No question about it, your own wedding may be the biggest event you’ll ever have to organize. And for most couples, providing the food and drink can be the trickiest part to plan. At the very least, you don’t want guests to go home hungry, but wouldn’t it be great to wow them with a spectacular spread, too? A superb caterer can easily make this a reality — but the challenge is finding one who can work within your budget and help you craft the perfect menu for your needs.

Before calling a caterer, you’ll first need to settle on the key details: the reception venue and time, number of guests, style of reception (cocktail, buffet or sit-down meal), choice of theme if any, and most importantly, your budget.

Question Your Caterer 

Once you make the call, be prepared for the caterer to ask you lots of questions, says Debra Lykkemark, CEO of Culinary Capers Catering & Special Events in Vancouver. “A competent caterer needs this information to fully understand your vision, so that they can plan and execute a flawless and fabulous event for you,” she explains. “If you don’t have all the answers, ask for their advice and guidance. They will likely have years of experience planning events and can help you create a seamless event while getting the biggest return possible for your budget.”

Make Sure They Understand Your Dream Wedding

As with any vendor you select for your wedding, how well you can communicate with the caterer is the key to a successful relationship. “Find a caterer that you connect with — someone that listens to your needs and uses their expertise to create an event that is a joyful experience that you and your guests will remember,” Lykkemark suggests. If you don’t feel that a prospective caterer is going to be your ally, keep looking elsewhere.

A Wedding Costs the Same as a Cocktail Party

It’s important to be upfront from the beginning and tell the caterer that you’re looking for wedding services, says Donna Wadsworth, head honcho at Savoury City Catering & Events in Vancouver. “I’ve seen countless brides-to-be inquire about a ‘cocktail’ party when it is actually a wedding they are planning,” she says. “Generally, caterers don’t charge any more for a wedding than they do for a cocktail party; however, the planning can be intense and involve numerous meetings and site inspections with both the client and other vendors, as well as countless proposal revisions.”

If you’re honest about what you’ve got to work with, your caterer can design a menu that reflects your overall vision and budget and prevent a worst-case under-catering scenario, adds Wadsworth. “Remember, your caterer has their own reputation to uphold, and they want you to have an event that exceeds your expectations in every possible way.”

Don't Run Out of Reception Food

Many couples struggle with how much of their budget to allocate to food and alcohol. For some, the meal needs to be exceptional, while others may have different priorities. But keep in mind that guests tend to recall two things from a wedding: how the bride looked, and the food. Or more specifically, whether the food was great (or not).

An insufficient quantity of food is one of the top mistakes that Lykkemark sees in the industry. “If the ceremony is at 4 p.m. and dinner is at 6:30 p.m., remember that most people will not have eaten since lunch,” she says. “You need to provide enough food during the cocktail hour to keep people satiated, as well as soak up the alcoholic beverages you are serving. A late-night cheese and charcuterie platter, sliders, miniature pizzas and vegetable samosas are also a good idea for the 10:30 p.m. dancing crowd.”

Consider allocating between 50 and 60 per cent of your budget to the reception, including venue, food and alcohol, notes Cynthia MacNeil, marketing manager at Peake of Catering in Vancouver. “And don’t expect to save costs by serving hors d’oeuvres instead of dinner. It’s actually more labour intensive and costs more than a buffet,” she explains.

Find Other Ways to Save on Booze and Entrées

If you do need to cut costs on food and drink, rather than sacrifice quality or quantity, consider other options. Start by limiting the number of entrée choices and either serve beer and wine only, a signature cocktail or sparkling wine, instead of splashing out for a full bar. “Find out if your venue will allow you to provide your own alcohol, an option that can reduce your catering costs considerably,” says MacNeil. “And skip the wedding cake, choosing more economical items such as cupcakes, candy or dessert bars instead.”

A brunch, luncheon or cocktail reception can cost much less than a sit-down dinner, notes Lykkemark. But if you’ve set your heart on the latter, “choose local seafood in season, free-range chicken, Cornish game hen or braised beef short ribs, instead of pricey cuts of meat like beef tenderloin.”

Decide what’s important to you and be willing to compromise on the rest, she adds. “Skip the passed hors d’oeuvres and instead, set out fun cocktail snacks during the cocktail hour, such as popcorn with truffle oil and parmesan cheese in small paper cones, chai-spiced nuts or antipasto platters. These are filling and less expensive for the caterer to produce and serve.”

Keep an Eye on Catering Trends

Food stations are now a popular alternative to buffets or plated dinners and they allow more interaction between guests, as well as the entertainment of watching chefs prepare small plates as you wait. These days, many couples are opting for wok stations, oyster bars, fish stations, grill stations or sushi stations, in lieu of a traditional meal.

Mini meals have also gained popularity, and local catering companies have designed casual cocktail receptions with foods like miniature sirloin burgers and gourmet mini grilled cheese sandwiches — bite-size items that are novel, easy to eat, and sure to get your guests chatting about your unforgettable wedding reception.