Personal Finance

Top 25 Cheap Wedding Reception Food & Drink Menu Ideas on a Budget

According to Statistic Brain, the average wedding costs about $28,000, with the reception food and bar services adding up to about $7,000. Because costs of individual services and products can add up quickly, it makes sense that you might want to cut down on expenses here and there. You can save money on the reception with these innovative food and drink menu ideas. Keep it creative and ask for help when you need it. You may be able to shave off a third of your total budget by following the tips below.

Provide Your Own Appetizers

appetizersAfter the service, your guests may spend about an hour waiting around while you take photos and everyone arrives at the reception venue. You don’t want them to go hungry, but you also don’t want to spend $3 on every bite of bacon-wrapped shrimp. Consider simple options for appetizers. Your guests don’t really care what they eat as long as it’s tasty and their stomachs aren’t rumbling. Below are some inexpensive ways to provide a generous appetizer spread without breaking the bank.

1. Get fresh with salad bowls.
Provide heaping bowls of colorful salads on a beautiful bar. Lettuce is relatively inexpensive, and you can fill serving dishes with the refreshing vegetable while dressing up each option with little surprises. Add toasted almonds, mandarin oranges and dried cranberries to a bowl of fresh romaine lettuce. Create a Greek salad with romaine, feta cheese cubes and Kalamata olives. Pears, bacon and crumbled blue cheese add an elegant touch to Bibb lettuce. Beans, corn, diced tomatoes and cilantro provide a Mexican flair to crisp iceberg. Grilled vegetables can be marinated, chilled and served over a bed of shredded kale for a heartier option. Keep the choices light; there is no need to add meat if this is just the first course. Limiting the salads to vegetables only will help you save money.

2. Pass around finger food.
Caterers report that wedding guests eat 40 percent less when finger foods are served by roaming waiters rather than placed on a self-serve buffet. If you do choose pricier selections, like lobster and crab bites, consider hiring a few servers to pass around the food. This is a great option for bacon-wrapped asparagus, steak tartare and shrimp cocktail. To save money on hiring your workforce, enlist help from your friends. A friend’s college-aged kid may be willing to help you out in exchange for some tutoring. Perhaps you can offer to babysit for an acquaintance’s children if she helps you serve the appetizers.

3. Fake extravagance.
You don’t have to select the most expensive food in order to serve delicious appetizers. Consider unique ways to transform more expensive nibbles into more affordable ones. Trade in shrimp for smoked salmon. A little smoked fish goes a long way. It can be rolled into tortillas with herbed goat cheese and cut into pinwheels or sliced into ribbons and elegantly placed over deviled eggs. Make a little fresh crab go a long way by mixing it with other ingredients in a dip. Finger sandwiches are elegant and can be made with simple ingredients. Cut the crust off of white bread, and thin it out with a rolling pin. Spread it with cream cheese mixed with herbs, and add finely diced ham, cucumber or chicken salad. Shape the sandwiches with miniature cookie cutters. Cut your crudités creatively to make them look more elegant next to a variety of dipping sauces instead of basic ranch dressing.

4. Provide a popcorn bar
If you’re going heavier on the main meal, don’t worry about providing a large assortment of appetizers. Popcorn is inexpensive and can be dressed up in a variety of ways. Provide herbs and spice combinations to shake over popcorn. Parmesan cheese is a typical topping, but you can also mix up za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture made of sumac, sesame seeds and thyme. Other dry topping flavors include nutritional yeast, smoked paprika, macaroni and cheese powder, powdered salad dressing mix and taco seasoning. Provide plenty of butter or melted coconut oil. You can also offer sriracha, maple syrup, chocolate sauce and caramel to drizzle on top of the popcorn.

A Bar on a Budget

open-bar-wedding-receptionThere are many different options for serving drinks at your wedding. Anything goes these days; you can serve up a full bar or a coffee station. If you are serving alcohol, don’t use top-shelf liquors. Guests won’t notice the difference, and you’ll save up to 30 percent if you go down a level. At many weddings, guests can toast with the drinks they’re already holding. Many people don’t like the taste of champagne, and buying it simply for a toast can be wasteful.

5. Bring your own.
Many reception venues allow you to provide your own alcohol. Buy your own liquor, beer and wine to serve after the wedding. Most package and grocery stores give you a discount when you purchase by the case, so you’ll save money when you buy more. The venue may charge you a corkage fee for each bottle the caterer opens, but you can often negotiate this cost. Set up a cooler with beer and ice buckets with wine. You can even have a personalized bar station with cards that offer suggestions for cocktails. Give them cute names that bring to mind something unique about the bride and groom, such as cities to which you’ve traveled together or the names of your pets. Don’t forget to add garnishes. Small bowls with slices of orange, lime and lemon add a twist to the beverages. A bowl of cherries is perfect for garnishing sweet drinks.

6. Don’t go unlimited.
You don’t have to offer an open bar at your wedding. Depending on the length of your reception, you may wish to offer an open bar for only the first few hours. You can also provide a self-serve bar with specialty cocktails during the appetizer hour and switch to beer and wine during dinner. If the venue offers an open bar, providing it all night can be a waste of money. Guests often have their drinks at the beginning of the reception and slow down toward the end. If you’re paying for an open bar after dinner, you’re still spending money on those guests who have left early. Consider closing the bar while everyone is sitting down to eat and offering a delicious nonalcoholic drink, like lemonade with mint sprigs or fruited iced tea.

7. Stick with beer and wine.
Whether or not you’re buying your own beverages, you can save money by serving only beer and wine. Most reception venues charge much more to offer a bar that serves hard liquor. If you purchase the alcohol yourself, you could be left with many half-empty bottles of random liquor. Serving just a few types of wine and beer can appeal to every guest without leaving you with a lot of waste. In addition, many quality wines are available at low prices. You can research budget options on websites like A local brewery or winery may also be willing to serve wine or beer at your event at a discounted price. Local businesses love the exposure, and you won’t have to worry about carting bottles to and from the reception.

8. Make it nonalcoholic.
You don’t have to serve alcohol in order for guests to have a good time. This Huffington Post article explains that a full open bar can cost 10 to 20 percent of the total wedding budget. Save your money, and get creative with nonalcoholic drinks. That doesn’t mean that you just have to offer soda on the rocks. Create a coffee bar where guests can add their own flavored syrups. Set up a smoothie station and whip up sophisticated juice drinks. Blend avocado with pear, honey and water for a refreshing green smoothie. Combine banana, papaya, Greek yogurt and coconut water for a tropical treat. Make a mock piña colada with coconut cream, coconut water, pineapple juice and ice. Surprise guests with a frozen treat made from coffee, cream, banana, coconut cream and chocolate syrup. Serving smoothies or frozen coffee drinks can also fill up your guests so that they don’t need to eat as many appetizers. This is also a great replacement for dessert; just add whipped cream or ice cream to any of these sweet concoctions.

9. Make your mark.
If you’re providing a full bar at a wedding with 100 guests, you’ll need an estimated 10 bottles of vodka, six bottles of gin, six bottles of rum, four bottles of scotch, two bottles each of tequila, whiskey and orange liqueur and two bottles of vermouth. You’ll also need two to three cases of beer, about seven cases of wine and three cases of champagne. Instead of bringing such a variety of options, consider creating a signature cocktail and offering it alongside beer and wine. You can even make the cocktail match your wedding colors. Create a cranberry martini by splashing blush wine into a martini glass and adding orange juice, cranberry juice and fresh cranberries as a garnish. Peach schnapps, grenadine and sparkling wine make a fruity, coral-colored beverage. Rum, pineapple juice, club soda, agave nectar and mint leaves change up a mojito in an exceptional way.

Save on the Main Meal

Especially if they’re in a hotel, many reception halls require you to eat their food. When you’re booking the venue, make sure that you can use an outside caterer. If you make your own food, a buffet will usually be cheaper. If you’re using a caterer, compare the price per head of buffet-style dining versus plated meals. There is not an overarching rule that specifies which is less expensive. Some caterers charge more for arranged plates, and others charge more for all-you-can eat buffets.

10. Don’t sit down.
It can be difficult to interact with all of the guests at your wedding. Instead of sitting down to dinner, you can mingle with guests all night if you serve an appetizer buffet. Heavy appetizers can take the place of a sit-down meal. Make miniature grilled cheese bites, or serve macaroni and cheese in shot glasses. Cook a large ham or pork tenderloin ahead of time and serve it alongside small dinner rolls and a few flavored mustards. Pasta salad is easy to create a few days before the big day, and it doesn’t have to be warmed up before eating. Skewers with bite-sized pieces of chicken, steak or sausage are easy to make and fill guests up. Soup can sit in a crock pot all night. You can provide small cups to serve it in, and your guests can sip it instead of using spoons.

11. Create theme stations.
Serve a buffet dinner with different stations. You can make a Mexican station with tortillas, shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and a variety of salsas. An Asian station could include rice, noodles, toppings and different condiments. A pierogi bar might include dough creations filled with different stuffings, like meat, cheese and spinach. An Italian-themed area might have a pasta and pizza bar.

12. Consider family-style dining.
If you do have a sit-down dinner, think about serving up big bowls of food and letting guests serve themselves. It’s cheaper to make a platter of lasagna than to individually cook fish fillets. A large bowl of salad and a pasta dish can provide a hearty, family-style meal. Rice dishes make elegant meals for large groups too. Provide paella with sausage and seafood for a more exotic dinner. A family-style dinner is more formal than a buffet but can save you money on food, chefs and servers.

13. Order out.
You can save time and money if you order takeout for your wedding. This is an ideal option for casual or outdoor receptions. If you and your partner met while throwing dough at a pizza parlor, serving pizza at your wedding could be a sweet nod to the early days. If you have a tradition of ordering Chinese food every weekend, have a local Asian restaurant provide a spread of family-style entrees. Even a sit-down restaurant may be able to cook a large spread that’s cheaper than the cost of a caterer. If you have a lot of guests, make sure that you clear your order with the restaurant ahead of time so that there are no last-minute surprises.

14. Make it a family affair.
Bring the family together by cooking the food for the wedding ahead of time. Whether you’re serving family-style meals or a buffet, get your family and close friends together the day before to create the dishes. Do this instead of having a rehearsal dinner. You’ll save money and still be able to celebrate with your loved ones the day before the big event. If the groom’s family members want to contribute, encourage them to bring some cocktails to enjoy as you cook or do some of the food shopping. Make sure that you have an idea of the cookware and serving items that you’ll need for the event. You can ask everyone to bring their own items so that you don’t run out. Another way to make sure that you have enough containers is to buy disposable serving platters in bulk. Dollar stores usually have sleek and simple plastic serving platters, bowls and dishes.

15. Be unexpected.
You can get away with serving less expensive ingredients, such as chicken thighs or pasta, if you combine them with unexpected flavors. If you’re having a fall wedding, combine spinach ravioli with a pumpkin Alfredo sauce. Add a mole sauce to a chicken dish to provide a unique grouping of flavors. Spring greens add formality to a salad, and mixing sweet and savory toppings adds a gourmet touch. Risotto is an elegant replacement for potatoes as a side dish. You can make simple vegetables more sophisticated by wrapping them with bacon.

16. Bring in the trucks.
Food trucks are becoming trendy, and hiring a few food trucks for your wedding can be a unique way to provide food for all of your guests. It’s fun and informal, and your friends will be able to order exactly what they want. When you use a food truck, you don’t have to pay for servers. For a laid-back, outdoor event, provide picnic tables for your guests. You can also set up thrift-store quilts along a meadow and encourage everyone to sit on the grass for a picnic. One truck is ideal for a smaller guest list, but you might have to book a few trucks for more than 50 people.

17. Change the time.
Dinner is typically more expensive than lunch or brunch. Consider having a daytime wedding to cut down on costs. Because people usually don’t drink as much alcohol during the day, you’ll also save money on the bar. Food served during the day is typically expected to be less formal than the cuisine served at dinner, so your guests won’t bat an eyelash at a full buffet instead of a sit-down meal.

18. Build community.
If you’re having an intimate wedding, make it a potluck. Ask each guest to bring a dish to share. Guests will be especially grateful if you let them know that you don’t expect gifts. You’ll also get to serve a wide variety of foods that please just about every palate. You won’t have to worry about providing serving platters or utensils, and you’ll be able to check this item off of your long to-do list. Asking friends to provide the food also helps them feel as though they played a part in this important day in your life. You’ll be amazed at how much people want to contribute to your happiness.

Budget Desserts

Swirls of icing and perfectly-shaped fondant flowers aren’t the only ways to treat your guests at the end of a wedding reception. Read below for some tips on offering inexpensive desserts to your guests.

19. Have your cake, but don’t eat it too.
According to The Knot, the wedding cake can cost anywhere from $1.50 to $12 a slice. More elaborate cakes cost more money. If you have a large guest list, don’t serve your extravagant wedding cake to everyone. If you’d like a fancy cake, have a small one created by a local baker and display it next to the dessert table. You and your spouse can cut it during the reception and save the rest to share with each other during a romantic night together once the festivities are over. If you do decide to serve guests the wedding cake, give them smaller slices to protect your budget. You can also have sheet cakes made in the same flavor as the wedding cake. Square or rectangular cakes are often less expensive than circular cakes. Eliminate the fondant and molded flowers, and use a basic icing to save money.

20. Bake cupcakes.
If you’re having a potluck-style reception, consider asking some of your guests to provide cupcakes. Cupcakes are easy to eat and don’t require you to provide plates and utensils. They also provide a more easygoing feel to your dessert menu. If different people bake up the cupcakes, you’ll have a joyful spread of colorful desserts, and you won’t have to spend a dime. Even if you make the cupcakes yourself, you’ll save money if you don’t have to order a wedding cake. Mini cupcakes take more time to bake, but you won’t have to make as many of them. By the end of the wedding reception, guests are usually too full to eat much dessert. You don’t need to provide everyone with full-sized cupcakes in order to satisfy them.

21. Create a candy buffet.
Satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth by going retro with a bar filled with candy. Buy a variety of candies at a wholesale club or a bulk candy shop online. Serve them in mason jars or fish bowls purchased from the dollar store. This is a fun way to provide dessert for just a few dollars. Use plastic champagne flutes to hold the candy. It will make your dessert bar look more vibrant and festive and help guests feel fancy even if they’re noshing on gummy worms. You can easily create lollipop trees by placing plastic foam balls in terracotta flower pots and inserting the lollipop sticks into the balls. Personalize the pots by painting them ahead of time. Another idea is to provide this as a party favor for your guests.

22. Bake it in a pie.
If you’re having a wedding during a season in which fresh fruit is plentiful, serve pies instead of wedding cake. Apple and pumpkin pies are delicious during the fall, and cherry and blueberry pies are luscious in the summer. You can serve fresh whipped cream, pudding or custard on the side to make this rustic and simple dessert seem more luxurious. If you’re ordering from a bakery, custard, peanut butter and pecan pies can be pricier than those with fruit filling. Using in-season ingredients can also save you money. Apples are much less expensive in the fall than in the spring, for example. Offering a deconstructed pie bar is a unique twist on this idea. Provide cookies for the base and set out bowls of different fruit fillings. Guests can add a spoonful of fruit over the cookies and top it with a dollop of whipped cream.

23. Everyone loves chocolate.
Save yourself time and money by providing a chocolate fondue station. Melt the chocolate in bowls over tea lights, and offer bite-sized delicacies to dip into it. Ideal options to serve with chocolate fondue are bananas, strawberries, pound cake, marshmallows, cookies, apples and pineapples. Cut everything into bite-sized pieces and set it out in small bowls. Guests can roll their chocolate-covered creations in granola or crushed graham crackers for an extra-special treat. Provide different fondue flavors by mixing chocolate with peanut butter or blending white and dark chocolates in one serving bowl.

24. Doughnuts are the new cupcakes.
Instead of serving cupcakes for dessert, offer your guests doughnuts. When piled high, doughnuts make a beautiful inverted cone shape. They can also be dressed up with unexpected flavors. Maple and bacon doughnuts are appealing in the fall. Sprinkle simple glazed doughnuts with sugar dyed in your wedding colors. Bakeries sell doughnuts for about $5 a dozen. With the average cupcake priced around $2.50, serving doughnuts can be a charming choice for a smaller budget.

25. Save on the serving items.
servingpiecesIf you’re not using a caterer, providing plates and utensils can add up. Many discount home-décor shops offer basic white dinnerware at extremely low prices. You can also mix and match by serving your food on vintage pieces purchased from thrift stores. Check out the cost of renting these items too. If you’re saving money by making your own food and providing a buffet instead of hiring waiters, you might be able to spend a little more on dinnerware rentals.

When it comes to your wedding food menu, think creatively, and don’t limit yourself based on expectations. This is your special day. The more you personalize it, the more memorable it will be.

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