How We Did It: The Self Catered Wedding

Andy and I were married on August 22, 2009. Here’s a quick account of our self catered wedding preparations. After mulling over different catering options and hitting more than one roadblock (money, availability, & quality), and taking heed to the many offers for assistance in preparation, we decided to DIY everything food-wise. We knew this would be a huge endeavor, but knew we would have the support and control over we needed and wanted. About two months before the wedding, we gathered for a meal with our parents and a few wedding party attendants to discuss meal planning and delegating jobs. Our overall theme was summer foods (kebabs, salads, cupcakes, kids food, and local beer), and we were able to decide on a wide range of options for all.

We had a team of 12 people preparing food, which included skewering kebabs, preparing cold salads, baking cupcakes, fetching kegs of beer, and assembling food for the kids table. The cupcakes were made a few weeks in advance, frozen, and then thawed and decorated the day before. Andy and I even got our hands into the mix, working on a few salads and kebabs in the days prior. I was told more than once that I shouldn’t be cooking, working, or lifting a finger the week of the wedding. To me, food and service go hand in hand and have been big components of my life, so making food for our guests seemed like a great gift in return. Plus, it was fun trying out new recipes which provided for a little stress relief.

Chaffing dishes were rented from a local party supply company to keep the hot foods hot, and we used family dishware for salads and kids food. The cupcakes were placed on vintage china plates borrowed from Andy’s grandma. Drinks were stored in kegs, coolers, and bottles. The napkins, plates, cups and silverware came from Ikea and Party City. Set up took place by the wedding party and friends of the family prior to the reception, while we were off having photos taken. Tear down took place after the band quit playing by family, friends, and the wedding party.

Overall costs

(A caveat – some of the estimates are rough, granted that our wedding was almost a year ago!)
  • Widmer Beer – $210 for three pony kegs + $18 tap rental + $140 refundable tap deposit + $300 refundable keg deposit = $228 (after refunds)
  • Cupcakes – $21 cupcake pan from Michael’s (purchased with a coupon) + $12 cupcake papers + $50 baking supplies = $83 (display plates were borrowed and decorative stamps were from my childhood collection)
  • Kebabs – A lot of the ingredients were purchased in bulk, which helped to cut down the cost. Andy and I spent about $100 when we purchased supplies for the food we prepared (two sets of the kebabs). I’m giving this a rough estimate of an additional $200 for the remaining kebabs, as the rest of the food was prepared by family who contributed out of their own pockets = $300ish
  • Pita Bread & homemade yogurt dip = $15
  • Salads – $40 farmer’s market fruits + $20 green & tropical salads + $10 for orzo = $70
  • Supplies – $10 Napkins + $7 beer cups + $10 beverage cups + $10 plates + $15 silverware + FREE butcher paper to cover the tables = $52
  • Kids’ food – $5 peanut butter sandwiches + $7 cream cheese & corn dog kebabs + (price included above) fruit kebabs = $12
  • Beverages – $20 bottled water + $7 lemonade + $20 soda + donated wine from family = $47
  • We also had use of the full kitchen space for food storage and preparation, which included free garbage/recycling disposal, garbage liners, brooms, mops, tables, and chairs.
Overall total = $807

What we learned

When in doubt, make more food! When you serve food at a gathering of any sort, people WILL eat! Our respective moms repeatedly told us that people don’t generally eat at weddings (we love you moms!), however, we now know this is not true. On the contrary, any wedding in which I’d ever participated or attended, I ate. In a nutshell, my advice is to prepare twice as much food (especially if you’ll be eating around dinner). We had prepared about 300 kebabs (beef, chicken, lamb, veggie, shrimp and antipasto), plus 4 salads (fruit, orzo, green, and tropical), plus provided some pita bread and yogurt for dipping, but the food went FAST for about 80-100 people. We had enough food for everyone (including our photographers and band), but there wasn’t much for leftovers (save for the cupcakes).

Have a list (or two) and check it twice (or three, four or five times)! About 10 days out, I emailed everyone involved with the wedding to give them a day-by-day planning guide for everything. It was very helpful to know when food and supplies would be rented, purchased, and prepared, and who may be free to lend an extra hand. Some confusion arose over when the repception hall would be open the day of the wedding to deliver food, and who would be setting up the food prior to the guests arrival. There were also moments of frantic cell phone calls to this or that person, expecting me or someone else to be wherever they were, but once someone was in touch with me or Andy, things fell into place.
Trust your wedding party and your family (and your Mom’s BFF from high school). This can be hard, especially if you have a take charge nature. Hopefully, your people want to help you and your partner, and by golly they will as long as you tell them what to do! Don’t mull over how it will be done or how long it will take. If you need someone to grab a few bags of ice on the way to the reception, shout it out. If you need someone to make sure the photographers have been offered food, put that person to work. No matter what, take up your friends and family on their countless offers to help, and let the rest fall into place. They are here for the happy couple and want to take away the stress in whatever way they can.

Be sure to eat! I know how hard it can be to take a few moments to sit and relax during a big event; especially if all the attention has been placed on you and your significant other. But when you’ve said your vows and made an entrance, it’s now time to eat! My matron of honor did her best job to “make conversation” with us while we were eating (to deter anyone else from distracting us from our few quiet moments), but no more than two minutes after that happened, more and more people stopped by to wish us well. No complaints here, of course, but in the end, we were still able to eat and enjoy our delicious food that we’d helped to prepare and share with our friends and family.

The one downside: I think a few people who were late to the reception didn’t get to select from as many food options as those who came before, but what can you do? As Andy’s Grandpa once said, “There’s the quick and there’s the hungry!” Which one will you be?

Pictures by Sarah & Rob Costa Photography of Vancouver, Washington

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  • Jamie

    Your food looks great! Until my friends started to get married, I had never been to a wedding that was catered. My family always made all the food for family weddings, my aunt always made the cake. I remember making meatballs for an entire day while my aunts made sauce for one cousin’s wedding. I remember layering lasagna for hours with my grandma for another cousins wedding. That together time with loved ones, I’m going to miss that with my own wedding.

    My wedding will be catered because I will be getting married out of town and have no access to a kitchen while I’m there (it’s out of town for everyone really). My aunt’s arthritis prevents her from cake making. Which makes me a little sad, because food cooked by people you love always tastes a little extra yummy.

  • My mom has just about forbidden me from catering my own wedding. :(

    I don’t have much family near my hometown to help (or friends that can cook) though. Thanks for sharing and convincing me that I was crazy to want to undertake something like this with only a handful of people!

    • meg

      Yeah. If your mom isn’t into it (ours were NOT, they said they would pay more so they didn’t have to cook or wash dishes on their kids wedding day) I would skip it. Self-catering is not more virtuous :)

      • That’s definitely the sentiment from my family as well. It’s just frustrating because there aren’t many caterers or restaurants nearby because my hometown is in the middle of nowhere in Iowa. Those that are in town are not the most vegetarian friendly or the most appetizing either. I’m going to have to get creative and might have someone cater that’s an hour away.

        While a wedding outside of large cities is generally a lot cheaper (all the venues in my town are well under 1k to rent for a day), it comes at a cost of options. :-/

    • Jennifer

      Totally with you, Tegan. I love reading the DIT posts to see different approaches to things (and to know where I can point someone asking about self-catering, or doing their own flowers, or DJing with an iPod at the other wedding places I like on the internet) — but also because reading about why it worked for someone else reassures me that going the hired route is the right choice for us and I did in fact make a sane, reasonable choice and am not wasting money just because of what the wedding industry or other people say we need.

  • That’s intense! You guys did an amazing job, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • The quick. When it comes to food, always the quick.

    I think this is awesome. I wanted to self cater/pot-luck, but was convinced not to. I’m talking like I’m already married… but months ago when I saw the self-catering of Liz and other folks, I was pumped. Unfortunately, it didn’t go that direction. And it’s okay… things happen and we deal with them the way we feel we need to.

    Plus, I’ve never made food for more than 6 people. So trying to self-cater would be crazy tough for me. (Thanks for that tip months ago, Meg. You saved me.)

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful day, Cara!

  • liz

    yum yum.

  • dev

    Everything looks wonderful and delicious! I LOVE the cupcakes with the stamp toppers. So pretty and fun!

    We originally wanted to have a self-catered/potluck wedding in my parents backyard (in another state). Eventually we decided to make things easy on ourselves by having the wedding in our current city, and giving up on the self-catering plan. But this post makes me long a little bit for the wedding we didn’t have.

  • I would LOVE to say that I (and others) would cook everything and have it be the best food anyone has ever had at a wedding, but I just don’t think that’s going to happen!

    I would love to hear how couples handle DITing food for guests with food sensitivities. There are quite a few in my family, and I’m wondering how one would go about accomodating them.

    I admire you for taking on the task, and kudos on a job well done!

    • Tricia

      Its not for a wedding, but I live in a community where we have common meals every week. I can cook a meal for 50 in about 3-5 hours with two assistants while dealing with gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and lactose intolerants in the crowd. My solution is curry. It generally has no flour, no meat, and no milk. More generally asian food is easier than most American food (and fast to cook) but you have to be sure you get gluten free soy sauce. I just make one pot of hot and one pot of mild (read no heat) for those who don’t like hot and let people blend it to their personal heat tolerance. The big job is chopping vegetables.

      • veronica

        Great advice!!! Curry and Stir-fry have saved many an interfaith dinner:P

    • We definitely considered any dietary restrictions, as we knew several people attending were/are non-meat eaters and my maid of honor’s husband was/is allergic to canola oil. We placed handwritten menu cards on the buffet and kids’ table, in order to ensure that our guests knew what they were eating. It can be hard to please everybody, but when you’re taking on such a large endeavor (and have a couple who like to please people), it didn’t seem too hard to accommodate the needs of others.

      • Cara’s Mom

        I think the people that had children there were happy to see ‘kid-friendly’ food. And of course the kids loved it.

    • Thanks for all your advice and tips! Gluten issues abound in my family, so it’s something I’m definitely wanting to accomodate. I don’t want people unable to eat or to suffer due to food choices. They should be able to have yummy food too!

  • I’m super impressed- I was talked out of catering our wedding by, everyone, and I am so glad. But it looks like you kicked ass! Way to go!

  • Alyssa

    Can y’all get married again? And then invite me? Pretty please?

    I think the nay-sayers on self-catering are important because it helps strengthen your resolve. We wanted to self-cater, but the more we talked about it the more overwhelming it got. (Probably because we did it for money reasons and not love of food reasons.) But if people question your motives and instead of getting defensive you go, “Nope, we think it’s a good idea and we’re going to do it.” then I think that means you’re on the right track.

    Now I want a peanust butter and jelly skewer….

  • This is a pretty fantastic undertaking! For a while I wanted to do the self-catering route too, supplemented by maybe a catered main dish (so, order one big item from a restaurant, and then make green salads, fruit salads, pasta salads, bean salads!) but my mother-in-law wasn’t too keen on the idea… we ended up finding a restaurant that wanted to build its catering base up and they provided everything, including chaffing dishes for free and nicer-than-Chinet dishes and faux-silver plasticware, for $900, to which we said YES! And we didn’t even taste-test the food, but it turned out to be really good and our guests loved it, so winwinwin. Not to get too off-topic, but if someone saw how much of an undertaking DIY catering is and wanted a different option, besides going all-out money-wise on catering (I got a quote for $27,000 from a catering company, I shit you not), you can always try to find a local restaurant that is trying to break into the catering biz and they may cut you a really good deal.

    • Cortney

      $27,000?! Holy moly! Lemme guess, you live in an area where 100 dollars a plate is the “norm” right? Ughhh. This is why I am so afraid of catering.

      But you’re right on the money with contacting local restaurants for potential “breaking out” catering deals. That happened with my cousin’s wedding, and the food was AH-MAZING.

      • meg

        For the record, while we didn’t pay anywhere near $27K, we forked over *somewhat close* to $100 a person, and I’m happy about it. People always say, “Well, I wouldn’t pay that much for a nice dinner for myself.” But I would, and I do, and I ended up being ok doing it for my guests too. So, it’s all about knowing yourself and what you care about.

        And in San Francisco, I’d say $150 a plate is the wedding industry average, so, it really depends.

        • Cortney


          And the price of catering really differs from places to place, I know that. But the cost of living & salaries are also different in those places, which means that while the sticker shock may kill some people, it’s one of those things that just kinda comes with the territory of living in a larger city.

        • liz

          ditto philly. we heard $150 a plate very often.

        • kat

          We’re getting married in my hometown in the East Bay instead of SF where we currently live, mostly because I knew it would help keep costs down. Still, our food is $56/person. But it was one of our areas of indulgence; areas of cheapness were: my dress (hello! I’m only going to wear it once & I do NOT need to spend crazy $$$ on it for it to be beautiful), we’re dit-ing our flowers, my headpiece/veil, and our invites, so that helped balance it out.

  • Yummy! Makes me wish I wasn’t so domestically disabled. ;)

    And thanks for the helpful budget run-down. Congrats to you and Andy!

  • Meg

    My wedding is going to be self-catered, too. We weighed our options and just decided that it made the most sense for us. Thank you for this inspiring (and helpful!) post.

  • That spread looks really yummy.

    I think we could easily carry off a self-catered event if I put my mom and brother in charge of food. It would be ridiculously fantastic, too. But I know myself, and I know that I don’t want to cook on my wedding day, and I also don’t want my family to feel like the hired help. We’re going to end up with something in-between, with a combination of restaurant take out food and self-catered hors d’ouevres and kid-friendly options. So I guess my point is, there is a middle ground between the expense of a full-blown catered affair and the labor-intensive self-catering option.

    • You’re right! I don’t know how many times I heard comments from people about how I shouldn’t be working so close to the wedding and why couldn’t we just let our families enjoy their time without delving into extra tasks. After awhile, I had to let the comments go and just do what felt right. After all, we were offered the help! If I hosted an event again for this amount of people, I may follow your route. :)

  • april

    I’m always impressed with people who self-cater parties (like, run-of-the-mill celebrations – birthdays and the like). But weddings!??!!? WOW. I bow down to y’all. And that spread of food looks incredible. You had me at kebab. Yummy.

    I work in the F&B industry, and have to say – if you’re self-catering and wondering how much food your REALLY need, just take your total headcount and prepare for double that number. So if you’ve got 100 people, make enough for 200. And so on. Or, whatever you’re making (especially foods by the piece) estimate two pieces per guest. I was absolutely floored at how much my 62 guests consumed. Mercifully, our dinner was a fully catered, sit-down type of deal. Our guests ate everything at cocktail hour and inhaled salads, entree and bread at dinner. I was kind of in shock “have they not eaten at allllll today??!?!” I prefer to believe it’s because it all tasted so good (it was scrumptious IMO) and they knew they were in for a rad-tastic night of frenzied dancing and needed the calories to busta move once the music started. *LOL

    Last bit of helpful advice: make sure the venue you select actually allows you to self-cater. Where I live (in San Diego), many places do not allow you cook/prep/bring in your own food for a wedding. And helpers! You need lots of helpers!!! :-)

  • Michelle

    I never even considered self-catering. I thought it was overwhelming when my fiance wanted to cook and serve the rehearsal dinner himself (he’s totally the cook in our family).

    But I love what you said, Cara, about service being a part of your life you wanted to include as a gift to your guests. At our reception, we served the cheesecake to our guests instead of having a receiving line. It was a small gesture, but important to me. And even then, we still had servers slicing and plating. We just handed the plate and fork to people.

  • You deserve a gold star! I’m beyond impressed. I would’ve been happy with just those cupcakes!!

  • ddayporter

    I am always amazed by self-catered weddings, especially ones as awesome as this. My sister made our wedding cake and just coordinating that was stressful enough, I can’t even image trying to organize the whole meal!

  • Holly

    My neighbor has graciously offered her services to my fiance and I to help us cut down our food costs. My ladies and I will be crammed in her little kitchen for about 3 days making sauce, layering lasagna, and generally making a mess and I could not be happier about it! Having that time to goof off and make wonderful food for our guests at the same time is something I am really looking forward to. Plus, what’s better than a home cooked meal as a thank you for coming to celebrate with us! :)

    Our cake is coming from the bakery, but everything else is on us! Hat’s off to Cara and Andy for having the courage to accept help when it is offered~you must!!! And I would love the PBJ skewer w/marshmallow recipe…WOW!

    • Totally easy! We made PB&J sandwiches (some with and w/o honey), cut them into squares without the crusts, and skewered them on with marshmallows. We wanted finger friendly foods that even the adults could enjoy.

  • MinnaBrynn

    “Be sure to eat!” I can’t tell you how many people told me they didn’t eat at their own reception. Most of them said they only got the bite or two of cake they “had” to feed each other. We knew we were having some of our favorite foods (my aunts catered at our request), so we refused to risk not eating. We set up a canopy over our table (for shade) and told people that they were welcome to stop by for a few minutes and talk with us while we ate. It worked wonderfully. We were both able to get all the food we wanted, and anyone who wanted to stop by could. After we ate, we still had time to go around and talk to people, so it worked out well for us. Also, we had 120 rsvp’s and prepared food for 200. We ended up with leftovers of everything except the hummus, but almost everything we had could be frozen for later so the extra was fine by us!

    • We made sure we ate too. I mean, we’d picked food we liked for a reason! Why wouldn’t we eat it.

    • Meg P

      The “be sure to eat” was the part I wanted to “exactly” as well! Moments before I stood up to say my vows I realised that 2 dry biscuits and some cheese wasn’t enough for lunch and I felt like I was going to pass out. I survived but I would not do that again!

      (Married 1 week today! eep!)

  • ElfPuddle

    Thank you for the budget breakdown!

    I love hearing about DIT projects, but am disappointed when people don’t give me a budget. I’m too checklisty to go without.

    Congrats, Cara!

  • LOVE the little crochet squares on the table. How cute are those!

    And now you’ve got me wanting kabobs. A lot. My mouth is watering. It all looks so good.

  • Thank you all for your wonderful and heartfelt comments!

  • kyle

    The important thing to remember is that if you are late to the reception and you don’t get any of the kebabs you made, you can take out your frustration on the groom’s car.

    • meg


  • Nessa

    Thanks for this post. We are getting married in November and will be doing it all ourselves. At 44 and 51, second time around for both of us and with 5 children, anything too fancy, complicted or over-the-top wouldn’t feel right for us and isn’t finacially feasible. Great to have to cost breakdown and I’m filing it with the other advice I’ve already gathered from other posts. I hope to be able to pay it back when the time comes.

  • Anna

    THANK YOU for this post!! Especially the budget breakdown.

    We’re having our wedding at a local metropark, and recently decided to get a bunch of hot dogs, sausages and tofu dogs and hire a few people (I work in a restaurant, and I know a few line cooks who’d love to help) to stand by the grills. I’ll be making several cold salads and possibly getting some local corn-on-the-cob to grill as well! The wedding isn’t til September 2011, so plans may change by then. But it’s great to read a post as informative and encouraging as this — it CAN be done!!

  • My wedding is now 2 weeks away…and the thought of adding anything to our TO DO list ESPECIALLY catering the entire thing makes me nauseous. I love throwing a dinner party, but even more so…I LOVE attending them and not having to stress. I also come from a family who is all traveling out of town and is so busy themselves that asking them to help cook food would not be advisable. But I do admire the coordination and ability of those who are able to pull this off!

  • Chloe

    We’ve been considering going down this route too, mostly because we’re major West Coast foodies and were disappointed by the quality of catering available near our family’s rural midwest home. The logistics are still a little mysterious to me though: Did you need to do hot food prep the day of? Did you do that, or your family? How did you find enough fridge/cooler space for all the cupcakes and all the other prepare-in-advance stuff? I’ve been having visions of having to rent/buy another freezer, and hiring some local community college kids to do the day-of cooking and set-up. You didn’t mention having to do either — how did you get around it?

    • I came back to read this post and noticed your comment. I hope this info helps!

      -Everything was prepared within two days of the wedding/reception, fully cooked, and then stored at a few family members’ houses, as well as our own. We also had use of the industrial kitchen/refrigerators at the union hall for food storage and reheating foods (all to appropriate temps, as I’ve worked in the food/service industry for several years!). We brought all of the food to the hall after our rehearsal, and basically had everything set up the night before (tables, chairs, decor, serving stations, etc.).

      -The cupcakes were made weeks in advance by my mother-in-law, stored in her large box freezer, and then pulled out to thaw and frost the day before. Those were then kept in refrigerator space until the reception.

  • We were planning on self-catering our wedding, but my biggest worry was letting go of control and trusting that friends would pull it off, make enough food, be able to serve it, AND enjoy the wedding?
    My biggest vision and wish for my reception was that our guests would sit down (no buffet) enjoy a glass of wine, and have plenty of food family-style. We found a new, young, catering company through a friend who worked with our budget and promised there would be enough food. The very first question I asked him/them was “are we crazy to think we can feed 120 people with $2000?” He said no, we weren’t crazy, and was eager to make a menu and cater our wedding.
    Big Mistake.
    Despite my best efforts to go over in detail how the vegetarians would get their food (and he assured me it would be fine) we received the worst service, with only one person serving 120 people, one in the kitchen being rude to our guests, and not enough food. The aftermath was nasty emails, a canceled check and finally, after two weeks, an apology from our caterer and an agreed upon price.
    We ended up paying about $1600 (originally $2000) for a few bowls of salad, two platters of bread, cheese and salami (no fruit or olives as promised in our menu) 30 very small pieces of vegetarian lasagna, most of which was eaten by non-vegetarians because there was nothing else at their table to eat, and some grilled chicken with barely warm veggies (that had been roasted to perfection at our tasting, as per our menu).
    I could go on and on with examples of how terrible everything was, how not enough food there was. I think only two tables actually received the appetizer, salad, and both chicken and lasagna that each table was supposed to get.
    By the time my husband and I sat down from photos the food was gone. My sister went in the kitchen and came out with a couple of plates of the chicken and veggies. I was SO DISAPPOINTED.
    I still have nightmares and regrets and wishes that I could go back in time and make a different decision. Our friends said “why didn’t you have us bring our bbq’s over?” and on and on with other offers. It sucks to know that things could have been so much different and so much better.
    So… I’m thrilled to see that self-catering can work, and of course it is a lot of hard work and requires many hands, but it so very very worth it.

  • Pamela

    This is like way late and I don’t know that anyone will read this but I thought I’d share what my best friend’s family did for an inexpensive wedding. They had a chinese food restaurant cater, and supplemented it with hor d’oueves bought frozen from Sam’s they heated up themselves before the wedding. The cake was also from Sam’s, for $36. They had coolers with bottles of beverages. It was a small wedding, about 35 guests. I don’t know how much was spent on food exactly, but I know the ENTIRE wedding cost less than $1K.

    Personally I’m considering self catering, but am uncertain. But it’s nice to see brides that have pulled it off. Encouraging!

  • Sharee

    How do you get down to asking people to help?
    I’m conflicted because my future mother in law is sure that the family will be 100% willing to help. But every time I get on the message boards, I read “don’t you dare ask them to do that! They’re guests!” But…. my fiance’s cousins and friends are jumping at the idea of DJ-ing, and at every family function, his Tio Ezequiel is tending bar, whether someone asked him to or not. His best friend is taking pictures so he could have something to do because he “hates just sitting around”.

    • Once we decided we wanted to self-cater, the offers to help dropped in our laps (thankfully!). What I had a difficult time with was delegating tasks AND worrying about the details of the food. However, once I made a few lists of supplies and ingredients, I let our folks know how to, how much, and what came next.

      My advice on asking for help: be tactful, polite, and know that some folks feel what they take on is their gift to you. Make a list of what you need done, in great detail if needed (to take the edge off of your stress), set deadlines, and most importantly, communicate!

  • I know this is quite late, but I’m curious where you got the *free* butcher paper. I love this idea and would like to possibly consider it for our wedding this Autumn.

    Cheers — a love fete,


    • And this follow up comment is super late… You’re most likely married by now; congrats!

      My husband’s dad works at the local paper mill where he has acquired lots of free goodies throughout his tenure (toilet paper, paper towels, butcher paper, etc.). Using the paper was a last moment decision that worked out quite well.

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