Food is at the heart of any big celebration, and that’s especially true for the biggest day of your life: your wedding.

Couples can spend 30% or more of their overall budget on dining options alone, says Kristine Cooke, an event planner and owner of full-service event planning and design company Simply Charming Socials. But catering costs can fluctuate dramatically, depending on a long list of factors.

Fortunately, there are ways to save on your wedding catering costs and keep your budget in check. Here, wedding industry experts and a real couple explain everything you need to know about wedding catering.

Wedding Catering Costs — What Drives Them

It’s tough to put an exact price tag on how much to budget for a reception. As a low-ball starting point, you might estimate $35 per person, but that can soar past $100, based on a variety of influences, according to chef and owner of Cru Catering, John Zucker.

These factors include but are not limited to the cost of the venue, rentals, staffing, bar, and of course, the food itself, Zucker says.

Headcount and catering costs

Many quotes are based on the number of people who RSVP. And couples must pay what they agreed to — even if there’s a no-show or an extra person who appeared without giving a head’s up, according to Mignon Francois founder and CEO of Nashville bakery The Cupcake Collection.

Catering costs based on timing and location

Location and time of year are other factors that influence cost. For example, Candice Wigfield, owner of Hamby Catering & Events in Charleston, South Carolina, says that catering costs tend to be higher in her town. Why? Because caterers tend to charge more when – and where – there’s higher demand.

“Because of this popularity, many wedding-related vendors, including caterers, charge premium prices on prime dates, such as Saturdays in spring and fall, when the weather is particularly nice,” she says.

Though most cities in the United States can find access to any food at any time, seasonality of produce and goods can drive costs up, too. After all, if a caterer has to put in a special order for a specific food, they will usually charge the couple for the processing. This makes it essential to be strategic with your menu selections, your wedding date, and the ZIP code you intend to say ‘I do’ in.

Serving style and food costs

Another important decision to make is what style you prefer for your reception. Is it a plated dinner? Family-style serving? A buffet? How about serving/carving stations and cocktail options? All of these depend on your overall theme and goal for the celebration, and range in cost.

What you pick has a significant impact on your bottom line, says Trip Wheeler, owner of SB Value. His company offers a food-buying program for caterers, and he sees firsthand how much certain types of purchases truly cost.

“Plated dinner and passed hors d’oeuvres will cost considerably more than a buffet-style dinner, especially if you take into account that additional staff will be required to attend the event to have more hands on deck,” he says.

If you do opt for a buffet or serving stations, the menu makes a difference, too.

“If you have your heart set on a sushi bar or lobster rolls, it’s helpful to come prepared with some questions for your caterer regarding market prices,” he says. “This will help give you a good idea of how much you’d be spending for those options, rather than being surprised after the fact.”

Catering cost wild cards

Some catering companies may charge for things you might not think of — like an additional few dollars per piece of cake cut — that can add more zeroes to the final bill.

The type of wedding you decide to host also plays a part. This is especially true in the age of Instagrammable moments, which encourages couples to ask for more creative set-ups. Elaborate and ornate preferences tend to come with a higher-end price tag.

How much does wedding catering cost?

Trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for your wedding? Here’s a look at some average costs of wedding catering, based on recent data from WeddingWire.

  • Most couples spend between $1,800 and $7,000 on catering.
  • Most caterers will include alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as part of their packages.
  • The average cost per person for a wedding in the United States is $40 for a plated meal and $27 for a buffet. Adding an open bar typically ups the cost by $15 per person.
  • You should tip a caterer between 15% and 20% of the final cost.
  • Around 25% of couples ask guests to choose their meal before attending to save on cost.

Wedding Catering Budget Tips

Without a doubt, weddings cost a pretty penny — and most couples know that going into the planning period. No one wants to serve flavorless food or leave their guests hungry, but going broke isn’t a savvy choice.

The good news: There are ways to cut back on catering costs without skimping on quality. Consider these tips from the pros.

Pick what people love

Considering you’re inviting them to such a special life event, you probably know your guests pretty well. You might even know what types of food they’ll enjoy and which ones they won’t.

You and your soon-to-be spouse might enjoy fine dining. But if your families prefer a traditional spread, Zucker suggests basing your catering selection on their palette.

“If you know what they like, you can reduce the amount of food ordered and reduce the amount of food not being eaten, which the client is ultimately paying for,” he says.

Limit food restrictions

Some food restrictions are warranted, like to accommodate a food intolerance or allergy. However, some limitations end up being more expensive for couples. One of those is time, since tight schedules usually require more staff to execute efficiently.

As an example, Zucker says it’s costly to order 400 pieces of hors d’oeuvres – and ask to have them served within 30 minutes. “People don’t consider how the time constraints can change the bottom line, but that extra staff adds up quickly,” he says.

Opt for local ingredients

In addition to being environmentally friendly and paying tribute to your locale, sourcing local ingredients could result in a much lower bill, according to Wheeler.

“If seafood or specialty meat is a must-have, it can be much cheaper when sourced on the coast, as opposed to having to find a supplier that may charge the caterer above market price because it isn’t local to the area,” he says.

Book your wedding catering early

No matter how long your engagement is, Francois urges couples to book catering early, especially if you intend to wed during the peak summer season or over a holiday weekend. The most sought-after chefs and companies can sell out months, if not years, in advance.

Francois says the same goes with your cake if you plan on ordering from a bakery, since many will charge a rush fee if advance notice isn’t given at least a month or so before the big day.

Compromise on other wedding decisions

In the early stages of wedding planning, you and your partner should set a budget and talk about what matters most to you for the celebration. Is it flowers and decor? Lavish gifts for your guests or wedding party? A dreamy beachfront location? Or is it food?

If it’s food, Cooke suggests making it a larger part of your budget and compromise elsewhere. If food isn’t a high priority, focus on the items that are.

“If let’s say florals are at the top of your wish list, be realistic that you may not have the budget for every cuisine bell and whistle, so that you can put more money towards killer centerpieces,” she says. “This will ensure that you’re reasonable about what you’re able to spend on catering.”

Creative Alternatives for Cheap Wedding Catering

If you and your partner are open to untraditional catering options, you can save a ton of money by taking a different route with food. From food trucks to creative takes on bars and menus, here are some ideas to get your brainstorming started.

Choose a food truck

When Anna and Tommy Patterson planned their fall 2017 wedding in Greensboro, North Carolina, they wanted to keep their budget as low as possible. As they were researching, they realized they could choose a food truck over a customary plated dinner and save serious money on wedding catering.

They hired one of Tommy’s high school friends who owned Bandito Burrito, and ordered meat and vegetarian options for their 75 guests. Even paying full price and all-in, they spent $1,200 on the food.

“The meal was buffet style, which some people don’t care for. But for us, we wanted a relaxed vibe, so that was no issue,” she says. “It also prevented us from having to pay for plates of food for the guests who RSVP “yes” but don’t show up.”

Serve brunch for dinner

It’s everyone’s favorite weekend meal anyway, so why not serve it up for your wedding? Even if you have an afternoon or an evening wedding, Daniel Love, event planner at Banca by DiBruno Brothers says an egg, waffle, and bacon menu can cut down on costs. It’s a different take that will surprise — and perhaps even delight — guests. Serving Champagne doesn’t hurt, either.

Consider an open tab

Depending on your venue, the cost per person for an open bar can be expensive. And when you think of the folks who will probably only have one drink, some of that headcount is wasted. That’s why the Pattersons opted for an open tab versus a per-person count.

“The bartender put it on a tab, which we paid for at the end of the night,” Anna Patterson says. “Technically, it was an open bar, and it was our highest wedding-related cost. But since we only paid for what was consumed, the cost was reasonable while still providing the luxury of alcohol, at no cost to guests.”

How To Find an Amazing Wedding Caterer

You might have plenty of options, but whittling down your list to the best-of-the-best caterers in your area? Not such an easy task. To find the right match for your wedding celebration, follow these tips.

Read wedding catering reviews online

The digital age lets you have an inside look into other people’s experiences – and can hopefully help you find a good wedding caterer. Doing this might, at the very least, save you from wasting money on a bad experience.

In the same way you might research something before purchasing it, Wigfield suggests checking out Google, Facebook, and Yelp pages for any caterer you’re considering. You might also want to check WeddingWire and The Knot reviews, which are specific to wedding experiences.

Asking for referrals is also a surefire way to find solid options. These can come from friends, family, and local vendors.

“Your favorite local restaurant may offer catering options for events without your knowledge, and it never hurts to ask,” Wheeler says. “This is a great way to scope out the business ahead of time to gauge satisfaction of their service or menu flexibility, even whether or not they’ll offer special dishes for guests with dietary restrictions.”

Work with a wedding planner to save money

Consider hiring a wedding planner, who usually have a curated list of vendors. Because they have worked with these chefs before, they can vouch for the quality and help find an option within your budget. They might also help you save money.

“I recently saved a couple $6,000 [on] their catering bill by matching them with the right fit and then getting creative on how their menu came together,” says Amber Anderson, the host of Refine for Wedding Planners.

Ask for a tasting within your budget

For many couples, taste is, of course, the most vital factor in signing up for a caterer. After all, you likely won’t be stoked to serve food you can’t stomach yourself.

That’s why Anderson suggests setting up tastings with potential caterers who agree to work within your budget. During this process, pay attention if they’re trying to upsell you — or if they are doing all they can to be supportive.

“You definitely want to aim for a company that provides great customer service regardless of how much you’re going to pay,” she says. “Someone that’s not communicative or doesn’t follow your vision isn’t going to bode well for your big day.”

Budget-Friendly Questions for Your Wedding Caterer

Now that you’re ready to make your top picks, it’s time to ask the right questions. This can help ensure you, your partner, and the caterer are all on the same page. It may help prevent miscommunication and inform your final decision. Get started with these.

What’s included in the cost?

Of all the questions, Cooke says this one absolutely cannot be missed. After all, it’s what you need to know the most, right? She suggests asking this upfront and following up with what ‘extras’ you might expect as a couple. This gives you some wiggle room to figure out ways you could save on cost.

“A huge money saver is avoiding duplicate delivery fees from multiple companies,” she says. “You will still want to get various quotes to cost compare, but ultimately, the caterer may be able to offer you solutions to avoid hiring a laundry list of vendors.”

More often than not, Cooke says appetizers for the cocktail hour, the reception food, the late-night food, the staff, and service will all be included for packages. However, it varies greatly. That’s why you must ask from the start.

Do you use frozen foods or fresh foods?

Especially when you think about cost, you probably don’t want to serve your guests frozen food if you’re spending the bulk of your budget on catering. Zucker suggests getting a clear understanding of what the kitchen intends to source fresh and local, and what will come from the freezer.

“Some items you have to buy frozen, such as shrimp, but asking what is fresh and what is frozen will give you an indication of what kind of company you are working with,” he says. “Some companies buy almost all of their goods pre-made and then heat it at the event. And that may not be what you desire for your wedding.”

Have you worked with my venue before?

If you’re sourcing an outside caterer from your venue, Cooke says it’s in your best interest to work with a caterer who has hosted an event at the location in the past.

“Their experience can be very telling on what will feel comfortable and natural for you and your guests, and can also help save you money by avoiding logistical issues,” she says.

What does this mean? When you’re considering booking a caterer for your venue, ask them if they have serviced the space before. This allows them to explain exactly what you should expect, including any restrictions or obstacles.

Why should we hire you?

When you choose your caterer, you’re ultimately hiring someone — and that makes the relationship much like a job interview. Your caterer should be able to illustrate their strengths, explain their ethos, and provide a convincing argument on why they’re the best company for the gig.

“If the caterer can’t clearly communicate what really makes them shine, they might not be passionate about their craft,” Wigfield says.

The Bottom Line on Wedding Catering Costs

For one of the biggest days of your life, you want everything to go as smoothly as possible. And of course, you want your guests to leave overfilled with joy for your new marriage — and well-fed.

Choosing a caterer who fits your budget and your vision for your wedding can save you headaches — and hopefully some cash — down the road. Careful planning can help you relax and enjoy this one-of-a-kind day.