The MANual: Food and Drink

How Much Does Wedding Catering Cost?

Your wedding reception is going to be the biggest and best party you’ve ever thrown. There will be no red solo cups or two liter bottles of store bought soda. There will be no chips and dip or sporks (plastic or otherwise). This is a legit celebration that will involve ponying up some serious cash. Along with the cost to rent a venue, the catering (dinner and booze) served at your reception will most likely be the biggest expense of this whole wedding. And you thought that engagement ring was expensive. Catering is where guest lists get real because every invite becomes a very specific added cost to your budget. We’re not here to scare you, but we do want you to be acutely aware of what’s included when we say wedding catering and how much it very well might cost you.

Who To Hire

When we talk about caterers, we’re talking specifically about wedding caterers. The caterer you hired for your backyard summer party that served everything in foil pans under sterno heat lamps is not the type of caterer you want for this mission (no matter how good their chicken parm was). Now, when it comes to your wedding reception, specifically the location, your catering options might be offered by the venue themselves or you may need to contract an outside vendor. A venue that offers their own caterer is always an easier option, unless of course you don’t like what they’re offering. If a venue does not offer their own caterer they will most certainly have suggestions for vendors they’ve worked well with in the past. Always ask for recommendations.  

The Most Important Number

The single largest factor that will determine the cost of catering your wedding is the guest list. The math is simple here, more people means more food and drinks and thus more money. And don’t forget, in addition to feeding Aunt Whatsername and her brood of cousins you haven’t seen since junior high, you also have to feed your vendors. DJs need to eat too, you know. And if you’ve hired a band, well, every member is going to account for a feeding.

Now, on the flip side of this is catering minimums. If you’re having a small wedding, let’s call it less than fifty people, you might not be able to reach the minimum number of guests required for a particular caterer’s services. Many caterers will require that larger headcount in order to make a profit. If you’re close to that minimum number you might just have to eat the cost of those extra meals (no pun intended).  

What Catering Costs Include

We’re talking weddings here, so catering doesn’t focus only on the food, although that is the most important part. Wedding catering will cover all of the food for the cocktail hour as well as the main meal (all the courses) at the reception. A wedding caterer may also provide the cake, but that is not a hard and fast rule.

Next up is the beverages, the alcoholic ones specifically but also anything else that needs to be poured. Depending on your location and situation, you might be able or even be expected to purchase and provide the alcohol yourself. This is a great way to save money but this is also the way many caterers make their money. If it’s an option, remember it’s a lot of extra work on your end to make it happen.

All of this food and drink certainly won’t serve itself (even if it’s buffet style, but more on that later). You will be paying for staffing as well. Remember, the bigger the wedding, the more staff you’ll need. We’re talking the waitstaff that walks around with trays of tasty appetizers and serves the main meal, the bartenders who may very well be mixing your signature cocktails, and even the chefs who are the behind-the-scenes heroes of the day.   

There’s also rental feeds, which could include anything from the flatware and china to tablecloths and napkins. Again, a venue might provide these as part of their package, an outside caterer might provide them as well, or yet another vendor might need to be called in for any number of rental items.  

How The Food Is Served Helps Determine Costs

When you think of dining at a wedding reception, a sit-down meal that’s served directly to you at your table might be the first thing that comes to mind. However, there are other options, some of which might save you a few bucks (or end up costing more). A buffet-style meal at a wedding will require less manpower to operate, because your guests are doing to legwork. That cost savings might be offset by the need to offer a greater variety of food, instead of option A or option B on the RSVP. A family-style serving might offer a middle ground between the sit-down meal and the buffet option.

Food stations are also a thing, although they tend to be reserved for the cocktail hour but could also pinch hit for the main meal. The thing about them is that each station needs a waitstaff member to oversee it, and that’s another potential cost increase. Basically, there’s a cost to everything and you’ll need to decide how far you’ll willing to go to nail the big meal.

Average Catering Costs

You will actually be putting a price on each of your guests’ heads. Statistics for weddings in the United States vary drastically when it comes to the average number of guests as well as the average catering cost per person. It’s almost as if Big Wedding wants you to think that you have to spend more because you’re already spending a ton of money. A WeddingWire report will tell you that “Most couples spend between $1,800 – $7,000” on catering for their wedding. That’s a $5,000 swing, which is by no means a small amount of money, especially when you’re trying to maintain a budget. Other studies put the average national guest list size anywhere between 120-150 guests and average costs per head at around $70. These numbers all need to be taken with some seasoning. Prices will vary dramatically depending on where the wedding is actually taking place and what you want to serve. There’s no flat number we can quote you but there are ways that you can make the math work for your wedding.


Bottom Line

Catering is one of the most important, and most costly, parts of your whole wedding. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of catering options available to suit your needs and vision for the big day. Just be prepared to do your research so you can plan and budget accordingly.

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