Tying the Knot in a Meaningful and Memorable Way (Without Losing Our Savings or Sanity)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Q&A: Self-Catering a Wedding Reception

Reader Question: We are in the middle of planning a wedding in Michigan in late May and are thinking of doing the catering ourselves to cut costs and eliminate vendors we don't need. I know you spent a few hours cooking on the day of your wedding and had many friends help out. Can you explain the way you set your food up, kept it hold/cold if need be, and had your guests get the food? Any details, hints, or strategies that worked would be helpful. Things that didn't work would also be helpful!

Great question!

When Matt and I were planning our wedding, we brainstormed our favorite kinds of food to eat together. Top three: Indian, Mexican, and Thai.

We decided to go with Mexican because it seemed like the easiest and most casual. When we mentioned our choice to Cathy and Cory, the innkeepers at our reception B&B, they volunteered to cater the event for $15 a head. They mentioned making a Mexican casserole and some other things.

Although that was an amazing price (relative to other catering prices), it wasn't in our tight budget. I started wondering if we could just cater the whole things ourselves.

We liked the idea of self-catering for a couple reasons:
  1. Matt and I like to cook, and we like to host parties for our friends. The thought of spending a couple hours cooking with our friends on our wedding day seemed fun. We were also convinced that if people contributed their time and energy into making the wedding happen, they would feel more connected to it and would enjoy the experience more.
  2. Self-catering can be significantly less expensive than professional catering.
  3. Like you, we wanted to minimize the number of vendors. We wanted to surround ourselves with our nearest and dearest.
However, self-catering is not for the faint of heart. My step-dad doubted the plan. My best friend doubted the plan. At times, Matt and I doubted it, too.

Our primary concerns were:
  1. How can we make sure that people can enjoy our wedding rather than work through it?
  2. How do we estimate the right quantities?
  3. How do we ensure the food tastes good?
We sat down and developed a simple menu:

Main Courses:
  • Chicken/steak/vegetable fajitas (only the meat/vegetables have to be cooked and the tortillas have to be warmed; other than that, people add their own cold toppings)
  • Mexican casserole: It was in the original plan, but our trial run didn't work out so well. We opted for tamales instead since they are pre-made and you just have to steam them.
  • Make-your-own quesadilla: We have a quesadilla maker that we set up on a table with directions about how to use it (in retrospect, I don't think we needed a third entree option)
  • Black bean and corn salad (it's served cold, which is great!)
  • Nachos: Canned cheese kept warm in a crock pot (disgusting, but it was a huge hit!)
  • Homemade salsa and guacamole with chips
  • Seven-layer dip
  • Multiple cakes from Whole Foods
We created a schedule for when things had to be done. The fajita meat had to be marinaded the night before. Everything else could be made within the two hours we set aside to cook on our wedding day.

We bought yummy pre-packaged tamales (after taste-testing a few different options for dinner). We assigned head chefs for each of the following: salsa, guacamole, seven-layer dip, black bean and corn salad, and fajitas. I asked these people to commit to being in charge of their particular thing. It completely released Matt and me from experiencing any stress on the actual day. We trusted our friends. We knew they would make it work. I also asked a few people to be sous-chefs and do whatever needed to be done for each of the captains.

I communicated with people well in advance about what recipe we would like them to follow. I also asked them to help us figure out what quantities of ingredients we should purchase.

Also, the piece that made this plan actually work was hiring Cathy and Cory--the innkeepers--to heat up the food (i.e., tamales and nacho cheese), set out everything, refill it as necessary, and clean up afterwards. We paid them $50 an hour for six hours.

This piece was crucial because I wanted my friends to fully enjoy themselves during the wedding.

The one exception was the fajita maker. He had to grill the meat and vegetables at the start of the reception. However, we intentionally set up multiple grills (borrowed from Cathy and Cory) right next to the dining area and serving table so our Fajita Manager, Brent, wouldn't be isolated. Plus, we asked one of his good friends to help him so he would have company (in the end, more people went over to help him, so he wasn't lonely at all).

In terms of serving the food, Cathy and Cory set up a row of big, long tables and people were asked to serve themselves. We had a guest list of 80, and the line didn't seem slow at all.

Some advice:
  1. Plan, plan, plan. Find a menu that will work for you--be realistic! Think about what can be made in advance and still taste good. Think about how the timing will work for everything. Think about how much preparation is honestly required. Also, think through all the quantities and decide how much of each ingredient you need before you go to the store.
  2. Test, test, test. Before your wedding, practice making items for dinner. Yum!
  3. Delegate, delegate, delegate. Our friends really seem to enjoy being involved in the creation of our wedding. It really did build community, connection, and fun. With that said, it was imperative for us to communicate with them well in advance. I typed up directions and recipes and passed them out in advance. I didn't want to be asked a gazillion questions on my wedding day; I wanted people to know what to do and be empowered to do it.
A Couple Disappointments:
  • The fajita maker had to commit too much time to the endeavor. I think part of the problem was that our juicer broke, so he had to juice all the limes for the marinade by hand. Matt and I should have committed to juicing the limes and chopping the vegetables on Friday, before Brent even arrived. Matt and I definitely would have had time to do it, and it would have lifted some of the burden off Brent.
  • We had to shlep so much food to the reception site that Matt and I had to drive separate cars! At first I was really bummed. In the end, the 1.5 hours of solitude were actually good for me. They gave me time to reflect and center myself. Also, having two cars made it possible for us to do different things with our friends over the course of our wedding week.
  • Shopping for all that food was stressful. We spent one day going to three different stores (i.e., Sam's Club, Kroger's, and Whole Foods). I think it would have been better to split the shopping into two different trips: 1) buy the non-perishables a couple weeks in advance and 2) buy the perishable stuff the week of. Also, it would have been better if we had decided on the amounts ahead of time. It took us a long time at the stores because we were trying to figure out how much we needed.
Like I said, self-catering is not for the faint of heart! It takes a lot of planning and work. It's similar to making your own wedding dress: it's difficult and frustrating and scary and it requires the help of multiple people. In the end, however, it's all worth it because you feel so proud of what you were able to accomplish.

And we did save money. We spent $1,270 on food (for both the wedding reception and the Welcome Picnic + cakes) for 80 people, which comes out to $7.94 per person, per meal. Although such a "cheap" meal may seem like an inappropriate way to honor and thank our guests for making the trip, I have to remember that preparing the same meal in bulk should be cheaper! It never made sense to me that I could walk into a nice restaurant and pay $25 for a really nice meal and yet a catered meal is way more expensive than that.

Here are some other posts about our process:
  1. Q&A: Wedding Reception Food Logistics
  2. The Self-Catered Reception
Also, here are some other places that address self-catering:
  1. Lorna Leedy says, in retrospect, that she would have hired a caterer for her Pioneer Wedding.
  2. A Backyard Wedding self-catered the appetizers and sides and hired someone for the main dish.
  3. I rememer reading about lots of cooking at Peonies and Polaroids, too.
Best of luck as you make decisions that make sense for you!

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AmyJean {Relentless Bride®} said...

That is truly impressive! And if i were your guest, i would have been happy with your top three fave foods... it just so happens, that if you added Korean (of course, i gotta love me mom's home cooking) - that your list is the same as mine! I REALLY love Mexican most though :)

Great post... i agree, its so doable (and enjoyable) but not for the faint of heart! Bet it tasted awesome!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love that you're so candid about giving advice -- it's so valuable for those seeking words of wisdom to get some from a person who's willing to share both what worked and what didn't.

Kudos! :)

Anonymous said...

This post came at exactly the right time for me! So funny the way things work like that. I just spent the day with my best friend/maid of honor plotting and planning how/if we could do all the food for my 80 person wedding.
As soon as walked in the door tonight I thought to myself- 2000 wedding will have all the advice I'll need on this subject- and poof! There you are as usual Sara, saving my wedding one post at a time.
Thank you thank you thank you!!!

Pearls Of Wisdom, LLC said...

Great post! Fantastic planning + organizing info. Many brides will find this useful.

P.S.: You have nominated.
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Anonymous said...

How daring of you to cater your own wedding, its alot of work and its your wedding! You want everyone to enjoy it and celebrate your love! http://amfreedom.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post (in fact thank you for your whole blog). It's nice to see other people self catering and the advice you give as really helped. I'll be compiling my food schedules and trials over the next couple of months!

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