How To Self Cater Your Wedding, Part II

Back in December, we drove down to Georgia to attend my fiance’s aunt’s wedding. It was a second wedding for both his aunt and her new husband (they’d both been widowed years ago) and the entire thing was taking place on the same day as the annual family Christmas gathering. There were about sixty or so people at the reception, and around thirty-five of those came back for a second meal after the reception when the actual family Christmas party started. Needless to say…this translates to a LOT of food. And no joke, the bride cooked nearly all of that food herself, with some help from her sisters (and me, towards the end). So for those of you who think that it just can’t be done…it can be done, single-handedly, by a woman in her sixties in a tiny kitchen. Granted, some of us are attempting to self-cater weddings with double or even triple that amount of guests, but I still find inspiration in remembering this particular experience, as well as a few guidelines I plan to follow when we do this in a few months. I don’t normally like to break things into dos and don’ts, but it seems like the best way to simplify all I’ve got to say. Also, please note that I am not an expert, and no advice can cover every situation. This is just what I learned from helping with a self-catered wedding…plus a little bit of knowledge gathered from years of helping prepare large amounts of food for large amounts of people, otherwise known as “my family is huge and loves to eat a lot.”

DO enlist good people to help, if you can. I don’t mean ask just anyone to help. I mean find people you really trust to help get the job done. If things don’t go as planned and this means they stay up with you til 3:30 in the morning preparing food only to get up at 7:00 the next morning and continue preparing food until midnight the night before the wedding, you’ll want to have people around who won’t grumble about it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have those helpers at their beck and call, but if you are, use them.

DON’T decide to try out new recipes that you’ve never even heard of before. This seemed to be the biggest stress-factor for our Aunt B; while she mostly stuck to foods she knew, she was also determined to make several items that were “fancy” to impress her new husband’s family. If you really, REALLY want a particular food item at your wedding, make the recipe ahead of time to try it out. And please don’t start making foods to impress anyone. Because honestly, looking back, I don’t think anyone remembers the “fancy” food any more than the mashed potatoes. All we remember is that the food was good.

DO make foods that transport well. This sort of goes along with the fancy-food advice above, because as a general rule, the fancier foods are the ones who won’t survive a trip in the back of a car to the reception site. One of my jobs the morning of became salvaging what I could of these little mini-pastry things that ended up getting stuck to the top of the boxes they were in.

DON’T forget about platters. I’m sure there’s a more general name than that, but where I’m from, we use platters to serve just about everything. If you don’t care about things matching, then borrow as many as you can (and make sure that they are all labeled on the bottom with the names of who you borrowed them from, because you will not remember at all who they belong to after the ceremony). Borrow at least ten more than you think you need. It’s better to have too many than to realize the day-of that you’re going to have to serve cheese and crackers on a paper plate. Unless paper plates are what you want. Then go right ahead.

DO break things up into smaller tasks. Your helpers will be much more helpful if you can give them a specific task that needs to be accomplished, like peeling potatoes or grating cheese, or even taking out the trash in the kitchen when it starts to resemble something out of a B-horror movie. It’s almost like dealing with young children in some ways. If you tell a small child, “pick up the toys” the results won’t be nearly as quick or painless as if you had said, “pick up the cars and put them back in the car box”. The same rule really applies with helpers in a kitchen situation; the more specific you are with instructions, the faster (and better) results will happen.

DON’T forget about serving utensils AND cooking utensils (knives, big spoons, etc.). Please, please don’t forget about them. I almost want to put this at the top of the list, because if you don’t think about them, you will be at the ceremony site in the middle of NOWHERE with no stores nearby, frantically calling cousins to ask them to stop off at the Dollar General on their way there to please, PLEASE buy some knives and spoons (and platters, and an extra tablecloth). Forgetting knives was quite possibly the most stressful event of the day, and yet it’s something no one had thought about ahead of time because all of us were so used to having kitchen utensils within easy reach.

DO make a list of exactly what food you’re making, and keep that list updated. Check an item off once it’s finished. Not only does this give you a finish line to look foward to, it also saves your kitchen helpers from starting on a task that may have already been finished.

DON’T add foods to the list last-minute that you weren’t planning on. This might sound obvious, but how many of us have ever gotten into DIY-mode and thought, “Oh, but wouldn’t THIS be great to have?” Don’t do that to yourself. Come up with your list ahead of time, get everything you need for those specific dishes gathered ahead of time, and stick to the list. It’s okay to leave something out if you run out of time, but if you have to drop and item from the list, don’t make yourself crazy by trying to add something in its place.

In the end, helping Aunt B with self-catering her wedding is part of what inspired us to self-cater our own. Yes, it was a lot of work. Yes, it was a headache at times. But what I really remember is licking cake-icing off spoons at midnight, all of us giddy and tired and happy because the food was all finished, and feeling like even though I had come into the process a little late, I had shared something great with those women.

Looking back, I realize it was a much-needed bonding experience for all of us involved. My fiance’s brother had passed away just two months earlier. This was the first Christmas and the first big family-event to take place since he passed. There were a lot of tears that weekend because losing him was really hard on the entire family. Maybe not everyone bonds over food the way Southern women do, but as for me, food preparation is really a family experience. I might be singing a different tune when my own wedding rolls around, but right now, I truly
think I would take memories of making our own food with loved ones over pretty plates any day.

Photo by Emily Takes Photos

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  • Kate

    I know you didn't serve 10 pounds of potatoes to 70 people though, right? My family serves 15 pounds to 20! Thanks so much for all the great tips!

  • Meg

    Lots of OTHER food. And honestly, that was one 10 pound bag… there were probably more, but I was just on child wrangling duty or something.

    For a minute I thought you were saying 10 pounds was too much, and I was going to say, "Girl… you've never catered for huge groups, huh?" But yeah. you totally have.

  • Okay, first of all, to anyone who is going to be self-catering – WOW, you go girl. You have my complete and utter respect and admiration. Speaking as a person who has made numerous holiday dinners for crowds of 20 and up, it's no easy task. So, here's my two words of advice to add: TIME & TIMELINE When making a huge holiday feast, one of the hardest parts is to make sure everything is ready at the same time. So, making sure your timeline takes into consideration how long things take and what dishes can truly be done ahead of time and wait, this is a real essential. Also, do some trial runs on your selected foods to see how they react to the inevitable waiting period before being served. Speaking from experience, mashed potatoes might taste amazingly smooth and creamy when you first finish them, but let them sit for just 30 minutes and they will likely be much too dry and in desperate need of more moisture. Trial runs (including a waiting/transporting simulation) on even the most basic things might make a world of difference. Best of Luck to those who try it. Can't wait to hear all of the success stories.

  • This makes me think of so many fond memories of preparing Thanksgiving food with my aunt. The past several years I've tried to arrive a day or two early just so I can help with the food. It's time where we get to bond in a way that just doesn't happen over the rest of the holiday.

    I totally agree with Jane about TIMELINES too. Especially if you have limited oven space! Oh boy, the limited oven space. Last year my aunt actually made a spreadsheet of which foods needed to be cooked at what temperature for how long, and which could be cooked with something else. Crockpots may also be your best friend–you can plug them in anywhere. (The bathroom!)

    I wish you the best of luck in catering your wedding! It sounds like it'll take a lot of planning and work, and be SO worth it in the end.

  • I love your blog- it has been a constant source of stress reducing since I've become engaged. I was recently nominated as a Beautiful Blogger and when asked what other blogs I thought were wonderful, I had to share yours! To read more about it, check out my blog:

    Thanks so much for your fabulous blog- I look forward to the next post soon!

  • Oh, Marina, you are SOOO right about the crockpots. They are life savers. We've accumulated 6 of them and my fiance is always asking me, "Are you sure we really need all of these? Can we put some of them in the yard sale?" NOOOOOO, I say. Then at the holidays, he is reminded why. But, again, just like any other dish, do test runs to see how each dish reacts to being cooked in a crockpot. I've discovered that many dishes can be adapted just a bit to work with them. But, sometimes you need to stir often or add an insulating layer (like pineapple rings under the spiral ham) so that the bottom layer doesn't get too warm or dry out.

  • Great, GREAT advice. I'm using this post as words to live by for any catering I'll be doing in the future. Granted, I doubt I will cater anything that will be as big as a wedding, but even if it's for 5, 15 or 50, these do's and don't still apply! (I'm SO guilty of the last-minute addition or the fancy dish I've never cooked before…)

  • …there's something cool about seeing something you wrote appear on a blog you love. It's kinda like seeing your name in the newspaper!

  • This post is killer, I don't think I could handle catering my own wedding but I am so in awe of those who tackle that project!

  • We're actually starting to consider partial self-catering (appetizers and dessert) which is slightly terrifying but feels as if it *should* be doable. So I really appreciate all the useful information here, especially the big-picture approach questions as a way to quell that terror and make it feel manageable. Thanks.

  • Liz

    This is such a southern thing, but it's so true. We are self-catering partly for cost, but also partly because it's what my family does: spend hours in the kitchen together.

    And if you don't have experience cooking for lots of people…do you have any friends that lived in a coop in college? Because that's where I really learned how many beans you have to cook for 50 people.

  • i have to agree, cooking a large meal with family is very much a bonding experience. we did it all the time growing up and still do it even today. those are certainly some of my favourite memories full of so much laughter and the least amount of politics.

    as far as the wedding is concerned, all my pre-wedding events will be home cooked meals. this includes the night before the wedding where we'll be feeding 300-400 people..

  • Wow, am I impressed. For a moment after reading Part 1, I thought about self-catering. And for a wee bit of Part 2. But though my family enjoys cooking and we've done many a Thanksgiving (and I've thrown a few dinner parties) nothing has come close to the numbers y'all are talking about. So this is just one place where I will just say that it sounds like a wonderful experience for you and your family, but it's not for our wedding. But I totally hear you about adding in that untried fancy dish. It's a trademark of my whole family!

  • P.S.

    @Meg. You've probably figured this out but in case you haven't, my bookmark for your blog doesn't work anymore. It kept says "blog not found" or some such nonsense. But I popped into my reader and saw that there were two new posts and was able to get to it from there. Don't know why that is, but thought you'd like to know in case it's happening to other readers.

  • This reminds me of meals my family prepared as a child…thank you!!! I may self-cater my little wedding. I might.

  • Rose

    Excellent advice! Thank you. All this talk about self-catering on APW is making me feel better about our decision to do it.

  • Debbie

    Thanks so much for all the information! We’re hosting my son’s wedding this August at our home and we’ll be making all of the food as well. 120 people for a buffet! Scared – yup, just a bit. I’ve hired 3 girls for the day so I can actually put on a pretty dress and enjoy – hopefully. And I’m hoping to find someone in our area to roast us a pig, so if I screw everything else up, at least we’ll have that. We’re also serving salmon (not sure if it will be hot or cold) along with probably 4 different salads, perogy, cabbage rolls and more. This will be crazy – I just know it, but I’m up for the challenge. Christmas dinner here is on average 30 people so we’re used to lots of people, but 120 – whew! Keep the advice coming!

  • haze

    I am self catering the whole 3 course meal. My tip? Make in advance, freeze and on the day, get someone to chuck stuff in a slow cooker! I am making 3 types of soups, dinner rolls, vegetarian lasagne, meatloaf (obviously they will need to be cooked in the oven) and a crock pot chicken dish. Blanching vegetables to freeze and steam. Mashed potatoes in the crock pot. Frozen desserts. Apple pie and ice cream, cheesecakes, etc. We will dice everything for salads the week-of the wedding ro be able to throw into a bowl on the day. Of course, we are begging and borrowing a LOT of crock pots! But it’s a matter of taking ecerything frozen to the site the day before, thawing overnight in the fridge, then having someone chuck it in crock pots on the morning/around noon. And voila! Catering for 50-80 people.

    We are doing it for financial reasons. Spreading costs by making one dish a week, and into a borrowed deep freezer it goes.