Perhaps the only part of a wedding that’s gotten a bad rap throughout the years is the meal. Guests usually expect a dry chicken breast and some sticky rice pilaf, so spicing up the dinner and giving it a personal spin is the perfect way to make your wedding memorable and give your guests some fuel to dance the night away.

Step 1: Start the search.

As soon as you’ve selected your reception site, the catering search can begin. Some locations require that you use their in-house caterer or banquet department, which makes your choice fairly simple. These locations include hotels, country clubs and some of the more unusual facilities such as museums, boats or historical homes. If they allow an independent caterer, you may be asked to choose from a pre-approved list.

If you’re able to select your own caterer, though, try to narrow down your list to no more than three, otherwise you’ll be tasting for a month and all the flavors will blur together.

When you’re calling caterers, make sure to have as much information as you know on hand. They’ll want to know your wedding date, time of day, approximate number of guests, if you’d like a sit-down or buffet meal and the degree of formality and style.  If you have any general menu ideas or preferences, let the caterer know so they can be better prepared for your initial meeting. Ask for sample wedding menus and references before a formal meeting or tasting.

Step 2: Determine your service style.

Right off the bat, caterers will want to discuss your taste and budget in detail. Think about the style and feel of your wedding, and decide whether you want a sit-down meal or a buffet. Then talk about the extras – do you want hors d’oeuvres during cocktails and a late-night snack? How about fruit or coffee with the cake? Talk with a caterer about the different options and appropriateness for the time of day, number of guests and style.

Step 3: Schedule a tasting.

When you finally narrow down your list, the fun part is here – tasting! Don’t be afraid to speak up during tastings, or ask if they can tweak something to your tastes. This is your day and your meal and fulfilling your food wishes is their job.

Step 4: Design the menu.

Start by searching through magazines, web sites and bridal shows to clarify your likes and dislikes. Think about weddings you’ve attended, or ask caterers or friends for favorites and fails. Then, work closely with your caterer to craft the perfect and personal menu. Remember that the caterer has probably seen lots of weddings and knows what works best with the number of people, the time of day and the locations, so take their professional advice if they think a cool, crisp salad might not be the best appetizer in your outdoor summer wedding. Also keep your guests in mind – you might have to accommodate for lots of children or vegetarians, for example.

Step 5: Calculate the cost.

Once you’ve selected a caterer, think business and cost. Most caterers base their prices on a per-person cost. Facilities with in-house catering departments may have a minimum charge or set-up fee, while an off-premises caterer will usually work within any reasonable, agreed-upon budget. Keep in mind buffets are usually priced higher, since they’ll have to account for a little more per person, and it’s common to add overage or gratuity.

Your final guest count is usually required one week before the event. This will be the minimum number of people for which you will actually be charged. Most caterers will plan on the addition of a few last-minute guests and will add the meals to the bill after the wedding. Decide if you’ll include meals for wedding-related personnel, such as the DJ, musicians, photographer and consultant. If cost is an issue, ask your caterer about “vendor meals,” these meals are more casual than the guest menu and are offered at a lower cost per person. Get specifics as to what extras are included in the caterer’s charges, such as table linens, plates, glasses, crystal, silverware and service pieces.

Step 6: Plan the help.

Once the menu is finalized, the next step is determining the number of wait staff you will need to serve your feast and keep your reception running smoothly. Your caterer will give you a better idea, but a general guideline is one server per 10 to 12 guests for a sit-down dinner. A full and open bar will require more servers. Ask ahead of time what their attire is, so it matches the style and formality of your reception.

Step 7: Finalize the details, in writing. 

Don’t sign a contract without this info – day, date, time, address of the site, food items by course, number of guests covered, provisions for special meals, time of cocktail hour, time meal is served, contact people, number of bartenders and wait staff, linens, beverages and bar guidelines, terms of payment and liability insurance. There will probably be an advance deposit when you sign the contract, and don’t forget to check the cancellation policy.

Personalize Your Meal!

Trip around the world. 

Give your guests a culinary trip across the globe, with a variety of food stations offering a range of ethnic food…pad thai, bruschetta, and mini sushi rolls are a fun way to inspire conversation and provide something for everyone.

Share your faves. 

Do you and your spouse have a favorite restaurant you went on your first date, or a meal you love cooking together? Make it part of your day. Even if your favorite restaurant doesn’t have a special cater service for those fish tacos, talk to an owner and see if they’d be willing to bend a little, especially for a small wedding. Don’t make your grandma cook her favorite lasagna on your day, but don’t be afraid to look for a great Italian caterer and let everyone know the inspiration for the meal.

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