As a couple of adventurous backpackers with no savings and a strict time limit imposed by U.S. Immigration, my now-husband and I catered our own wedding out of necessity. My Irishman and I met on a fruit-picking farm in Australia where, amongst the plague of flies, sweat, and 30 other backpackers, we found love.
An international betrothal meant a lot of paperwork and a lot of waiting. Eight months of waiting, to be exact, during which we had no indication if or when his visa would be approved. Much to my dismay, planning a wedding in any detail wasn't possible. We didn't know much, but we did know that once the visa was approved and the Irishman landed on American soil, we would have 90 days to get married. Oh, and that we were pathetically poor.
Here's how we catered our wedding — and what we would have done differently.
How We Pulled It Off
We'd literally been traveling with only the clothes on our backs for the past three years and $2,000 was our maximum budget for the entire wedding. We could have just walked up to the courthouse, but after eight long months of anticipation, we wanted to celebrate with friends and family. Also, don't judge us for this, but we really needed the presents to stock our barren apartment with essentials.
I put my party-planning, cuisine-creating, desperately determined socks on, and two-and-a-half years later our guests are still raving about the food. So, what made it a success?
1. We had realistic expectations.
Catering our own wedding meant making a lot of practical, and sometimes difficult, choices. We whittled our invites down to around 60 guests so that our budget could go the distance. We also chose a small-bites menu, which we knew would take more time (so much time skewering!), but would also allow us to keep food costs down while offering a larger variety of items.
As the most prominent piece of our wedding, we wanted the food to represent our cultures, style, and tastes. A lamb carving station, mountains of fragrant kimchi, and a Jeni's ice cream cart would have been amazing. Instead, we had "roast dinner on a stick," with individual pieces of roasted lamb, baby potatoes, leeks, and carrots. The skewers nodded to my groom's love of lamb without using too much of it or expecting guests who may have had little experience with it to love it, too. Plus, who doesn't love food on a stick? I also chose less intimidating, less pungent Korean dishes of bulgogi and mandu (pork dumplings). Guinness stew and a mashed potato bar, where guests could top plain, garlic, or cheesy mashed potatoes with a variety of toppings, rounded out our main savory selections.
At first, I was determined to make every item on the menu by myself and from scratch and had a head full of Pinterest-induced ideals for them. As time and energy wore thin, I swallowed my pride and decided that some store-bought items, like finicky macarons or labor-intensive dumplings, weren't the badge of shame I imagined them to be. I focused on the dishes that were unique or dear to us — and banned myself from Pinterest.
2. We planned and planned. And planned.
Confession: I have a sick love of spreadsheets, pivot tables, calendars, and graphs. For our wedding, I used all those tools to scale recipes, create shopping lists, monitor the budget, and create a task timeline. They were essential to my sanity and the success of the event.
I enlisted the fridges and freezers of friends and family for the safe keeping of ingredients and finished products, being careful to track where everything resided on a spreadsheet. My timeline was so official (and color-coded!) that it would rival anything created by the U.S. Military. Ditto for the budget.
Part of the planning process also involved making an "oh s#%t!" plan. I kept having visions of our piddly apartment oven exploding or every store in the state being sold out of an essential ingredient. Dramatic, I know, but that's where bride-head goes when in the thick of it. I came up with a list of back-up dishes and then prioritized our menu by the dishes' sentimental value, their cost, ease of execution, and satisfaction level to the guests. That way, if something did go wrong, I didn't have to get my frazzled bride-brain to come up with something on the spot. Luckily, I didn't have to fall back on this plan.
3. We studied our venue.
Our venue had a small fridge and a few feet of counter space in the kitchen. That was it. Knowing this ahead of time, we designed our menu with a limited number of items that had to be kept chilled. And although we had some assembly lines (again, all those skewers!), we made sure to keep them short.
We also noted how many outlets there were and their locations for warmers for hot dishes. On the day of the wedding, we packed extension cords and surge protectors, just in case an outlet didn't work or the cords on our equipment weren't long enough. Bonus tip: We tested the water, as we planned to use it for tea and coffee. (If it hadn't been the best-tasting water, we could have brought jugs of distilled water to use instead.)
We also talked to our venue managers to be clear about what was allowed in terms of open flame, decoration, and alcohol. In our case, we were allowed beer and wine but no liquor (and the beer had to be procured by the venue).
4. We stayed focused.
While decorating more than 100 mini chocolate stout panda cupcakes — frosting, dipping in sugar, and adhering faces — I began to obsess over their expressions because some of them seemed to be sneering at me. I may have been a little overtired at that moment. Thankfully, the groom snapped me out of it because ain't nobody got time for that.
Having a calm fiancé and my task timeline visibly posted helped remind me of the bigger picture, time and time again. We had to keep up the momentum, and I had to let go of my perfectionist tendencies. Even on the day of when things didn't go exactly to plan (forgotten tablecloths, equipment malfunction), I was able to smile and remember what the day was all about.
What We'd Do Differently Next Time
We ate, danced, and sang karaoke to our hearts' content and at the end of the day walked away happily wed and fed. Self-catering was the right decision for us and our circumstances, but if I had to do it again, I would make a few changes.
1. I'd study.
I would know, and test, all the equipment ahead of time. Why? I borrowed a soup warmer to keep our Guinness stew hot without an unseemly crockpot sitting on the table. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that there was supposed to be water in the inner portion, so the stew didn't stay hot for the entire wedding. Luckily, it was gobbled up before it got too cold and no one was the wiser. But still.
2. I'd pad in even more time.
The shopping, the cooking, the packaging, and the setup on the day of all took longer than I estimated. I would give myself more time to accomplish them all, and enlist more help if I didn't have the time myself.
3. I'd put someone in charge.
I am a bonafide control freak, but on the day of my wedding, I wish I could have relaxed and gotten ready in a slow, relaxed fashion. Instead, I set up the food and decorated the venue before rushing back to a friend's house to shower, hurriedly throw on my makeup and dress, and arrive back at the venue just in time. I also restocked food as it got low throughout the event. Wonderful friends and family helped, but it would have been great to have someone else solely responsible if the crème brûlée shooters had disappeared, yet again.
4. I'd ask for more help.
I was working my full-time job almost up until the day of the wedding and cooking in the evenings. Family and friends jumped right in to assist, once I acknowledged that I needed help. A self-catered wedding doesn't mean that you have to do it all by yourself. I should have accepted, and more importantly asked, for more help from the beginning.
Did you cater your own wedding? What did you learn? Or is this just something you'd never even consider? Discuss in the comments!