How to Stay Within Your Wedding Food Budget — Without a Buffet

A woman makes prepared lunches for customers.
Marlene Anderson, a cook with Margaret Ann’s Gourmet Cookies and Catering in St. Petersburg, Fla., prepares lunch boxes for a small party. Buffets have fallen out of favor at large events because of the pandemic. Boxed meals are a way to avoid shared utensils and guests digging into the same bowls standing close together. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

With more and more people vaccinated, weddings, retirement parties and other celebrations that were cancelled last year are on the calendar in 2021. But as we dip our toes back into large gatherings, there are mixed attitudes about diving in all the way. Some hosts and wedding guests are fine with the buffet style and food stations that were the pre-pandemic norm, while others are wary of the germs they can spread.

Buffet service, however, is the holy grail for a more affordable wedding or gathering because it requires less staff to prepare. So wedding caterers and party planners are coming up with creative food ideas as options to buffet service and food stations.

We talked to caterers about cheap wedding food ideas and other ways to affordably feed your party guests during the pandemic.

Cheap Wedding Food Ideas, from Caterers

“Our catering is limited, we have just started back,” said Margaret Ann Burtchaell, owner of Margaret Ann’s Gourmet Cookies and Catering in St. Petersburg, Fla. She kept her business going in 2020 with hundreds of takeout meals for individuals and families and has recently catered a few events.

The majority of clients are okay with a buffet, but the clear plastic boxes she always offered for a more casual breakfast or lunch are becoming a staple for all kinds of events. They cost her about 50 cents each, and can be filled several hours beforehand with a menu of food that’s served at room temperature.

“You can take the top off and it’s pretty sturdy sitting on your lap. The utensils are inside, too,” Burtchaell said, adding she wouldn’t include a food that requires serious cutting with a knife and fork.

“One thing special some people are doing is individual boxed cupcakes so there is no cake serving. The bride and groom have their own smaller cake,” said Jill Santa Lucia, who owns Catering Works in Raleigh, N.C. “Boxing is a big thing. … We used to ‘dip, dunk, sprinkle.’ Now it’s ‘wrap, seal, box.’ “

She started a popcorn business to make up for lost income during the pandemic, and made many individual meals, but now there are events on the calendar again.

“We are finding there are those that won’t do a buffet and those that don’t care,” she said.

When Catering Works sets up buffet service, a staff member behind a shield serves the food, which is also under a shield, instead of wedding guests helping themselves. For those who don’t opt for buffet style, she has another option.

“We have beautiful wooden boxes I get out of Canada,” Lucia said. “They have a clear cover you can pull out. You really can do a beautiful presentation.”

The boxes cost her around $7, which is included in the client’s costs. Guests keep the boxes as a take-home gift to use in their own kitchen for serving food, a shadow box or a variety of purposes.

Another go-to for people on a wedding budget: individual cans of wine, margaritas, mimosas and other spirits.

“You can just chill them and people can grab their own,” Lucia said. “There is much less contact than sharing a bottle.” Also, there is much less cost than paying a server to pour from a bigger bottle.

A woman scoops up potato salad into individually wrapped prepared lunches for her customers.
Anderson prepares lunch boxes for a small party. These lunches are a budget-friendly alternative to buffets. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Wedding Reception Food Ideas to Serve in an Individual Box

Burtchaell shared several menus and main entrees that can be served well in a box that sits in a guest’s lap. The price is based on a minimum of 25 people.

  • Chicken salad. Tarragon walnut chicken salad on field greens with grape tomatoes, grapes and berries, bread and a cookie, is a popular menu Burtchaell is known for. She estimated this meal would cost $12 per box.
  • Quiche. You can do a really pretty quiche that is as good at room temperature as it is hot,” she said. With fresh fruit, a Caprese salad and a cookie, the price of this menu would be $17.
  • Beef tenderloin with pasta. Add a skewer of grape tomatoes, black olives and fresh buffalo mozzarella, bread and a cookie. Price: $17 per box.
  • Fancy cheese and crackers. For a cocktail hour, she could fill a box with tastes of brie, herb crusted goat cheese, blue cheese with rosemary, sharp cheddar, fruit and crackers for $12 a box.

Burtchaell said she’s never comfortable serving any kind of seafood at room temperature, so nix the crab cakes or shrimp cocktail.

“Pasta takes up a lot of room and looks good visually,” she added.

Limit Expenses and Hands-on Contact with Baskets and Bags

Individual food portions can also be served in pretty baskets for a festive picnic feel or in colorful gift bags. These items are great for anyone on a budget.

Amazon offers eight one-quart berry baskets made of natural, unfinished wood for $15 or $1.87 each. has a wide variety of bags in all colors with matte and gloss finishes, ribbon or rope handles and reinforced bottoms starting around $76 for a carton of 100 bags or 76 cents each.

As the owner of an independent bookstore, Kimberly Daniels Taws has organized many speakers and book signings over the years. Most of those went virtual during the pandemic, but she has tried one outdoor event with refreshments in a bag.

“You can make a gift bag really cute with some tissue paper and a colorful napkin folded and sticking out of the top,” said Taws, who owns The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C. “Instead of a bottle of wine we had individual canned wines,” she said. The bags also included a salty snack, a clementine, individually wrapped cheese, crackers, hand sanitizer and the book.

She offered light refreshments because the gathering was before dinner. A gift bag could also hold more filling fare such as individually wrapped gourmet sandwiches, a container of green salad, fruit cup, and dessert along with a sturdy clear plastic plate and utensils.

More Affordable Wedding and Party Food Tips

  • Smaller plates save money. Whether plastic, glass or china, using smaller plates makes less food look more ample.
  • Time of day. Steer clear of holding your event from noon to 2 p.m. or after 5 p.m. and guests won’t expect a full meal.
  • Earlier equals cheaper. A morning wedding can be romantic with baked goods, fruit and cheese. You can buy Bloody Marys in a can for $3 each or less.
  • Skip the full meal. A midafternoon reception with wedding cake and champagne is classic. Remember the phrases, “less is more,” and “simple elegance.”
  • Pick pasta. Pasta is one of the least expensive entrees you can serve, and it can be colorful and visually appealing. You can mix in protein, but save money by using much less than if you served a full piece of chicken or beef.

The Most Chic — and Cheap — Wedding Reception or Party

To really save money on a wedding reception or other celebration, skip the catering altogether and ask guests to bring their own picnic. This is the premise of one of the most elegant parties in the world that was born in Paris in 1988.

Known as “The Dinner in White,” the original host, retired French entrepreneur Francois Pasquier, invited friends to dress to the nines, all in white, bring a picnic and meet him at Paris’ Bois de Boulogne public park.

The concept has spread across the world and now takes place every spring or summer  in more than 80 cities in 35 countries. Click here to see photos of all the parties from major cities to small towns. Guests come toting their food in woven baskets and canvas bags, or pulling carry-on rolling suitcases.

Perhaps one of the reasons these parties have spread from metropolitan cities to small towns around the globe is they are fun, quirky and there’s an unwritten code of decorum calling for everyone to behave civilly and clean up after themselves.

Pasquier explained the Parisian gala in a 2018 article in Forbes magazine.

“The only thing we ask everywhere is to be well-behaved for ourselves, for others and for the place we are using,” he said. “We have been accused of being snobs, but it’s the contrary: We are simply committed to good manners, and that costs nothing.”

And good manners don’t have to be served in individual boxes.