaming Hunger can help you find some great wedding catering options.

Having your wedding in Southern California? If you need help with wedding planning in the SoCal area, visit Crafted Weddings.

Their website will help you build a wedding package with upfront pricing from a curated list of wedding venues, catering, rentals, and florals.