Most brides (and even their grooms) dream of serving their wedding guests filet mignon and free-floating Champagne, but only have the budget for chicken picatta and the house white wine.
The cost of feeding guests adds up quickly. Gourmet-loving couples can easily blow 50% of their reception budget, or a little more than a quarter of their total wedding expenses, on food and alcohol. That’s roughly $5,000 to $7,000 based on an average wedding budget of $20,000. (Don’t choke on your wedding cake, though: planners say that tally also includes barware and service.)
Scaling back the number of guests is one way to cut costs, but that only goes so far. There are plenty of ways to get creative with the food you serve, without making cutbacks obvious to guests — or compromising on quality. Here are ten.
Order in season
Pick menu items that are in-season and locally grown. The food tastes better and costs less, says Megan Weisberg, a wedding consultant based in San Francisco.
Pass hors d’oeuvres
Have waiters pass appetizers during the cocktail hour instead of setting up a buffet, says Meghan Ely, managing director of the Richmond Bridal Association. You’ll pay a little more for service, but can cut food costs by controlling quantity. “People are picking up one piece at a time instead of approaching a display of shrimp and loading their plate,” she says.
Enlist a culinary school
Stacey Grieve of Toronto decided to host her black-tie reception at the student-run restaurant of nearby George Brown College instead of a country club, cutting the bill by 60% in the process. “The guests were a bit surprised,” she admits. But they were quickly won over. “Everyone kept telling me it was the best wedding food they’d ever had,” Grieve says. They felt pampered, too, with 25 students attending to 114 people.
Culinary programs can also be a great source of wedding cake. Frugal Foodie and a few of her friends have purchased theirs from a local trade school, paying roughly $3 per slice for a four-tiered confection instead of the $8 and up other established bakers charge.
Stick to cake
Cake is enough dessert for most guests, Ely says. They won’t miss a separate dessert plate or buffet table.
Scale back menu options
Weisberg points out: If you were hosting a dinner party, you wouldn’t give guests a choice of three entrees, would you? Pick one main course, or do a build-your-own bar with tacos or pasta.
If you do go the multiple-entrée route, keep it to two similarly priced foods, says Shayna Walker, the owner of Williamsburg Wedding Design. Caterers usually charge the rate of the more expensive option across the board to account for guests who switch at the last minute, she says.
Newlywed Lauren Holmes of Atlanta was so excited to share this tip that she chatted with Frugal Foodie the day before her wedding amid bridal party preparations. The couple had been set on celebrating at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation, but found the starting price of $125 per person for dinner too high. (They were hoping to spend closer to $75.) Switching to brunch let the couple stick with their chosen site and their budget. Holmes picked out entrées including shrimp and grits, salmon, and pork tenderloin — and paid a bargain $47 per person. “We figure people won’t drink as much either,” she says.
In fact, the savings were enough that Holmes set up a second late-night reception with s’mores and drinks at the resort fire-pit for the guests who stayed over.
Skip the shots
If you’re hosting an open bar, ask the bartenders to adhere to a “no shot” policy, Weisberg says. Enthusiastic revelers often order rounds for their entire table, some of which go unconsumed. “Eliminating that option helps keep down the added costs of late-night trips to the bar,” she says.
Schedule at off times
“People don’t expect to eat dinner at three in the afternoon,” Walker says. Time your reception to avoid major meal times, and you can get away with a light meal or dessert-only reception. Just make sure you invitation reflects what people can expect — some purposely go hungry with the expectation of ample wedding food.
Create kids’ meals
Most caterers are willing to craft cheaper, small plates for younger guests. “If you put a filet in front of a kid, they’re not going to appreciate that,” Ely says. “They’ll appreciate the chicken fingers.”
Because Mark Gavagan of Mendham, N.J., got married at a historic gardens site in the Berkshires, he was able to bring in his own alcohol from a local liquor store, and cut the bill from $23 per person to $17. (Brides and grooms may be able to do this at certain venues. Consider buying from discount clubs like Costco, which sell alcohol to nonmembers.) Gavagan arranged to have the store take back unopened bottles, but was still left with plenty of partially consumed bottles. He’s willing to look on the bright side: “We’ve had a very well-stocked bar for years, for other parties.”
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner.