If there's one thing at the heart of every celebration, it's food. But catering budgets for your wedding can quickly add up. In fact, food and beverage is one of the largest expenses – usually around 30% of the overall wedding budget.
So, how much does catering for a wedding cost? This is a tricky question because there are so many factors that can have a huge impact on the final catering amount. The number of guests, the type of food you serve, the shelf type of alcohol, and even the location of your event can all play a role in the cost of catering.
To help give you a better idea of what to expect, we've put together a guide on the average price of wedding catering.
How much does wedding catering cost?
According to The Knot Real Wedding Study 2021, the average wedding catering was $75 per person. However, many costs contribute to the catering including guest count, meals and options served, alcohol and wine types, staff members and more. We’ve even heard the average cost of food and wine at a wedding can be upwards of $1,000 per person. Because so many costs go into this “average” rate, let’s explore them together and break it down:
What factors into wedding catering costs?
There are a few main factors that play into costs:
- Guest count. The number of guests has the most direct influence on your catering costs. If you're looking for ways to trim your budget, the number one tip will always be to trim the guest list.
- Style of service. You have four main options for service style: buffets, stationed, plated, or family style. Depending on your caterer, you might be told that plated meals are the most expensive. That’s not always the case though: For some caterers, because they have to make more food for a buffet, the buffet option can oftentimes be even pricier than the plated or family-style meals. So in short, don’t make assumptions. Start by talking to your caterer about the option and how cost plays a role. Also keep in mind: You'll need to estimate more food overall, additional rentals, florals, and food signs for stations, and you’ll need additional staff members to help keep lines moving and tables cleared. Again, your caterer can walk you through it all.
- Location. If you're having your wedding in a trendy downtown area or popular seaside getaway, expect to pay more for catering than if you’re having it in a wedding hall. Think about it this way: it costs a lot more for a caterer to service a popular and expensive city than it does for one to own and operate in a much more affordable town. Therefore, the costs are going to vary drastically!
- Type of food. This one is pretty self explanatory. Obviously steak and lobster will always be pricier than chicken, and fresh food will cost more than frozen.
- Seasonality and days. Peak wedding season falls between May and October, making summer and fall weddings the most expensive as vendors become more in-demand. Also keep in mind that Saturday is the most popular day of the week to tie the knot, and you will likely pay a premium for all vendors and services on this day.
- Cocktail hour and the after-party! Don’t forget to work with your caterer to add in costs for cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres or late night snacks!
How much should I budget for alcohol?
There are three basic ways to go with alcohol for your wedding.
- Full open bar. Beer, wine, spirits, soft drinks--you name it. Everything is fair game and it's all being billed to you. Depending on who you're inviting, you'll likely need to budget at least $50 per person for an open bar depending on the spirits, types of wine and beer offered.
- Limited open bar: A limited open bar is an option to cut costs. This generally includes only beer and wine, and maybe a signature cocktail.
- Signature cocktail only: The most affordable of all (besides no alcohol at all!) would be to have just a signature cocktail or a just a champagne toast.
Note: A cash bar is generally considered not appropriate. So if it’s not in the budget or you don’t feel like it’s necessary, then skip it altogether.
Ways to Pay for the Bar at Your Wedding
There are basically two ways your caterer will charge you for drinks: cost per guest or cost per drink. If you agree to a cost per guest, this flat rate will be added to your catering costs upfront, which could help you stay on track with budgeting. But there is a drawback: some guests will only have one drink, and some will have none at all. If the amount of alcohol consumed ends up being lower than the estimated per-guest cost, you won't get a refund. On the other hand, if you keep a running tab, the bar team will add the price of each drink to your tab throughout the evening and you will pay the bill at the end of the night.
Take some time to think about who you're inviting and what the best approach for you is!
What's typically included in a catering package?
Many venues do provide catering options, but just as many don't. So when booking a caterer, you can expect most packages will include:
- Food. Needless to say, your caterer will source and provide the food itself. But whether you go for a plated dinner or open buffet is a separate matter!
- Beverages. Your caterer has your back here, and there's no need to hire a separate bar team. But you do need to discuss the particulars of what they will provide.
- Service staff. Servers, bartenders, and chefs are all key members of staff that will make your party memorable! Your caterer will help you determine how many you'll need for the size of your venue and guest list.
- Rentals. This includes linens, glassware, utensils, tables, chairs, and more. Most caterers and venues typically provide these, but always check to be sure.
Are there any hidden costs that aren't included in wedding catering packages?
In short, yes!
- Add-on services. Corkage, champagne toasts, and cake cutting are all usually additional fees, so make sure you discuss these extras and ensure they're outlined clearly in your contract.
- Chef-attended stations. A carving station requires an extra staff member, for example.
- Gratuity. This is sometimes factored into the bill, but check first. If it's not, plan to add a 15-20% tip to your food and drink bill (but not venue or rental cost).
How can I save money on wedding catering?
Like we said earlier, trimming down your guest list is always the number one way to save costs on anything. But here are some other ideas:
- Go for a daytime wedding. Brunch foods tend to be cheaper and easier to scale--and everyone loves brunch anyway, right?
- Go local and in-season. Locally-supplied, in-season foods are always going to be more affordable than anything imported. Plus it's more sustainable!
- Order in advance. You can ask guests to select their entrée early on their RSVP card.
- Lose the cocktail hour. Or at least put more affordable foods on stationery platters, and save the more expensive bites to be served as hors d'oeuvres.
Work with a wedding planner. While a planner is a separate, additional expense, having a pro on your side will help guide you on the costs and advocate on your behalf with vendors and catering staff.