A Homey Budget Wedding Meal for 120: The Wedding Dinner

published Jan 23, 2013
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Over the past week I’ve been talking about my brother’s wedding and how some friends and I
cooked and catered a homey winter dinner for about 120 people. Well, today’s the final post — I’m going to show you how it all turned out! I’ll recap the meal in some detail for you, showing the flow of events that need to happen in order to get a dinner of this size on the tables. I’ll also share the final budget numbers. But in all the nitty-gritty, please don’t lose sight of one fact: This was one of the most fun, satisfying, and exhilarating things I’ve done in a long time.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

The Menu

A quick recap of the menu (with recipe links where possible).

A Homemade Wedding Dinner Menu for 120 People

Pre-Dinner snacks
Homemade White Cheddar & Rosemary Crackers – Adapted from Cheesy Homemade Crackers (recipe here).
Roasted Herbed Almonds – From the Chez Panisse Herbed Almonds (recipe here).
Sugar Snap Peas & Sweet Peppers in Spinach Dip – Dip and vegetables were purchased.

To drink
Citrus & Rosemary Spritzer – From Emily’s recipe.
Pomegranate Sparkler – 1 part unsweetened pomegranate juice mixed with 3 parts ginger ale.
Water with Citrus Slices

Roasted Chicken Thighs with Bacon & Parsley – No real recipe here. I followed this basic template, making a marinade of garlic, parsley, soy sauce, and oil, and blending. I used about a pound of bacon per 4 pounds chicken, cutting it up into small pieces.
Braised White Beans with Rosemary & Tomato – Ad hoc recipe. I used this method for cooking beans and added in garlic, onion, celery, tomato, rosemary, and smoked paprika.
Potato Dough Rolls & Whipped Salted Butter – From this recipe.
Lemon-Dijon Slaw – Very ad hoc recipe. I tossed equal parts shredded radishes, red cabbage, and green cabbage with chopped scallions and some parsley. I made a dressing of lemon juice, honey, and Dijon mustard. But it was late and I have no idea what the proportions were.

Butterscotch Pudding with Whipped Cream – Recipe from my new book, Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake, and More No-Bake Desserts, out May 7.
Cookie Platter of Butter Sablés & Chocolate Peanut Butter Chunkers – From Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Final Preparations

Getting There
The wedding started at 12:30, and so my goal was to be at the church with the food packed into the fridge by 11am. My husband and my sister’s fiancé went over with most of the food, and I sent my sister to the store to pick up the club soda and ginger ale I needed for the dinner drinks. Just as I was putting on my shoes, I realized that I never printed out menus. I had informal menus and schedules to tape up in the kitchen to help guide the volunteers, but nothing for the guests. Faced with the prospect of answering “what’s on the menu?” all evening, I texted my graphic designer sister, who was making the seating chart, and she whipped up pretty menus on cardstock at literally the last minute.

I packed up four big plastic tubs with other things I needed — small things like my apron and camera, comfortable sneakers to change into, plastic wrap and foil, and last-minute ingredients and garnishes like parsley, pomegranate arils, and balsamic vinegar.

This packing up and transportation stage is one that’s often underestimated in self-catering. It’s not like you can just pick up a casserole dish and go. Everything is multiplied — it took us over two hours to get out of the house, and an hour at the church to bring everything in.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Wedding
The church is a simple yet spacious venue, with some natural light but nothing terribly new or modern in its decor. My sister-in-law hauled in huge tree branches (donated by tree-trimmers), buckets of white Christmas lights, handmade paper decorations, and lots of tulle and gauze. She transformed that place on a very slim budget, and with hours of hard work. The hall was like a rustic and pretty fairyland. I was beyond impressed. (It was really hard, though, to get good photos in there. A lot of these photos look muddy, but in real life the effect was dim and sparkly in the most romantic way.)

The wedding itself? It was beautiful. My brothers and my husband got dressed up in gray tuxedos. My baby brother got married to a lovely girl. I cried.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

My brother’s buddies helping clean and set up.

Setting Up Dinner

Prepping for Dinner
After the wedding, there was a short cake and punch reception for all of the guests. Nearly 300 people packed into the church hall to watch the bride and bridegroom cut the cake, do a little dancing, and hear some funny stories about them both. Volunteers helped serve crackers, cheese, grapes, and punch, as well as the cake.

I hung out with family and hovered around the kitchen. Once the reception began winding down, I moved in and started transitioning the kitchen into dinner mode. The bride and bridegroom left to take photos, and family went to their hotels to put their feet up before dinner. (Close friends and out-of-town guests, as well as family, came back for the later reception and dinner, bringing our numbers there to 120.)

I had about three and a half hours until dinner at this point, and several completely awesome volunteers — including one, John, who works in restaurants and knew what he was doing.

He cleaned up the kitchen, and I moved non-necessary things out of the way (the microwave, piles of church styrofoam cups) and set up stations for the main dishes we’d need to work on. At this point I think I had five or six helpers.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Prepping the Appetizers
My brother’s girlfriend helped me set up all the appetizers. She trimmed little paper bags down with scalloped scissors, and we used these to put out the cheese crackers and almonds.

We also created little amuse-bouche vegetable snacks with white mini cups (Mini White Quadrato Cups from Restaurantware). She put a dab of spinach-artichoke dip in the bottom of each cup, then arranged sugar snap peas and a mini sweet pepper on top. These were a last-minute inspiration, and I loved having the ability to do a slightly “fancier” appetizer.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Prepping the Dessert
Meanwhile, I was getting the dessert ready. I re-whipped the butterscotch pudding in batches in my stand mixer, and then dolloped it into little bowls. (These White Incline Bowls from Restaurantware.) A helper topped each with whipped cream and tapped a little bit of cocoa powder on top. Then we packed all the bowls back in the big refrigerator until dessert time.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Drama! How to Heat Up Dinner?
Now we come to the main drama of the evening, and the source of 95% of my worry through this whole process: How to heat up dinner? I had four large trays of beans, and four trays of chicken, and it was very important to me that all came up to 140°F before serving for safety. The plan was to put the beans in the oven for over an hour, then transfer them to slow cookers to stay safely hot. But the oven was seriously underperforming, and after about 45 minutes, John showed me how they weren’t getting hot enough.

It was almost time to start heating the chicken, so we had a brief confab. Should we take everything offsite to heat up elsewhere? That seemed too risky and complicated, so I told them to get out the church’s biggest pots and start heating the beans on the stovetop. “How should we do it?” they asked. “Just figure out the best way and make it happen,” I said. I was in full-on delegation mode at this point! They put the chicken in the oven and started heating the beans on the stovetop.

I crossed my fingers, but the beans heated up pretty quickly after this, and the chicken turned out to heat much faster in the oven than the beans (less dense, I suppose?).

The funniest thing about this whole dilemma, though, is that it really added some new flavor elements to the beans. The guys, despite frequent stirring, scorched the bottom of the bean pots. This gave the beans some serious smoky flavor that the guests came back to the kitchen to rave over, later. “How did you get them so smoky?” people kept asking. Some batches were a bit too smoky for my taste, but hey, if people liked them — I wasn’t going to argue!

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Prepping the Rest of the Meal
While the two guys worked to get the food hot, I directed the rest of the crew to mix drinks (citrus rosemary spritzer, and pomegranate juice with ginger ale) in the carafes. We also cut up oranges and lemons to put in pitchers of water.

We also set up a station to portion out the salad into salad bowls, and put bread in bread baskets, and butter into little dishes, sprinkled with smoked salt. I sent people out to each table with a carafe of one drink, a pitcher of water, and bread and butter. The rest of the drink carafes went out on the dessert buffet for people to help themselves. (The drinks were unexpectedly popular — they were gone before dinner was half over!)

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Serving Dinner Family-Style
The plan was to serve dinner family-style, which took some extra coordination. I lined up all the volunteers and had some assigned to helping plate the chicken, others to dishing up beans, and others to carrying food out to the tables. By this time we had placed the salad so each table just needed a bowl of beans and a platter of chicken.

Chicken thighs aren’t the prettiest things, so I made a last-minute decision to plate them up on a bed of fresh spinach, drizzled with some oil and balsamic, and sprinkled with pomegranate arils. This helped dress up the chicken a bit. We garnished the beans with a sprig of rosemary, and out it went! Everyone was served within 10 minutes, or so, and people seemed to enjoy the food a lot. (Whew.)

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

As soon as all the food was out I made the kitchen volunteer crew give themselves a big round of applause — they did an amazing job getting everything out quickly and beautifully!

As people began to eat I assigned two or three of the volunteers to helping in the dining room — circling around, refilling water pitchers.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Setting Up Dessert
As soon as everyone had food, we set up the dessert table, laying out all the pudding cups and arranging cookies on cake plates. I also brought out the coffee mugs and accessories, and a big bowl of fresh grapes. We made coffee, too.

Dessert was a huge hit (everyone loves pudding!) and it was a good break for everyone. The guys started washing up back in the kitchen, and the helpers circled the tables to start bussing dirty dishes.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Cleanup

Well, what to say about cleanup? This is the least glamorous piece of it all, and by now everyone’s feet hurt, and there was a lot to do. We bussed tables after the wedding party left, and the same small army of church friends who helped set up the hall came back to tear everything down.

I was just so impressed and grateful for all the help — it was a very memorable and even hilarious session of cleanup, as the volunteers, led by John, ran round after round of the commercial dishwasher and got the church’s plates washed, dried, and put away.

We packaged up leftovers (there were at least 15 pounds of chicken left over, and a lot of beans too) and sent them home with some of the helpers. People took short breaks and finished off the pudding cups, one by one (no leftovers there!).

My husband took off his wedding tux and changed into jeans and came back to help, too, and by the time the car was all packed up, slow cookers returned to owners, and clean dishes put back in the cupboards, we had been cleaning for about 2 1/2 hours. This is really not bad — all the helping hands really made it quick.

I flopped gratefully into a barstool at a local restaurant, had a stiff drink and shared an appetizer with my husband (I had forgotten to eat, naturally), and wobbled off to bed.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The lovely bride.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The Final Budget

So, after all that, how did we do on budget? Is it really possible to cater a wedding like this for 120 people on a budget? Given enough time and helping hands, a definitive yes.

Here’s where I spent the money:

Final Costs
Food (chicken, some appetizers, other ingredients) — $480 at Costco
Food (almonds and some other ingredients) — $60 at grocery
Food (salad fixings and dry beans) — $60 at grocery
Drinks (club soda and ginger ale to go with mixers) — $50 at grocery

Total: $650 on food costs

My brother spent several hundred dollars on paper goods, serving utensils, and a little more on some rental bowls for serving some of the dishes. In addition, I spent $100 on drink carafes (which I will either sell or use as gifts down the road). We leaned heavily on the venue, which provided table linens, plates and glassware, and silverware.

All in all, with the right amount of help and the right venue, I find it quite reasonable to do a full sit-down family-style meal for 120 people on about $1000 or less, especially if you have an inexpensive main dish (like the chicken thighs, which were only $2/pound). It just takes, as you see, a lot of work, good energy, and volunteers willing to pitch in and have a good time along the way. Lucky us — we had all this and more!

Thanks for following along — I hope these copious details have been of some help to you, whether you’re planning your own wedding or another big party. Yes, it looks like a ton of work, and it is. But serving dinner to this many people at once multiplies the reward as well as the stress. The adrenaline and energy that comes of working with great people for a wonderful event like this can be matched by very little else. It’s one of the most fun and exhilarating things you can do, given enough willing hands to help.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A Few Shout-Outs

Thank you to my future brother-in-law who shot some of these photos for me. He’s a wedding and event photographer in Atlanta — find him here:

Justen Clay Photography in Atlanta, Georgia

Also, thank you to Restaurantware who donated some of their super lovely wares to the event. I don’t usually use disposables but for an event like this it’s hugely helpful and practical to have some pretty and unique dishes for things like pudding and appetizers. I had so much fun using their Quadrato cups and Incline bowls for the amuse-bouche and pudding.

Quadrato Cup White, 100 count box, $34.99 at Restaurantware

Incline Bowl White, 100 count box, $49.99 at Restaurantware

Mini Spoon White, 500 count box, $29.99 at Restaurantware

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)