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.

MENU, TIMING, CROWD SIZE, SERVING METHODS AFFECT COSTS

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.

WE'RE GOING TO DO IT!

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.