Using a caterer to prepare a holiday meal can cost a pretty penny — up to $150 per person for a party with 18 to 20 guests, according to the National Association for Catering and Events.
The beauty of outsourcing your holiday feast, however, is the countless hours you’ll save on shopping, cooking and cleanup.
If you hire a full-service caterer, you’re not just paying for someone else to cook the perfect turkey and stuffing. Catering services can include setup, cleanup, utensils, flatware and servers.
We asked professional caterers to share insights about their job and tips that even budget-conscious holiday hosts can use to make holiday catering more affordable.
“Host Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday — or earlier.”
Choosing to have your Thanksgiving meal catered before Thanksgiving could help you save on labor costs, says Lisa Carruth, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Catering and Events.
Many caterers charge a minimum amount based on the number of guests or the amount of food. Paying to have staff for a catering event can cost m
ore because they are working on holidays, when companies typically provide extra pay.
Your food is going to cost the same no matter the day, but caterers may require that you meet a higher spending minimum to book events on certain days, says Carruth, who also is the director of catering at Braeburn Country Club in Houston. The higher minimums offset the cost of paying staff.
For example, events held on holidays and weekends generally have higher minimums.
“Buffets aren’t always the best way to save.”
The common perception is that a buffet is less expensive, but plated meals can sometimes be cheaper, depending on the caterer and the size of an event. A carving station for your turkey or ham also will increase your cost because of the labor required, so consider cutting that s to save money.
“With a buffet, if you have a 100 people, you have to prepare 110 of everything because you have to assume that everyone’s going to take one of everything,” Carruth explains. “Whereas, with a plated dinner, portion sizes are controlled.”
Buffets typically have more options—such as two entrees—than a plated meal, too, which also can lead to additional costs. When deciding between a buffet and a plated meal, check with your caterer’s pricing before making a wrong assumption about the cheapest option.
“Heavy hors d'oeuvres sometimes cost as much as plated meals.”
A heavy hors d'oeuvres party can cost as much, if not more, than both plated meals and buffets because they can be labor-intensive affairs, Carruth says. First, they require making tiny bites by hand and making enough pieces to satisfy appetites. You need to make enough hors d'oeuvres to replace what people would typically eat for an entire meal.
They also often require servers on hand to make sure the small bites are passed around the room and that platters are refilled as they empty.
But if you want to do an hors d'oeuvres-heavy party and save money, you can have the food set up on tables without a wait staff.
“So while you’re spending more money on the catering itself, you’re not going to pay for so much labor because everything can just be dropped off, set up and you can typically take care of it based on the size of your group,” she says.
“To-go will always win over on-site service.”
Picking up your food for Thanksgiving can help significantly reduce your total bill.
According to the NACE, pickup catering averages $45 per person because staff or service item charges are not included.
“Many restaurants and caterers offer Thanksgiving meals to go, and allow you to bring your own dishes, so it looks like you cooked,” says Carruth.
You can save generally 20-30 percent on the total bill because you won’t have to pay for staffing or delivery, she says. Many of these “Thanksgiving to-go” meals are cost effective because everything is done in bulk, and then portioned out for individual orders.
“Don’t rent your utensils from us”
Providing your own items, such as flatware, glassware and plates, can save you money. You can buy them for less at a discount online or at party supply stores.
NACE says utensils can be rented from anywhere, at 15 cents apiece and up, but when the caterer supplies utensils, it takes on the liability and the time and money spent to set up, deliver and clean them. The minimal price is offset by the convenience factor, according to NACE.
The majority of caterers include the dinnerware and build the cost into the per-person pricing structure, according to NACE. If they do charge separately, they typically line-item it out so you can see the costs.
“Book your caterer early and be upfront about your budget.”
You typically need to book your caterer three months in advance, but Thanksgiving catering can often be booked more short-term because it is less in demand than Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, for a lot of companies, that’s what called the season. We’re pretty much crazy-busy from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve,” says Carruth.
When booking a caterer, it’s easier for caterers to first know your budget, and then come up with creative ideas of what they can do with it. “Say, ‘Here’s what I have. What can you do for me?’ ” she says.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.