One of the aspects of weddings guests look forward to the most is the food to be served. More than anything, the food and beverages in a wedding reception help people socialize and celebrate the union of two people. However, without careful planning, food and drinks can become more expensive than you expect.
Significantly reducing the cost of your wedding food can be achieved in multiple ways. First, you can ask your guests to contribute to a potluck or a BYOB reception. Additionally, you can lessen the amount of food and drinks to be served or look for cheaper alternative ingredients.
Some of the event’s details, such as the time, location, and guest list, also influence the pricing for your wedding food. Moreover, you can decrease the amount of staffing and outsourced labor needed in various ways, such as renting food trucks, building do-it-yourself food stations, using disposable utensils and serving ware, and more.
It is generally recommended that around 40% of your wedding budget be dedicated to the venue and catering. With these wedding food cost-cutting ideas and tips, you can save more of your money to devote to other aspects of the wedding or to your upcoming married life.
Wedding Food Cost-Cutting Ideas
Have a Potluck
Simply put, potlucks are events or parties where guests have to contribute a meal or dish to be shared. This is a perfect way to celebrate the union of two families: by coming together and bringing what they can to the table.
In other cultures, potlucks are a common way to provide food at weddings. North American cultures, however, seem to shy away from the concept of a potluck, as people often look down on potluck weddings as inferior.
Having people bring and share a meal will significantly cut down your expenses. However, potluck weddings need meticulous planning so that food options will not be duplicated. Likewise, everyone must be aware of their responsibilities and duties.
Here are some easy-to-prepare meals perfect for a potluck:
- Tuna casserole
- Chicken casserole
- Cold pasta salad
- Green bean salad
- Fruit salad
- Caprese salad
- Sweet Bourbon Peach Lemonade
Have Guests Bring Their Own Booze
In the same vein, a booze potluck is also a good option to reduce your expenses. Rather than shouldering all of your guests’ cocktail needs, encourage them to bring any alcoholic beverage or liquor that they have.
If you plan on having a Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) reception, make sure to provide a variety of mixers for those who bring hard liquor. These mixers may include fruit juice, soda, and so on. Additionally, provide ice, napkins, glasses, and any tool your guests might need to mix their cocktail.
Utilize a Family-Style Service
Family-style service refers to placing communal dishes directly on the guests’ tables. Each table gets its own set of meals, and the guests will serve themselves. Not only will this ensure that everyone gets to eat the same food, but this will also encourage socialization and interaction within the table.
Additionally, opting for a family-style service reduces costs for labor, plating, and service.
Not all food will work well with family-style service. However, here are some examples of cost-friendly meals that may work well with this type of service:
- Pulled meat sandwiches
- Rice-based dishes
- Any other kind of pasta
Offer One Drink Throughout the Ceremony and Reception
Another option for cocktail hour is to simply serve a single type of drink throughout the ceremony and reception. As your guests will certainly not have the same taste in alcoholic beverages, you will not be able to cater to everyone’s preferences. However, there are universally liked or tolerated options that may be enough for your guests, such as white wine or hard seltzer.
Other options for single-drink wedding ceremonies include:
- Light macro brew beer
- Full-strength macro brew beer
- Craft beer
- Red wine
- Sparkling wine
Additionally, here are some tips to be more cost-effective when it comes to serving one drink:
- Buy red or white wine in bulk at supermarkets or warehouse stores.
- Avail of the venue’s house wine.
- Contact local breweries, cideries, or vineyards and see if you can buy a keg or two of their product.
- Use recyclable and single-use Champagne flutes and wine glasses.
- Decide on a cocktail or mocktail and premix a large amount of it. This chosen drink can be you and your partner’s favorite, a local specialty, or a drink that simply matches the color scheme of the wedding.
Schedule Your Wedding During the Daytime
Weddings held during the day are more affordable compared to afternoon-into-evening weddings, as some venues have lower rates for morning or noon schedules.
Additionally, guests often opt for lighter food options such as sandwiches, tea, basic grillables, and snack foods. These are easier and more affordable to prepare than dinner meals are.
Moreover, ending the celebration early by removing cocktail hour altogether and reducing the amount of time for dancing will lessen your wedding’s run time. Corollary to this, fewer drinks and snacks will be needed, thus saving you more money.
Take Photos of the Wedding Party Before the Ceremony
The cocktail hour is a way for guests to socialize and entertain themselves as pictures of the wedding party are taken. By having these pictures taken before the wedding, the cocktail hour will no longer be necessary. This cuts down the cost of having to prepare drinks and snacks to be served during the cocktail hour.
Ask a Friend or Relative to Host the Reception
By having a close friend or family member host the reception, they can be the one to take care of the food preparation. Not only will this save you money from having to hire caterers, but this will also make renting a venue unnecessary. This works best if the reception is an intimate affair with only your closest friends and relatives.
Have a Smaller Guest List
In line with the previous idea, reducing the number of guests invited to your ceremony and/or reception will lessen your expenses on food. Some newlyweds opt for a kids-free reception not only to give their parents an entire day of celebration and relaxation but also to diminish spending on food.
Avail a Kids Discount
If making your reception a kids-free event is not feasible, look into catering services that offer a kids discount. Typically, caterers will give discounted rates to children below the age of 12, sometimes even 16.
Once you find a caterer that offers a kids discount, you can use this as a negotiating tool with other service providers. With some discussion, you will be able to get the best deal possible.
Opt for a Smaller or Alternative Wedding Cake
Cakes associated with weddings typically have multiple tiers with elaborate designs. The average cost of these kinds of wedding cakes is around $500, with the price increasing or decreasing depending on the complexity of your desired cake.
To save money, you may choose to have fewer or only one layer of cake instead of multiple. Likewise, you may forgo a wedding cake altogether and opt for a different dessert that is more affordable, like cupcake bars or donuts.
Bakeries that offer wedding cake services usually also have specific alternative options. Ask your baker during a wedding cake tasting appointment for a list of alternatives.
Rent a Food Truck
A benefit of opting for food trucks is the wide variety of options in terms of the menu. Corollary to this, food trucks can be adapted to the theme of your wedding.
Depending on the food truck, they may offer to serve appetizers, dinner, desserts, snacks, or any combination of the four.
Although it depends on the service provider, some food trucks charge per person or hour. Ultimately, you are still saving money through food trucks rather than going with a traditional caterer.
Here are some types of food trucks and the cuisine they serve:
- Belgian waffle food trucks – Belgian waffles are an excellent option for a brunch reception or a late-night snack. There are many flavors to choose from, ranging from savory to sweet. Belgian waffle food trucks sometimes also serve salty snacks to contrast the waffle itself.
- Self-serve Champagne trucks – as the name suggests, self-serve Champagne trucks contain Champagne or any alcoholic beverage of your choice. However, it is usually the customers’ (i.e., the couple) responsibility to stock the truck with alcohol. The food truck will provide staff and servers.
- Pizza food trucks – each guest can customize their slice of pizza according to their preference. Many pizza food trucks also have bartending services as well; additionally, they also have options for greens and salads for a balanced meal.
- Shuck trucks – shuck trucks serve fresh seafood such as clams and oysters shucked by expert caterers. Before renting a shuck truck, make sure that none of your guests are allergic. This can be done through an RSVP or a form you send out during the wedding planning.
- Ramen food trucks – they serve authentic ramen noodles. The flavor profile is completely customizable, as guests can choose the level of spice they can handle. Vegetarian options are available as well. Moreover, various toppings such as pork, soft-boiled eggs, corn kernels, and dried seaweed are also in stock.
The downside of renting food trucks for your wedding is the additional logistics to take into account. Here are some things to consider when looking into hiring a food truck:
- Does it require a power supply or generator?
- Will the venue be able to provide the power supply or generator?
- Is there space available for the food truck to park?
- Will utensils and dishes be included in the rental?
Do-it-Yourself Food Stations
As the name denotes, do-it-yourself food stations consist of ingredients laid out in a specific area where the guests will build their own meal.
This is cost-effective because you do not have to pay a service fee for chefs and servers; instead, your guests will make and get the food themselves. This also gives them more variety and freedom with their meal.
Here are some examples of do-it-yourself food stations:
- Salad bar – offer a variety of fruits and vegetables such as romaine lettuce, asparagus, carrots, tomatoes, and olives. Include some meat options such as salmon and chicken breast. Give your guests options for dressing as well, such as vinaigrettes, ranch dressing, and other homemade or store-bought dressing. Other foodstuffs you can include are hard-boiled eggs, pistachios, and quinoa.
- Burger or sandwich bar – generally, you should include options for bread, meat, toppings, and spreads in a burger or sandwich bar. For bread, you may opt for homemade hamburger buns, focaccia, pita bread, and more. Common meat choices are chicken patties, bacon, grilled chicken, and so on. For fillings and toppings, some options to include are onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and vinaigrettes.
- Taco bar – this is perfect for a Tex-Mex-themed wedding. To start, give your guests some options for tortillas and shells. For meat, you may prepare some seasoned ground beef, chicken, or grilled steak. Cheese options include the shredded Mexican blend of cheddar, pepper jack, and/or Monterey Jack, and queso fresco. Pico de gallo and salsa verde are good salsa options, though you may want to provide salsas with varying degrees of heat. Lastly, extra toppings include guacamole, lettuce, jalapeños, hot sauces, and sour cream.
- Dessert bar – this can be served alongside your wedding cake or replace your cake altogether. Dessert bars contain specific desserts and sweets that your guests can consume. Examples of dessert bars include ice cream bars, churros bars, s’mores bars, cookie bars, donut bars, waffle bars, and cupcake bars. Additionally, you can also put a fondue fountain surrounded by various wafers, candies, and fruits.
- Refreshment bar – set up a station with multiple options for beverages. This can include a punch, lemonade, iced tea, sodas, and containers or kegs of alcohol and wine.
Hire a Basic Buffet Service
Basic buffets typically consist of filling but cost-friendly sides and a couple of meat and vegetable dishes. A basic buffet is cheaper and easier to prepare than a larger buffet; likewise, it also requires less manpower to operate.
Order from a Local Restaurant
This is a great option for couples with a favorite restaurant or a favorite type of cuisine. Some restaurants may charge as little as $7 per head, which may even include the dishes, cutlery, and serving equipment. They may also serve the food in the style of a buffet.
The benefit of partnering with a local restaurant to cater for your wedding is that negotiating the rates is usually easier. If the restaurant is particularly well-known among the guests, then it is guaranteed that the food will be enjoyed by everyone.
Instead of hiring their catering service, you may also simply order a sizable amount of takeout from the local restaurant. Multiple boxes of large pizzas are inexpensive alternatives to buffet-style service. This is best if the pizzeria you will order from is well-known among the locals.
Make sure to negotiate with the restaurant first. Typically, they will either charge less or offer a discount for bulk orders. Fast-food chains and medium-sized restaurants may be able to provide food for 150 to 200 guests. With that said, it is important to ask them how much they can accommodate.
Stick to a Theme
Sticking to a theme has multiple benefits. Firstly, by planning to serve an assortment of food that falls under one theme, you can spend less on ingredients. This is because related foods have similar components and ingredients.
Additionally, serving a variety of food that, although basic, has a consistent theme, its overall appeal and appearance will be enhanced.
Here are some examples of themes for your wedding food:
- Tex-Mex – food options include nachos, fajitas, chili con carne, queso, enchiladas, and tacos. You can set up a taco bar for your guests to customize their tacos.
- Japanese – food options include sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, yakitori, sake, and more. You may also have a yakiniku, which means “grilled meat.” It is the process of preparing various cuts of meat and cooking it on a grill at a table in a family-style service. Additionally, you can rent a ramen food truck for authentic ramen cuisine.
- Vegetarian – not so much a theme as it is a dietary restriction; a vegetarian menu does not contain meat, fish, and poultry. Depending on the kind of vegetarianism you practice, you may include eggs and dairy products — the most well-known and followed vegetarian diet (lacto-ovo-vegetarian) allows the consumption of eggs and dairy. Salad bars are popular for vegetarian wedding menus. Additionally, there are plant-based alternatives to products made of meat. Tacos, pizzas, stir-fries, and pasta dishes can be modified to fit into the vegetarian diet.
- Grillables – this is perfect for daytime weddings during the summer. Grill hotdogs, patties, and some vegetables for skewers. Additionally, you can set up an adjacent burger bar complete with a variety of buns, toppings, and condiments for guests to construct their own burger.
Use Disposable Cutlery
As caterers or service providers may charge for utensils and other serving ware, using disposable and eco-friendly alternatives will lessen the fees. Some venues do not allow this, so make sure to inquire with the staff before proceeding to make a decision.
When doing a potluck or having someone host your reception, utilizing single-use utensils and serving ware will reduce the amount of work to attend to once the party is over. You will also avoid breaking any plate or glass or losing any valuable equipment.
No Passed Appetizers
Passed appetizers are individual appetizers offered to guests by servers that weave through the crowd. This type of appetizer is usually more expensive than buffet-style appetizers because it takes more preparation using costlier ingredients.
By avoiding passed appetizers, you will save money from the pricier ingredients and more labor-intensive preparation. Additionally, you will not have to hire servers and pay them for their service.
Another benefit of serving appetizers in a buffet is it promotes socialization among the guests.
Buy Off-the-Shelf Appetizers
Serving off-the-shelf appetizers instead of making all of them from scratch will save you money and time. You can buy them in bulk at warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and Costco or supermarkets and grocery stores.
However, simply serving off-the-shelf appetizers alone may send the wrong message to your guests. With some effort, here are a few tips to make off-the-shelf appetizers more appealing:
- Make your own sauce, garnish, and toppings from family recipes.
- Be creative in how you plate, style, and serve off-the-shelf appetizers. Instead of using simple and single-use plates, try utilizing wine glasses, cutting boards, Champagne flutes, and other dishware that can elevate the look of the food.
- Skewer fresh vegetables of varying colors and sizes.
- If you’re into arts and crafts, make cards and labels that contain the food’s name, ingredients, possible allergens, and any other pertinent information.
Limit Booze Intake
Aside from having a BYOB wedding reception, there are other ways to reduce and limit the booze intake during your wedding:
- Do not serve alcoholic beverages before dinner. Although it is called a “cocktail hour,” it is not imperative that you serve cocktails. Nonalcoholic beverages such as iced tea, soda, and water with citrus or berries are good and less expensive alternatives.
- Serve water or other nonalcoholic beverages for dinner. Instead of wine, a glass of water or iced tea may be a better accompaniment for dinner. This is because, presumably, the cocktail hour has just finished. If you serve wine or any kind of alcohol, your guests may become tipsy and rowdy.
- Close the bar when it is time for dinner. This goes hand-in-hand with serving nonalcoholic beverages with the guests’ meals. If you plan on closing the bar for dinner, make sure to clearly announce its closure several minutes in advance to inform the guests. Similarly, have the bar reopened several minutes before it is time to toast so that guests can procure new drinks if necessary.
- Limit the operation of open bars. In some weddings, drinks are only free during cocktail hour and around an hour after dinner. Some weddings include one or two complimentary tickets or stubs for the bar in each invite or RSVP. The paywall may encourage your guests to moderate the amount of alcohol they consume.
- Only serve a signature cocktail or mocktail. This can save you money because instead of having to buy ingredients for multiple kinds of cocktails or mocktails, you can buy ingredients for one kind in bulk.
- Do not serve hard alcohol. Lighter alcoholic beverages tend to be cheaper than harder liquor. Some options include macro brew beers, hard seltzers, craft beers, and ciders. White, red, rosé, and sparkling wine can also be substituted for hard liquor.
- Do not serve any alcohol at all. Instead, offer a variety of nonalcoholic beverages for your guests to choose from. This includes iced tea, lemonade, soft drinks, and so on. This can also save you money as an open bar will no longer be necessary for dry weddings.
Forgo the Champagne Toast
Providing Champagne to all of your guests can become expensive depending on how large your guest list is. The cheapest bottle of sparkling wine you can find on bottom shelves is around $5; in-house Champagne costs at least $5 per glass as well. Not to mention the servers who will fill and distribute the flutes of Champagne.
Instead of purchasing Champagne, you may simply toast with whatever you and your guests are already drinking. Regardless of if it is a can of beer, a soda, some punch, or a mocktail, what matters is that you are having a fun and memorable special day.
Pair Heavy Appetizers with a Single-Course Dinner
Some weddings choose to serve heavy appetizers throughout the cocktail hour until it is time to toast. This allows them to serve a single-course dinner with lighter portions instead of having multiple courses or a buffet-style dinner.
The heavy appetizers will get the guests feeling moderately full. Thus, the single-course dinner may be enough to satiate the guests. Examples of heavy appetizers include:
- Beef sliders
- Bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp
- Skewers with chicken or pork
- Cups of tuna tartare
- Spinach-and-ricotta pastries
An option for the single course is any soup that is filling. As long as the weather is not too hot, a substantial soup such as clam chowder or tomato bisque is the perfect alternative to expensive and multiple-course meals.
Forgo the Dinner Completely
Instead of a single-course dinner, you may also choose to serve only heavy appetizers throughout the night. This is a daring move that requires a lot of thought, as some may view this non-traditional approach as shocking.
However, at the end of the day, it is your special day, not theirs. If you and your partner decide to have a non-traditional wedding without a dinner, then you are more than welcome to have it.
Find Cheaper Alternatives to Costly Ingredients
Some ingredients are costly, but by doing enough research, you can find cheaper alternatives with the same taste and quality.
Lamb chops, filets, and prime ribs are expensive cuts of meat. Instead, you may opt for sirloin tips or flank steak that can be just as tasty for a fraction of the price.
This also applies to expensive types of cheese. Instead of sharp cheddar, use Manchego. Instead of Gruyère, use Emmental, Jarlsberg, or Raclette. Instead of Pecorino Romano, use Piave, Grana Padano, or Parmesan.
This tip applies to any food group; there will be cheaper alternatives to costly ingredients that taste just the same, if not only slightly different.
Be Strategic and Creative with Your Plating and Food Styling
Optimizing the visual impact of your food arrangement can give the illusion that it is more expensive and thus more appealing. One way to achieve this is to experiment with color contrasts with fresh vegetables and serve them in larger quantities.
The ends of a station or buffet table are eye-catching as these are where the guests are likely to look first. Thus, placing carefully and thoughtfully plated food at the ends of the table will allure them to that food.
Tips for Planning Food for Your Wedding
Finalize Your Guest Count as Early as Possible
Whoever is in charge of the RSVP or invitations has most likely sent them months in advance. If some of the guests have not responded, give them a polite follow-up. Your guest count must be finalized as early as possible because in hiring caterers or planning the food arrangement, the number of people to feed is an important detail.
Ask Guests About Their Preferences, Allergies, and Dietary Restrictions
In an RSVP, make sure to set aside a portion for asking about the guests’ food preferences, dietary restrictions, and allergies. This is very helpful in determining which caterers to hire and what food to serve. You have to be aware of any allergens or diets so as to avoid any emergency or kerfuffle during your special day.
Sometimes, RSVPs already contain a menu or selection of entreés and dishes to choose from. Knowing what your guests would prefer to eat can lessen the stress and amount of preparation on the day of the ceremony itself.
Include an Open Call for Contributions
This is particularly important for potluck weddings. Through your RSVP or your wedding website, include a form for guests to sign up and state what food they will be bringing. If possible, have them approximate how many servings they can make.
In larger weddings, you may want to limit the number of total contributions. Alternatively, you may ask some guests to bring food, others to bring utensils, others to bring cleaning materials, and so forth.
Inquire with Multiple Caterers and Venues
Inquiring with multiple service providers can help in the decision-making process. Each catering service and venue will charge differently. By asking around and comparing their fees, you may be able to find the best deal.
Be Mindful of Venue Guidelines
As you inquire with different venues and caterers, make sure to ask about their guidelines and restrictions. Certain service providers restrict outside food and beverages or may allow some but with an additional fee. Being mindful of the guidelines not only shows your respect for the hard work the staff put into making your special day a success, but it also prevents you from getting in trouble and possibly costing yourself more money.
As with any other venue, you and your guests must practice “clean as you go.” Make sure bins are accessible, and that waste is properly disposed of.
Keep Your Guests Informed and Updated
Whichever approach you take for your wedding reception and dinner, you must let your guests know. If you choose to have a dry wedding, or only serve a single-course meal, or the event is BYOB, then you must inform your guests right from the get-go.
If any changes occur in the middle of planning, you have to update them as well. This can be done through a social media post using your engagement or wedding hashtag, a message to a group chat, or on your wedding website.
It is possible that guests may have some questions regarding your plans. Maintain a stable and consistent line of communication, whether it be through social media, text messages, emails, or phone calls. It is important to stay patient, calm, and honest as you address their concerns.
Ask for Help
Weddings are a family affair. It only makes sense that you ask them for help in planning and executing the wedding. Do not be nervous or hesitant to approach a relative or a close friend for some assistance. They will be more than happy to help you out.
Planning your wedding as a whole is an overwhelming endeavor; taking care of the food to be served is arguably among the most challenging tasks. Here are some tips on staying organized throughout the entire process:
- Make separate folders in your email and messages for every aspect of the planning.
- Keep a binder or folder of receipts, important documents, and so on. Properly label them and place them somewhere safe. You may need these later on.
- Write down the pros and cons of each venue and catering service on a document or a piece of paper. This is to prevent you from forgetting any detail and will ultimately make decision-making easier.
- Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks.
- Use a calendar to map out your days and the weeks ahead with pertinent dates and deadlines.
- Make to-do lists and sort each item based on its urgency.
- Make a spreadsheet containing each of your guests’ allergies, dietary restrictions, and other pertinent information. The catering service may ask for this.
- Make a spreadsheet of expenses to ensure you are staying within your budget.
- Make a spreadsheet of food contributions of each guest (if proceeding with a potluck.)
- If you asked for help, make a task tracker of each person’s responsibility, duty, and necessary deadlines.
Take a Break Every Now and Then
Contrary to popular belief, resting is productive. You cannot get any work done if you are constantly running on fumes. Not to mention the quality of your ideas and outputs will be significantly compromised when you are tired.
Take a break every once in a while. Meditate, check in with yourself, exercise, and do whatever you need to cope. You will find that ideas will come to you easier, you will be more motivated and inspired to work, and you will be in an overall better mood.
The ways in which you can significantly cut the expenses on your wedding food can be categorized into four broad categories:
- Asking for a friend, relative, or guest’s help (e.g., having them host the reception at their place, potluck, BYOB, etc.)
- Reducing outsourced labor and manpower (e.g., family-style service, using eco-friendly and single-use utensils, do-it-yourself food stations, etc.)
- Finding alternatives (e.g., renting a food truck, serving off-the-shelf appetizers, ordering from a local restaurant, etc.)
- Logistical changes (e.g., scheduling a daytime wedding, omitting parts of the reception, limiting booze intake, cutting the operation of open bars, sticking to a theme, etc.)