Friday, January 16, 2009

My Top Ten Ways of Stretching Your Food Dollars

My Top Ten

Everyone knows, times are hard and your wedding is stressful enough without worrying if your guests are thoroughly pampered within your budget. When we are in times of plenty we can let our imaginations stagnate and go for the tried and true, the obvious luxury and the no holds barred approach. As we all feel the economy tighten, a bit of a panic sets in, we want to spoil our guests AND not break the bank! Here are ten of my money saving tips for your food dollar:

1. Take those high end items and stretch them out! Items like shrimp can become an ingredient and still play that lux card without breaking the bank. Shrimp, for instance can become a filling in a cocktail hour quesadilla. Lobster can be turned into a decadent and very au courant Lobster Macaroni Cheese first course or small plate.

2. EVERYONE loves cheese. Shredded, melted, crumbled and put out in large pieces, cheese makes a big hit. On your grazing table for the cocktail hour, ask the caterer to use larger pieces of cheese, understanding the caterer will be taking them back at the end of the event, ask for a price break. Adding cheese like crumbled feta to a roasted pepper croustade elevates the item, gives a deeper satisfaction for the guest in terms of richness and is a less expensive alternative to a protein.

3. While we are talking hors d’oeurves. Vegetable based hors d’oeurves will get you more bang for your buck. Be judicious when selecting the proteins and let the caterer lead you in tasty, satisfying vegetable based choices. A sweet potato fritter is one of the big hits here, a quesadilla filled with pear and brie is luxuriously sensual and satisfying, small wonton cups filled with caponata or avocado. Want to ramp that one up? Top it with a little crab meat! Want to splurge? Give the guests some filet on a croustade with some Dijon sauce, need to cut back a bit, a Chimichurri beef satay will give the same beef satisfaction with a less direct hit on the budget.

4. Think outside the box on your middle of the plate protein! Instead of thinking only filet mignon or prime rib of beef for your dinner, think about the wonderful bistro type cuts. These cuts are delicious, add a touch of the gourmet to your menu and save you money (for the dress?). Tri Tip, flat iron steak, and my favorite, hanger steaks are a few that can be sauced and treated just like their expensive cousins but keep that bottom line from getting out of hand.

5. While we are on the main course, the fish….does it have to be salmon? Have you ever left a wedding of a friend and said to your fiancée “That would have been a terrific evening IF ONLY they had served salmon.” No you have not and neither will your guests! Try a Basa or the new “it” fish Tra, with a vegetable and herb stuffing on top and a sauce beneath. Gives color to the plate, is very delicious and no guest will think anything but what an imaginative couple you both are!

6. First courses can really run up the bill in a couple of ways. First the obvious, the food. Then there is another plate to rent if you are going off premise and then there is the time factor. Why not extend the cocktail hour? Send the soup out in shooter glasses, pasta on small plates or even Asian soup spoons. Keeps the party lively and moving, guests get their first course without even realizing it!

7. The cake. I love a wedding cake. The bigger the better BUT that can run into some major dollars, especially for a delicious cake, and would you want to serve your guests anything else? Get a smaller wedding cake, something that reflects both of your styles and have a larger sheet cake in the back to serve everyone. This works for the caterer as well as the sheet cake can be pre sliced when the time comes; your guests are served cake in a very timely manner.

8. Adding things to dessert seems to be an area where budgets can get blown apart. Cookies on the table, bowls of fruit, mountains of miniature pastry. Have the caterer place one cookie, like a biscotti or a pirouline, next to the coffee cup when coffee is served, there are your cookies. Place a few seasonal berries on the cake plate with a drizzle of raspberry sauce. Do you see how you are controlling the portion size per guest? If I hadn’t mentioned that yet, that is key to saving the dollars. The guest still gets the item and you get to keep your costs in line.

9. The Chocolate Fountain. Seems like everyone wants one of these now and let me give you a heads up on this one. First, renting the fountain is expensive; a few hundred dollars just for the equipment and these fountains are notorious for not working. Second, the worst chocolate is used because the lowest quality chocolate has a high oil content and that melts the best for these things. UGH! Why not have a little chocolate fondue for each table? A small silver bowl with a blend of high quality dark and milk chocolates (my choice!), heated just so and placed on a charger with some berries (instead of on the cake plate), some biscotti (instead of on the coffee saucer) and some skewers or small forks. No stampede to the fountain and a truly memorable chocolate experience.

10. Stations. You need to be a little careful when doing stations, action stations require more personnel which turns into a higher labor cost BUT these stations can be set up to be nearly self serviced and just maintained by already existing waitstaff. For instance, an Asian Station can have all the items in tiny take out containers complete with chopsticks. No chef at the station, no plates to rent, no person in the back to handle those plates coming and going and your guests are still enjoying their Beef & Broccoli, Pad Thai, Lemon Chicken and Fortune Cookies! Win-win.

11. Finally, a word about how unseen costs are passed on to you. Tastings have become de rigueur in the last decade but please keep in mind that these cost money and time for your caterer. While you may not realize it, that cost is being passed on to you somehow. The same goes for the client who needs to call and email every thought. This takes the caterer’s time and the possibility exists that cost is going to be passed on to you too. Be considerate of your vendors time and that these tough economic times are hitting them hard too. If you work with the vendor, believe me, they will work with you!

Really talk honestly to your vendors. Determine your budget; share that with your vendor up front so your time and their time is not wasted on the initial pie in the sky proposal. If the proposal comes in too high after that, ask where costs can be trimmed. Most catering professionals, vendors with a proven track record, really want to work with you to give you the event of your dreams within your budget BUT they cannot read your mind or see into your checkbook, you must tell them your parameters.

Finally, remember this day is about something larger than what your guests will eat. Keep your fiancée as the focus and this will be an event all guests will talk about for years to come.


  1. Great tips, Charlotte!!
    Lobster macaroni & cheese...mmmmm! May I suggest a recipe for that in the next posting? :)
    -Josh G.

  2. I'll get that up next week, thanks for asking Josh!

  3. Great tips Charlotte; definitely will post a link to this one!