Creative wedding catering: How to plan a memorable menu without breaking your budget

Hawaiian salmon, tuna and shrimp poke bowls with seaweed, avocado, mango, pickled ginger, sesame seeds. Top view, overhead, flat lay, copy space
Hawaiian salmon, tuna and shrimp poke bowls with seaweed, avocado, mango, pickled ginger, sesame seeds. Top view, overhead, flat lay, copy space

Whether your wedding reception is in a church hall, an event space, or a hotel, you’ll want to celebrate your nuptials with food and drink. 

You’ll want to think about catering as soon as you book your venue. Some event spaces have outside caterers they work with exclusively, narrowing your choices; other venues like hotels have built-in catering. Whatever your scenario, consider these tips for celebrating your big day.

Set the budget 

At the very least, you’ll need wedding cake and beverages such as coffee, tea, and water. Some brides think it’s charming — and budget-conscious — to have an array of cakes made by family members and friends who are good bakers. The homemade desserts can be arranged on matching cake stands bought by the bride’s mother. They could be served in a church hall or a backyard. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you could spend hundreds of dollars per person on a sit-down dinner at a grand hotel, including an open bar. Know what your cost per person is before you start looking. 

“If you choose a venue that already has everything there — linens, tables, silverware, wine glasses — the cost per person could be around $60 to $70 because all of that is included,” says Marilyn Cupples, senior sales manager for Levy Restaurants at Arrowhead Stadium.

Paying more up front for a venue with catering and supplies on-site could save money and time in the long run, Cupples says.

“You could get a quote from a caterer that sounds very reasonable — but then you’d have to add the cost of rentals on top of everything else,” she says.

If you do decide to bring in catering and rent tables, linens and other supplies, it might be wise to hire a wedding planner, Cupples says: “Peace of mind is a planner who can be your detail person on the day of your event.”

Personalize your menu 

Catered food, which is usually prepared ahead of time, is not the same as restaurant food. 

Anything that requires a lot of last-minute timing is not ideal; it’s the difference between a roasted beef tenderloin that tastes good hot, room temperature, or cold versus a steak that must be served hot off the grill. If you want steak, consider a caterer that could grill steaks to order for an outdoor buffet. 

Catering is more than just bringing prepared food, says Lon Lane of Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions, a Kansas City catering company.

Lane says catering is “telling the story” of the wedding couple. Perhaps the meal incorporates a favorite dish, or family heritage, or a shared love of blue cheese dressing.

“We are doing an eclectic wedding reception next year centering around (Moroccan) tagine and family-style dining,” Lane says. “It is a clear reflection of the bride and groom.”

Think outside the box 

When a Nebraska couple got married at the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza during the holidays in 2017, the hotel catered the wedding, but the couple brought in a barista and late-night Winstead’s hamburgers. 

Lane suggests serving specialty drinks in the bride’s colors. At a recent wedding he catered, they served champagne with blooming hibiscus flowers that made the sparkling wine pink. 

“Interactive appetizers served during cocktails can also be memorable,” he says. Consider a make-your-own ceviche bar or a poke bowl station. 

For a casual and unique touch, you could include a food truck in the reception budget.

“Not all couples like wedding cake,” says Rebecca Batcheller of Sugar and Spice Catering in Parkville. “We catered one reception and the couple hired a food truck that served ice cream with all the toppings instead of wedding cake.” 

The Ice Cream Parlor, the mobile arm of Poppy’s Ice Cream & Coffee House in Lee’s Summit, offers homemade ice cream on the go. Other options might be late night/early morning Belgian Liege waffles from The Waffler, cupcakes from SimplyFrostedKC’s The Cupcake Cruiser, or crème brûlée in various flavors from Torched Goodness.

Lane says other signature touches might include hydration stations with flavored and plain waters, encouraging guests to keep hydrated between cocktails. 

He says seafood in surprising presentations, such as lobster grilled cheese, shrimp pop tarts and fish and chips served in bamboo cones, is also trending.

“I’m also seeing smaller wedding cakes and interactive dessert stations,” he says.

Do your research 

Your reception can be a major expense, so getting more than one bid can assure you that you’re making the most of your money.

“We want our customers to get other bids,” says Batcheller. “That way they know that they’re getting the best experience and the best price.”

If you’ve been to events and experienced a caterer you like, you already have a good reference. Trying out an unproven caterer could lead to problems and extra worry on the one day you want everything to go well.

Once you’ve selected a caterer, schedule a tasting. Some caterers have regularly scheduled tastings; others only do tastings once you’ve signed a contract and are exploring menu options.

“We love to do tastings,” Batcheller says. “This way, if a couple wants something beyond our set menus, we can all see if the dish will work.” 

Once the menu is set, all you have to do is enjoy your wedding day!