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Self Catering? Read This Guide FIRST!

You may be in a rural area where catering services are unavailable. You may want family specialties or ethnic foods that aren't available commercially. Still, the most common reason to consider self catering is a desire either to reduce costs or to have an expanded event for the same budget, such as a dinner rather than a reception.

The cost of a fine wedding supper, catered and served buffet style, is $40 to $200 per person and up. Unless you are very skilled and experienced, your cash costs for a self-catered event will start at about 1/2 what the same event would cost you locally if it were fully catered. Your costs can go up from there; with poor planning, you can do all the work and STILL pay about what a fully catered dinner would have cost. Imagine, for the cost of a large wedding dinner of 200 guests, you could buy a car, or make a down payment on a small house.

According to the Bridal Association of America, as of 2009, the average cost for a wedding caterer is $12,790 for 150 guests, which includes food, drinks, cake and service. That cost works out to about $85 per guest. You can spend less, down to as little as $20 a person, by holding your reception at an inexpensive barbecue or Chinese restaurant. You should plan on $30-$70 per guest for hot hors d'oeuvres, salads and a bar serving only wine and beer. Plan on costs up to as much as $125-$350 or more per person if you hold your reception at an upscale hotel, country club or resort and serve appetizers as well as a sit-down multi-course meal and open bar.

Here is a list of questions to ask your caterer before you make a commitment.

Be realistic about your priorities, budget and time/ energy/ people resources. Ask yourself, what are wereally celebrating and who do we want to celebrate with? If you are the bride, or the mother of the bride, be aware that responsibility for overseeing the food service on the wedding day could completely take over your attention, and rob you of your special day. If time is a problem but money isn't, you might want to hire a caterer. If you're on a budget, full catering might be too expensive. Consider using a caterer for some dishes, and spending money on a special cake or a fancy entree. You can decide just to fill in the rest of the menu with foods you supply yourself and buy from club stores. Focus your own time and energy on what you enjoy doing, and spend money or hire help for the rest. If reading recipes and planning out the affair is part of the fun, then go for it. Just make sure you have enough time to create your party successfully. If you prefer decorating, spend the time on that and order the foods from a local caterer or service already prepared.


How many is too many? It is realistic to plan on preparing meals for 60 to 125 people using home kitchen equipment. Above 125 people, costs of self catering begin to rise: rental of a commercial kitchen and food storage space, need for restaurant style serving equipment, rental of a hall or venue, commercially trained servers, carvers,and even set up and clean up crews may all have to be factored into the costs. So if you don't have much help or experience, consider keeping your crowd at around 100-125.

Why does the time of the event affect your plan? Food events such as afternoon receptions served at off hours, not at meal times, use up to 1/3 less food. On the other hand, if you schedule an appetizer buffet over lunch or right after work, your guests will devour twice as much food as they would at a standard cocktail buffet.

Menu matters! Two people with an adequate pantry can put on a GREAT buffet soup and salad dinner for 60 at 5 PM, even if the request arrives at 1 PM, even including a trip to the store, provided they have complete control over the menu; but a fixed traditional buffet in an event setting for the same group will take much more help and several days of preparation.

You can reduce costs by scheduling the start of your reception or event at a time that is not a meal time. Traditionally, these are appropriate offerings and starting times for various times of day:

  • Breakfast 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

  • Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

  • Lunch 12:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

  • Afternoon Tea Dance/Snacks 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

  • Dinner or Full Cocktail Buffet 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

  • Passed or Stationary Hors d'oeuvres 8 p.m. and later

  • Dessert 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

For weddings, if a full meal will not be offered, it is appropriate to add a line to your invitation that says "Tea reception to follow", "Hors d'oeuvres reception to follow", "Dessert reception to follow" so that guests know what to expect.

Paid staff is very expensive, but untrained waiters can be the doom of a dinner or event, so most self-catered events use a group serving method. The three most familiar methods are cafeteria style, buffet style and family style. The service method directs both food selections and amounts: pro's and con's of each are discussed later.


OK, then today is the day you start your food event notebook. Use a binder with pockets, tie a pen to it (not kidding), snap in a calendar and a wirebound 3 hole bunched notebook and and put a bunch of those clear vinyl pages to hold recipes, clippings, ads and business cards. You are about to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars and a whole lot of time. Don't waste the effort.

Besides the food safety and service concerns of any single meal event, a plan for special event food service requires you to cope with successful food storage, consideration of individual dietary needs, handling of leftovers and remainders, and the skills and availability of helpers. Again, the larger the crowd and the smaller the kitchen, the simpler things should be kept, as you will find it a 'challenge' keeping very large amounts of food both safe and delicious.

The first elements to consider are your budget and your time.

You may be thinking about enlist friends to "bring some side dishes", but this is only a tiny part of your needs. If you're intent on managing the entire event, if you are the mother of the bride, or even more critically, the bride herself, you CANNOT "do it yourself". Ignore the jokes; this is the time you need a real committee.

Months, not just weeks, not days in advance, the committee will be meeting to decide the menu, service style (sit down or buffet) and who is available to do what.

If you are hosting the event, here is your first list of"Must do's"

  • Check your liability insurance. The sponsor of any paid event has legal liability for any bad result, such as food poisoning, accident or injury. Even for a social occasion or at a borrowed facility, you, the host, can be sued. You can purchase single event insurance, if you don't have any insurance, do so.

  • First determine the budget. Dinners are VERY expensive and the most complicated to give. A relaxed, well planned reception is better than a poor dinner.

  • Cut down the number of guests to fit the budget, space, and cooks available.

  • Plan on at least 3 full-time cook-servers on the day of the event, NOT counting the bride, the mother of the bride, or any wedding party members: that's3 cook-servers for each 100 people.

  • You will need about 6 people per 100 guests to set up and serve buffet service meals. Then you need to assign an equal number of fresh new people after the event for cleanup and rental return!

  • Before selecting a menu, thoroughly inspect the kitchen you will use. Note especially the amount of oven, freezer, and refrigerator space and the equipment. Measure the oven racks and count the number you can use at once.

  • Before selecting a menu, determine the seating or eating arrangements, including time and space limits on the dining area, serving area and kitchen.

  • Before selecting a menu, decide on the serving method; "standing" reception, sit down buffet, sit down individual service, sit down family style.

  • Decide who will handle borrowing equipment.

  • Assign the duty of renting and pickup/return to a specific separate person.

  • A specific person should order and pick up ice.

  • A specific person should order and pick up the cakes.

  • A specific person should order and pick up the liquor, if any. Buy from a liquor supplier who will allow you to return unopened bottles.

  • A specific person should take on the doing table setting and lining up table decorations.

  • Make your first menu plans, with several options or alternatives. Select a menu within the skill level of your space and helpers. Select kind foods; clear or light-colored punches due to spills, meats that can be cut and chewed easily, boneless meats, non-drip vegetables and salads.

  • If you plan a dinner provide at least one entree suitable for vegetarians or other special diets.

  • The more dishes you add to your menu, the less of each particular food you will need. However, with buffet service, many people will take a small portion of each choice, especially main dishes and desserts, intending to 'taste' everything. This effect is less likely with vegetables and salads.

  • As much as possible, avoid foods that have to be served hot or cold. Select a menu that can be served safely at room temperature. "Ready to eat" foods with meat, poultry or dairy products must stay in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat. That includes pumpkin, custard, meringue or cream-type pies and cakes with egg-white frosting.

  • If you do want to serve something cold like potato salad or hot like baked beans, be sure to have plenty of ice to keep cold foods cold and chafing dishes, crock pots or Nesco roasters to keep hot foods hot. Don't forget the heavy duty extension cords or the matches, Sterno, or fuel.

  • Use recipes that you have made before.

  • Use recipes that can be made in stages ahead of time.

  • Remember you can rent freezer locker space if you must do your cooking prep ahead of time, but then safety requires you plan on the use of a walk-in refrigerator for thawing/holding this food on site.

  • Plan transport. When shopping or transporting food, load meat, poultry and other perishables inside the car, not in the trunk. Take groceries home or to the site immediately. If you will be traveling more than 30 minutes, pack raw meat, fish and poultry in ice, and other cold dishes in coolers.

  • Make equipment and hall or kitchen reservations ASAP, see the next list. Deposits will probably be required

  • Decide how you will dispose of unused and leftover food. You have to arrange ahead for freezer use; you may want to purchase a freezer.

  • Decide how will you transport food before hand and after closing, the day of the event.

Look at that list; you haven't even started cooking yet! If the task list looks awesome, it helps explain why caterers charge up to $200 per plate for wedding dinners.


Renting equipment is an important part of almost every large one-time event. You can rent most of the following items. Make your reservations very early, especially for busy months. Your equipment may not be available on the date that is your first choice.

  • Kitchens and halls

  • Coffee urns and punch bowls

  • Baking pans

  • Warming dishes and chafing dishes

  • Plates, flatware, glasses Paper products can be flimsy, but luxury brands are sturdy enough for the job. Think about the foods you'll be serving and how formal your event is.

  • Decorative candle holders, arbors, etc.

  • Tables and chairs

  • Large size cooking pots and pans

  • Large serving bowls and trays and serving utensils

  • Extra ice chests

  • Linens

  • Tents and canopies

  • Portable toilets

When renting, you should have a written agreement that specifies the exact equipment, the pick up and return times, the cost for the rental period, the penalty for late return (sometimes higher than the rental cost), the penalties for loss or damage to the equipment. Check what condition the items must be returned in: most contracts specify that dishes and glasses must be clean, for example, but what about linens? Don't forget to be exact; not like the bride's mom who discovered that the chafing dishes required a liquid fuel which was not included and was not available in her small town on the Saturday afternoon she needed it. Try to schedule pickup times during regular Monday through Friday hours, so you have time to cover errors or snafus.

You are fionancially responsible for every item you rent. Inspect everything visually when you pick it up and write onto the contract any damage or variations before leaving the shop. If boxed, take it out of the box and look at it. Count items before you use them.

If you borrow items such as silverware or punch bowls, first discuss with the owner what the value is and what you will do if the item is damaged or lost. Funny as it may sound, give the person a receipt that specifies the item and has a little description, along with their name, address and phone number. Keep a copy. This helps get the right item back to the right person, and it means you can let someone help with returning the items. Have the owner initial your copy when you return the item. Silver bowls DO get dropped, beautiful goblets DO shatter. Plan ahead.

Test every item. Plug in, turn on, or light EVERYTHING in time to get a replacement if it doesn't work.

Keep item receipts and rental contracts where you can find them. I keep them in the glove compartment of my car until the event is over and the items are returned.


Renting freezer or refigerated space is possible and helpful when preparing for really large events. Some rental companies also rent large pots and pans.

While you are doing your at-home prep, having big-enough mixing bowls and pots for cooking gobs of food can be difficult. For mixing or storage, use only food-safe plastic bags and containers, such as dishpans and plastic bus boy tubs. The tubs are available at restaurant supply houses and warehouse stores. They are not expensive. Many large plastic items, including most trash bags, are not food safe. You can mix up food in your large pans, and then reduce storage problems by dividing the food into large 1 gallon or jumbo 2 1/2 gallon zip-lock bags and refrigerating or freezing until ready to cook.

Your scrubbed kitchen sink is a big bowl, leaving room to gently and thoroughly combine ingredients with your hands. For a big baking pan, you can buy disposables, or inexpensive enamel turkey roasting pans.


Wait! You may have an idea what you would like, but before setting your menu you have a few more jobs. You have set your budget. You have checked on your kitchen and equipment. Now you need to decide your serving method.


The three most familiar serving methods for self catered events are cafeteria style, buffet style and family style. The service method directs both food selections and amounts needed. People prefer to be able to eat their meals with a fork only, especially if time is an issue. For a buffet service at a fancy event, you usually want to avoid large items that are hard to handle (whole bone-in meats or chicken breasts, spareribs, etc.)

For cafeteria or buffet service, people can't serve themselves easily with a plate in one hand especially if they are mobility impaired or serving their children also. Take a look at your serving area and try to have some space where they can set down their plates while they serve themselves, or plan to have trays or alert helpers available.

You need about 1 entree serving line for every 50-70 people. No matter which method you use, service is quicker if you have other separate service areas or "stations" for desserts, beverages, and bussing.

Cafeteria line

  • Best portion control, if servers dish up foods

  • Can be slow! See pointers on setting up service lines and areas

Buffet (self serve or carvers only)

  • Everything can be on the buffet, or salads and beverages can be placed on the tables

  • People tend to take a little more when serving themselves foods in large pans without obvious portions

  • Select dishes that people can serve themselves easily with one spoon or fork, whether main dish, salad or even dessert. Use tongs to serve items that usually require two spoons, such as a tossed salad. For health reasons, provide about 20% extra clean plates for seconds and also provide tongs for items people pick up by hand at home, such as breads.

Family style (table service of portioned amounts)

  • You need larger tables

  • You need some waiters or servers to serve the tables

  • Tends to use a medium amounts of food

  • Biggest challenges are finding and washing the service utensils, platters and bowls, and getting the food hot to the tables

I am always disappointed if every single item on a buffet is one I make at home myself. Try to plan at least one dish that is special.


Depending on your budget, you may want to calculate several different menus. On this site, there are many quantity tables to help you plan amounts of food. Generally, you calculate 1 plate per person plus 30% for each course. A sample calculation for planning a mixture of entrees is on the

Teens and Young 20's: Overall, the appetite course of a youth group or college crowd is large. Quantity is about one and one half to two times that of an adult group. Girls too! Groups of girls eat more when there are no guys present, or when they are in family groups.


You may have gotten the idea for self catering while shopping at your local warehouse store, and they do provide b great options. Still if you have never used a restaurant supplier, this is the time to learn How. Outside the big city? Fighting the crowds is not high on your list? Order your cheeses and other fine foods online. Many of the finest gourmet products are shipped overnight.


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