So you have 200 guests invited to your wedding, and you want to know what you need to know about feeding them. A sit-down restaurant is possible, but definitely a challenge with 200 guests. If you're going for catering, you have two options: pay someone to figure everything out for you, or save some bank by doing the proper food-sleuthing yourself.
Since I've been in the catering business myself, maybe I can help.
Calculate A Proper Costs Per Head
It's hard to imagine that $2,000 might not be enough to feed your crowd, but just think about it. 200 guests x $10. You can barely get a plate of food at a good restaurant for $10 as it is. At weddings, between $12-20 is commonly allotted per head. Get familiar with that term too, because your caterer will use it, and expect you to know that it simply means per person, and therefore per meal. There isn't really a way around this one. If you're looking to save money, consider a morning wedding where brunch is served--muffins, fruit, coffee, and lighter fare--that may cost considerably less.
Here's the thing about costs per head though--it's not just the entree that costs money. A good slice of cake--including cupcakes--costs around $5 as a starting point. If you have a dessert table as well, this can rack up some serious bills, and needs to be taken into account in the budget early on. If you're serving drinks at your wedding, that's another cost--wine, beer, mixed drinks, bar-tending...even just coke or lemonade can add up, so keep that in mind. To save money here, consider bakery chains like Nothing Bundt Cakes who sell small bundtinis or their larger bundt cakes in tiers for much less than the average designer bakery. Maybe a dessert bar isn't necessary. Provide drink tickets in the invitations to your guests to indicate there is a limit to the free alcohol, and then provide a cash bar for after their tickets are used.
As a last detail, make sure you're budgeting for tableware, because chairs, linens, chargers, glassware, and silverware are going to cost money too. Saving money in this area may be easier than you think--pay for an all-inclusive venue that includes tableware, or find a catering company that provides tableware with their catering services.
Be Aware of Food in Season
When certain fruits are in season at the grocery store, they're always much cheaper to buy than fruits that are out of season. It works the same with catered foods. If your wedding is in the winter, do a bit of research and find foods that are specifically in season to make sure the fresh apricot sauce you want on all of your pork chops isn't going to be three times the price it would've been in spring.
Be aware of Changing Food Prices
When I worked in catering, my boss complained all the time about how food prices fluctuate on a weekly basis. Remember last year when all of these chickens in California got sick and egg prices more than doubled in most grocery stores? That was a drastic price fluctuation, but stuff like that happens, and it's part of why many caterers have disclaimers saying things like "Food prices subject to change without notice." Be aware of this and leave some wiggle room in your food budget so you don't deal with any last-minute cost per head surprises.
Know that Catering is Hard
When I catered, I had a really neat boss whose main theme in life seemed to be "recycle everything." Not only did this mean she saved a lot of money on food for herself and her clients, but it meant that we had to be creative with what food we prepared. I once watched my boss turn a half-demolished, stabbed-to-death Costco chocolate sheet-cake into a decadent chocolate bread-pudding that wowed everyone. One time we had to prepare tofu in a way that was gluten-free, dairy-free, Kosher-friendly, and vegetarian, and I remember fumbling through the kitchen pantry and finding gluten-free bread mix, and bringing it to my boss to use for binding the tofu. We rolled it into balls and fried it, and it was amazing. We had soooo much freedom, but we used that freedom to create food that perfectly suit our client's needs. Because we had that freedom to figure the details out ourselves, I believe we did a better job than we would've been able to do had our client micromanaged the process.
That said, when you hire a chef, hire someone you can really trust, and communicate to them exactly what you want, but then...give them the freedom to call some shots. Chances are they probably know food better than you, and can make things work out better than you could have planned anyway.
Feel uncomfortable about this? Give your chef your vision, have him/her work their magic, and then ask to try the food beforehand. This will give you a concrete idea of then product you know you are purchasing, and it may clear up any misunderstandings long before they would become an issue. For example, some people's interpretation of "roasted" is someone else's "burnt" (*cough* roasted marshmallows *cough*).
Be Consistent With Your Order
When I catered, I remember feeling a constant awe when I watched a crowd of people demolish in forty-five minutes what took weeks to plan and days to prep. You order a salad for 200 people with all of the fixings julienne-cut delicately atop your fresh leafy greens? That's like 4 hours of washing, chopping, and packing for one person, and even more for plating if it's not a buffet.
With that in mind, I want to be your chef's advocate--don't change your mind at the last minute on a really important detail. You decide you want caviar instead of scallions atop your clams two weeks before? Fine. But don't decide you want your chicken stuffed with ham and Swiss instead of marinated in teriyaki the day before your wedding. Your caterer may tell you he can do it, but he's saying that through gritted teeth and an incredible headache. Besides, last minute changes will cost you more money because the ingredients for the original plan have most-likely already been purchased, and may still be charged to you for inconvenience.
Finding a caterer and creating a meal-plan can be stressful work, but by using the information from this post, hopefully the process smooths itself out a bit. If you're overwhelmed with the planning process, talk to a wedding or event planner such as myself; we are here to make things easy!
What are some of the issues or solutions you have come across during your catering experiences? Do you have any caterers you'd like to recommend? Comment away!