Over the past few days I've been sharing the process of catering an hors d'oeuvre wedding reception for friends (you can see all of the posts so far here, including the plan and the menu). Now we've arrived at the big day: the wedding itself!
It was a hectic day of packing up, finishing the food, shopping for last-minute supplies, and laying out the buffet, but in the end, the food was delicious, the bride and bridegroom were glowing, and everyone had a good time! Want to see how we pulled it all off — and on a budget, too?
It may sound crazy to cook for 200 people out of my own home kitchen, and it is indeed a lot of work! But I get a rush out of it; it's such a thrill to feed so many people with home-cooked food, and I have had some experience with this kind of thing. I catered a dessert reception for 400 people a few years ago, and last year I did a sit-down, family-style dinner for 120 at my brother's wedding.
If you love a challenge and have some experience with organizing big events, it can be a fun and satisfying gift to offer someone you love. Check out this post to see if catering a wedding or a big event at some point is something you are up for.
The Wedding Reception Plan
A couple months before the wedding, I talked with the couple about what they wanted. The bride and bridegroom are easygoing; they love good food, but they also were planning a wedding with a short deadline and modest budget.
We agreed that hors d'oeuvres and nonalcoholic drinks were the best way to go for this late evening reception, and we decided to sketch out a fresh, summery menu that included plenty of good things for the gluten-free and dairy-free guests attending.
The wedding itself was taking place late, around 6:30, and the church was some distance from the reception venue, so the reception didn't begin until 8pm.
The Wedding Reception Budget
The budget was modest but not unrealistic. They had about $2500 to spend on food and drinks, and here's how that budget worked out:
- Groceries, including drinks: $1100
- All serving goods, including tumblers, coffee cups, plates, napkins, cake forks, serving trays, and picks and skewers: $865
- Foil trays and a few other miscellaneous tools: $105
- Payment for one full-time helper: $200
- Total: $2270
There were a few things that I didn't have to pay for but that would usually be factored into a reception cost:
- Coffee (provided by the church)
- Tables and tablecloths (provided by the church)
- Drink dispensers and carafes (I own these)
- Decorations (handled by another team of volunteers and friends)
- Helpers (for the most part, my help was all volunteers, with the exception of one experienced person)
The Wedding Reception Menu
So what did we plan to serve? I hashed out a menu that had a good mix of make-ahead and last-minute dishes, and I planned for heavier food, since it was late but I didn't think everyone would have eaten dinner. I also planned to make 3000 bites in total to feed 200 people for 2 hours.
Once I had the final quantities, I shuffled through a stack of recipe ideas, in conversation with the bride and bridegroom and came up with this final menu:
- Lemon Curd Tarts in Phyllo Cups (tart shells store-bought) - 360
- Pistachio & Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (gluten-free, dairy-free) - 150
- Sea Salt Chocolate Caramels (store-bought) - 300
- Spiced Sugared Nuts - 200 servings
- Strawberry Lemonade - 640 4-ounce servings
- Ginger Lime Sparkler - 240 4-ounce servings
- Water & Coffee - Provided by church, so didn't plan or shop for this.
The Week Before the Wedding: Shopping & Prep
Let me get one thing out of the way first, you guys: I didn't start working on this wedding early enough! I didn't even begin shopping until about a week before. Work was truly insane that month, and I packed a lot into the week before the wedding.
The first thing I shopped for were the plates and other disposables. I'll give you more info about shopping (especially on a budget) tomorrow. I also used Amazon to order some bulky ingredients — things it would be a pain to cart over from the grocery store. This included lots of foil sheet pans — the most important tool for a caterer!
I bought a first round of groceries, too — I went to Costco in the morning (on a weekday... avoid those weekend crowds!) and loaded up on the more long-lasting ingredients.
→ Party shopping tip: Once you have your menu and your recipes, make a full ingredient list and divide it into two — things you can get well ahead, and then things that will need to wait until the day of the party. That way you're not making shopping lists at the last minute.
I also began some prep, like syrups for the drinks, lemon curd, and biscuits — things that would last a while in the fridge or freezer.
The Day Before: Major Cooking
The day before the wedding there was a ton of prep to do! I recruited my sister, who worked as hard as I did getting everything ready. While I did more cooking, she prepped those beautiful tomato-mozzarella skewers and made sandwich cookies. We pulled in my husband and a friend for a while, too — there was plenty of work to go around!
The Day Itself: Setup and Lots of Work!
I had a lot of time on the day of the wedding itself. I got up early and began prepping the ingredients. I made a checklist of everything that had to go to the church and methodically stacked everything into the car, with my husband's help. (OK, OK, he carried, I checked items off.)
→ Party prep tip: If you have to transport food for a big event, act like a restaurant supplier and make a checklist, complete with clipboard! Every single thing that needs to go should be on this list. Check items off as they go into boxes or into the car. Don't rely on your memory!
It took several hours to pack up, drive over, and unload that morning. Then I got my sister and a volunteer started on the salmon skewers and crudite cups and I ran to Costco for the last batch of groceries. This included fresh stuff like vegetables, ham, cream for coffee, frozen meatballs, and other refrigerated things that I didn't have room for leading up to the wedding.
When I got back we set up the buffet tables and planned out where everything would go on each table. We figured out the coffee makers and laid out the drinks table.
As the reception time approached, things got more intense in the kitchen. I had two or three other helpers, but I quickly realized I should have had at least a couple more. Pretty soon it was a flurry of activity — broiling polenta for the polenta toasts, toasting crostini, filling lemon tarts, staying focused and filling up big trays of food as fast as we could.
I was always trying to balance doing things ahead with food safety; I didn't want ham, for instance, sitting at room temperature for four hours before serving. But we had to allow enough time to set things up before service began. We could definitely have used a few more pairs of hands!
We ran into unexpected problems, like the oven not heating up the meatballs fast enough (we switched to the microwave — messy, but effective!). The helpers — both high school students — were total troopers.
The Wedding Reception: Hungry People, Lots of Fun
And then, suddenly, the light began to fade, and the party began. My friend's cousins' bluegrass band set up and sweet fiddle sounds wafted out of the church sanctuary. Wedding guests began to straggle in. This was it!
I set up the last few trays of food on the table and people queued up. We quickly went into all-hands mode, as the guests' appetite outstripped even my conservative estimates. (Lots of young guys at this wedding!) The drinks in particular were drained immediately; we had a hard time keeping up.
There was plenty of food to go around and we ended up with leftovers, but our small and plucky staff had a hard time keeping up with demand! We filled up trays in the kitchen as quickly as we could, and as soon as one looked picked over I swapped it out.
→ Party buffet tip: I didn't have enough people to do this this time, but usually there should be at least one person watching each buffet table, noting when food is low and cleaning away debris, with another person or two in the back working on plating up food.
However, people loved the food — it was so exciting and fun to watch them ooh and aah. I put out menu place cards noting what each dish was and whether it was dairy-free or gluten-free, so people were able to navigate and graze easily.
Then the bride and bridegroom arrived, dancing started, and we had a little breather to refresh the table and clean away cups and plates.
Eventually I consolidated picked-over platters to one long table, and arranged the second food table for the cake, which my sister-in-law sliced up. People lingered late, eating just one more meatball and having just one more bite of cake.
The aftermath — we were exhausted! What more is there to say? Just kidding — there was plenty. I found that my food calculations worked well. There were certainly leftovers, and no one went hungry, but the only places where something went awry were due less to my bite calculations (remember, I was shooting for about 3000 total) and more to miscalculations on the recipe side. I wildly overestimated how much lemon curd, for instance, I would need to fill the tart cups, and I slightly underestimated how much ham we would need for that many biscuits.
But none of this affected the final outcome: Two sweet friends got married, lots of people ate good food and drank summery punch, a few of us got sweaty and stressed and ready for a drink at the end of the evening, but everyone was very happy, in the end.
As a side bonus, the bride's very large family was in town for the wedding, and I was able to send them home with all the leftovers to make their family meals the next day a little easier for them and the family.
And that was it! A wedding, yummy bites, a lot of work, and sweet satisfaction in the end.
I'll give you a little more over the next couple days, with one more recipe, some tips for shopping for a big event like this, and then, what you're waiting for — all the things I wished I wouldn't have done.
- Plates: Baroque Bone Plastic Cake Plates, Smarty Had a Party
- Tumblers: Clear Plastic Party Glasses, Smarty Had a Party
- Coffee Cups: Classicware Ivory Coffee Mugs, Smarty Had a Party
- Cake Forks: Baroque Wood Forks, Restaurantware
- White Platters: 18" White Round Serving Trays, Smarty Had a Party
- White Cake Stands: 13.25" White Plastic Cake Stands, Smarty Had a Party
- Picks: Bamboo Paddle Skewers, Restaurantware
- Skewers: Knotted Bamboo Skewers, Restaurantware
- Clear Crudite Cups: Incline Shot Glasses, Restaurantware
- Phyllo Tart Shells: Alba Neutral Vegetable Oil Phyllo Cups, Restaurantware
(Image credits: D Squared Photo & Video; Faith Durand; DSquared Photo & Video)