How to Budget for Catering a Party

Catering expenses include more than food and drink costs.
i Thomas Jackson/Lifesize/Getty Images

To be the host or hostess with the mostest, you can turn to a caterer who does the work while you get the compliments. Budgeting for food and beverage for a party can depend on how much you want to spend or what you want to serve. Using the former method, you’ll work with the caterer to make your cash go as far as possible. Using the latter choice, you’ll pick your dream menu and adjust after you see the costs.

Create Your Guest List

Your guest list will guide you as you plan your catering, based on who’s coming and whether they have champagne tastes or more down-to-earth expectations. If your crowd is more upscale, they may expect finger foods and hors d’ oeuvre, rather than a meal. If it’s family and friends, especially college students or single guys, they may want more substantive foods. Kids will want fun, familiar foods, such as pizza, dogs and chicken fingers.

Plan Your Menu

Meet with your caterer or potential caterers to review menus. A caterer can quickly take your guest list and your spending limit and determine which menu would be most appropriate for a first draft of your plan. Most caterers will have multi-course menu plans and individual food items with costs for each. The more accurate an attendee number you can give your caterer, the better you can determine your food costs upfront. A menu with hot foods might require additional set-up costs, such as chafing dishes and serving staff. Cold items can be delivered early, you can set them out yourself and guests can serve themselves. Hors d’ oeuvre might require wait staff.

Plan Your Drinks

If the money you have budgeted for your catering has to cover drinks, decide on what you can serve that will stretch your budget. For example, instead of serving alcohol, make the party BYOB and supply mixers such as tonic water and club soda, fruit, olives, onions, ice and other set-ups to make an attractive bar area. Offer soft drinks or a large cooler of iced tea, punch or lemonade for non-drinkers. If your party is downscale, consider a keg. You may need to pay a deposit and pay for a tapper, tub and ice, in addition to the keg. Depending on the number of people you have, canned beer, wine and soft drinks might be enough. If you want to offer an open bar, ask about the quality of the liquor served. Your options might include more expensive call brands or cheaper well brands the caterer buys in bulk. Set specific hours for the bar, after which point, bartenders stop serving or guests pay for their own drinks. Another option for controlling your drink costs is to give each guest one or two tickets they redeem for drinks.

Determine Other Costs

Ask you caterer about non-food costs, such as skirted tables, serving dishes, utensils, glasses or cups, paper products, chafing dishes with heat sources, labor, gratuity and set-up and take-down fees. If you plan on supplying your drinks, verify whether or not the caterer will serve them, or if she will require a corkage fee, which is a cost to open and pour drinks.

Adjust Your Plans

After you have created your initial menu, determined your drink costs and verified your non-food costs, re-examine all three to determine if you can afford them. If not, begin reducing your food and drink costs. Look for cheaper, more filling food items, especially appetizers such as chips, pretzels and popcorn. Look for foods the caterer can make in large batches, rather than individual servings. For example, instead of offering individual sandwiches, offer trays of pasta. A sheet cake is less expensive than individual pastries and cupcakes. Look at your protein costs for savings. Instead of serving filet, offer London broil. Serve a meatless marinara sauce with spaghetti or skip the shrimp and ham in jambalaya.

the nest