The “wedding dinner” has always been a big deal. You’ll find mentions of wedding feasts in ancient texts, in the Bible, and in many other places through the centuries, evidence that food and weddings go hand-in-hand. That’s why finding the perfect wedding caterer for your special day should be an item on the top of your matrimonial to-do list.

But where do you start? Likely, you should start by discussing your vision for your wedding day meal with your partner and/or others that might be involved in the planning. There’s plenty to consider.

Will it be white tie or casual? Buffet or sit-down dinner? Appetizers and cocktails or a seven-course masterpiece? Indoors or outdoors? Opulent or Bohemian? And how big is the guest list?

Breaking down your budget

That’s a lot to think about!

Often, however, the first factor to consider when shopping for a wedding caterer is your budget. That will largely guide the direction in which you proceed. However, don’t count anything out because you think you can’t afford it. Once you start visiting caterers, you might be surprised as to what your budget can buy. Conversely, don’t set your mind on something over-the-top until you know that what you’ve set aside for food costs will cover it.

It’s really all about gathering information. Come up with a potential dollar amount and then get to work making calls and visits to potential catering services.

Guests vs. Food Costs

Have you made your guest list or do you have a pretty solid idea of how many friends, family, and colleagues you’d like to invite? Can you afford to feed them all?

That sounds like a funny question, but – in all seriousness – you need to determine what aspects of your wedding are most important and where you’re willing to exercise some give-and-take.

For example, you may have always wanted a dream dinner with fancy linens, over-the-top centerpieces, and scrumptious food in an incredible setting, but your budget is $10,000 and you can’t feed the 200 people on your guest list for that amount of money! So, where do you make the cut? Do you lower your catering expectations or cut your guest list?

While you may “want it all”, you need to figure out where you can cut back if “all” is not in your budget. Are the 200 guests more important than the lavish dinner…or vice versa? Would you consider a less expensive buffet dinner instead, or would you rather cut the list by 50 guests? These are important considerations.

On many catering websites, you can gather some preliminary information about costs. Many offer sample menus with pricing, so you can get a good idea as to what your budget may buy and where you might need to make some changes if the sky is NOT the limit.

Once you figure that out, you can commence serious conversations with wedding caterers.

Scheduling appointments

The next part of the process will likely begin with several phone calls and, often, you can get an idea of whether or not a particular caterer is for you just by having a telephone conversation. Did they take the time to speak with you? Are they eager to answer your questions? Do they seem flexible as far as food offerings are concerned or do they rigidly stick to their menus?

Often, this is the part of the process where you tend to go with your gut. If you enjoyed the phone call and are looking forward to seeing and hearing more, than go ahead and make the appointment. If you felt uncomfortable or thought the person on the other line was stand-offish, pass on that caterer for now.

Also ask friends and family for referrals or use your own past experiences to find a caterer. Did you love the food at cousin John’s wedding? Then be sure to include that caterer on your list of must-sees.

Next, arrange to meet the caterer or one of his/her staff for a discussion about menus as well as about other services offered by the catering company. Do look at their online menus first but remember, in most cases, these are just a jumping off point. You’ll find that many (or even most) wedding caterers are flexible in their offerings and are willing to let you offer menu ideas. However, if that’s not your thing, allow the caterer to offer his or her expertise in planning something appropriate for your taste and for the size of your group.

If at all possible, ask if you may attend an event catered by any company you think might be a good match for you. That can usually be arranged without being too obtrusive. This way, you’ll be able to not only taste the food they create but also observe servers, catering managers, and others who will be interacting with your guests. If you like what you see, you can put them on your “short list”.

Speaking of lists, it’s usually a wise idea to visit or speak with more than one or two wedding caterers and then to narrow it down until you have just a few on your list, eventually pairing it down to your absolute favor. Always give yourself choices.

Ask Questions

Remember, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event for you, your beloved, and your family and friends, so be sure to cover all the bases with your chosen caterer. Never be afraid to ask questions about the food or service and, by all means, offer your opinions and suggestions. If the caterer, can’t accommodate all of your requests, he can likely offer suitable alternatives. In general, caterers are eager to please and will do whatever’s possible – within reason – to make your wedding day super special.

You will also want to make sure you have a contract that spells out all the details of the event. Before you sign, review all the particulars including menu, extras, time, place, and – of course – pricing and cancellation policies. Here’s an example of a time when you want to read the small print! If something is missing that concerns you, ask for it to be added.

Once all of that is in place, all you need to do is confirm the details a few days before, just for your own peace of mind.

Remember, this is YOUR special day, so you should only choose a caterer to whom you can give a vote of confidence and with whom you enjoy working. Doing that allows for a stress-free wedding dinner that you and your honored guests will savor and talk about for years to come.