One of the most important factors in your overall wedding budget is the cost of the food. Not only is catering a big piece of your wedding budget (if not the biggest), it’s also one of the most enjoyed parts of the reception for your guests.
While guests may not remember the particular details of your wedding dress or the song that played when you walked down the aisle, they will certainly remember the amazing meal they ate or the type of wedding cake you served. So, how much exactly does wedding food cost in this day and age? And, most importantly, how do you stay on budget?
Let’s go over all of the ins and outs of wedding catering. This includes your options for serving the meal and everything you need to know about factoring in the costs of alcohol, dessert, and even what linens and table items you’re going to need at the wedding reception.
Average Cost of Wedding Catering in 2021
Before diving into the specifics of your wedding catering budget, you might want to know about overall catering costs. First off, how much you spend on your wedding catering completely depends on the number of guests you have, the type of meal you’re serving, and the location of your wedding.
That said, the average cost of catering for a wedding with a guest list of 100 usually ranges between $8,500 – $10,000, according to Jessica McTaggart of Pink Champagne Events in Denver, Colorado. Although, if you’re looking for something like you might see in certain popular wedding magazines, you can expect to pay closer to the $20,000 mark, notes Meggie Francisco of Meggie Francisco Events.
Choosing a Wedding Caterer
Selecting a wedding caterer is one of the most exciting (and delicious) parts of wedding planning, and the professional you choose can potentially make a big difference in how much you spend for the big day.
When you’re trying to determine who to hire for the job, make an appointment with the top two or three caterers you’ve found in your research. Then, set up a time to discuss the type of wedding food you want, how you’d like it served, and (best of all) do a taste test of the food.
During the meeting, try to get a sense of the type of wedding food they specialize in (and whether it aligns with the kind of food you want) and understand their price ranges.
Typically, a caterer will make up their budgets on a “per head” basis, or what it will cost you to feed each guest at your wedding. According to Sarah Carroll of Small Shindigs, the average cost for wedding catering per head ranges from $50-$150, depending on the factors below.
Cost Factors for Wedding Catering
You know that the food for your wedding can be expensive, but what exactly determines the cost? Here are five components to account for when budgeting for your wedding catering.
1. Your Guest List
There are a lot of factors that go into the price of wedding catering, but the biggest variable is your guest list. Simply put, the bigger your guest list, the bigger your catering budget.
Although there are ways to cut costs if you have a large guest list (serving brunch instead of dinner or serving appetizers in a buffet-style instead of a plated dinner with several courses), it’s ultimately going to be more expensive than if you cut down the guest list.
2. Your Wedding Venue
Another cost factor for wedding catering can be your particular wedding venue. Some wedding venues either have restrictions on hiring an outside caterer or have preferred vendors that they will only choose to work with. This could, of course, be more expensive than another caterer you were wanting to hire.
Before you sign a contract with your wedding venue, be sure to look it over closely for any restrictions on hiring outside vendors and if they charge any extra fees if you don’t work with an in-house caterer.
3. The Food Service Options You Choose
In addition to the number of people you invite to your wedding and any restrictions your wedding venue imposes on events, the food service options you choose have a big effect on the overall cost of your wedding catering.
Here’s a list of food service options, what they mean, and the average costs for each of them, according to Carroll:
- Plated meals: This means that when guests sit down at their tables, wait staff brings them their meals in courses. Though the costs for this type of service can vary depending on the number of waiters you have and the kind of food you serve, the average cost for plated meal catering is about $100-$200 per person.
- Family-style catering: More relaxed than plated meals, family-style catering is when the wait staff delivers meals to each individual reception table, but the guests serve themselves. The cost of family-style catering can run you anywhere from $120-$150 per person.
- Buffet-style meal: When you serve buffet-style, your guests will line up and serve their own food and take it back to their tables. A buffet-style meal will cost you, on average, about $50-$100 per person.
- Food stations: A food station-type reception is when guests can walk around and stand in line to get various types of foods at different stations (such as a carving station, macaroni and cheese station, and dessert station). While the cost will largely depend on the kind of food stations you have, it will likely be in the $50-$75 per person range.
- Hors d’oeuvres: A couple can either choose to serve hors d’oeuvres before the main entrees of the evening or as the entire food event. (Think heavier appetizers like fried chicken, egg rolls, vegetable or cheese trays, etc.) Should you serve hors d’oeuvres by themselves or with a meal, you can expect to pay $60-$85 per person.
- Cocktail hour: Before the main meal during the reception, many couples choose to invite their guests to a cocktail hour. This includes drinks and appetizers and is typically hosted in a space before they get to the reception. The cost will depend on how many bartenders you have (The more you have, the more expensive it is.), how many appetizers you serve, and whether or not you have an open bar vs. a signature drink (A signature drink can cut costs.). On average, you can expect to pay around $35 per person for a cocktail hour.
- Brunch: Serving brunch instead of dinner can cut your costs down significantly since breakfast foods are more easily scalable and typically cheaper.
4. Budgeting for Alcohol
Another part of the catering cost is alcohol. If you plan on serving alcohol at your reception, you can expect to spend quite a pretty penny — especially if you are having an open bar option.
- Open bar: An open bar means guests will have every drink paid for that they order. This can get pretty costly, running couples $50 per person, according to Carroll.
- Full bar: A full bar, on the other hand, is when couples have a wide range of spirits, beers, and wines for guests to drink — but not an unlimited amount. Budgeting for a full bar can be tricky as it can be difficult to know how much each guest will consume. Check out this infographic to help you determine how much to spend based on your specific guest list.
5. Paying for Dessert
Everyone likes to cap the evening off with a little slice of wedding cake, but how much is this going to set you back?
The average cost of a wedding cake, according to Carroll, is $7 per slice. So, if you have 100 guests at your wedding, you can estimate a $700 cake. But don’t forget about any extra fees that your venue or caterer may have, such as a cake cutting or cake serving fee, which could be as much as $1-$2 per guest.
6. Glassware, Flatware, and Linens
You can’t exactly serve any food on your wedding day if you don’t have reception accessories such as glassware, flatware, and linens. While many caterers and venues will have these prices factored in with the overall cost per head, it’s worth asking if there are any extra fees for these items.
7. Don’t Forget Gratuity
Finally, when you’re configuring wedding catering costs, don’t forget about the cost of gratuity for a job well done. Catering is a tough business and weddings are one of the busiest, most stressful events caterers handle in their jobs. Gratuity is often included in the cost of catering. But if it’s not, then you should budget for 15-20% of the bill for the chefs and 10% of the liquor bill for the bartenders.