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Cater or DIY?

It was 1979. I had the coolest Barbie village any 8-year-old girl could dream of owning. It was the original Wisteria Lane, built on a large plywood table in my family’s garage. Townhome next to townhome with a camper van nestled in between, my Barbies drove sports cars, wore beautiful clothes, and hosted dinner parties with oven-roasted turkey, sugar dill carrots, peas and pearl onions, and champagne bottles—all crafted from modeling clay by my teeny hands. They sat around a table to share a beautiful meal. But what about behind this picture-perfect scene? Who designed the tablescape? Who planned and prepared the meal? And who cleaned up all the mess after the party was over? Exactly. They never show that part.

As we enter the holiday season, we may feel the itch to host a social gathering. From a seated dinner for 10 to a casual get-together with dozens of family and friends, the to-do list can be significant. Should you do it yourself or bring in the professionals? I’m a caterer, so you can probably figure out where I stand. But if you’re up for the task, here are a few pros, cons, and pointers to help you decide.

Pros

Cost Savings: When you do it yourself, you maintain authority over your budget. You have complete control to choose options for food and drinks that won’t break the bank.

Customization: Curating the menu yourself caters to your guests’ specific dietary preferences and needs. Although a caterer can do the same, you have absolute control over the food choices to ensure Cousin Cecil won’t need to reach for his EpiPen.

Creativity: Planning your menu lets you get creative with what you choose to serve, the presentation, and its theme. Whatever personal touches you add will make the shindig unique and memorable.

Flexibility: Adjust the menu and quantities based on the number of guests, ensuring you have enough food and minimizing waste. Calculating food quantities can be tricky, though. Keep reading for tips.

Quality Control: Again, a reputable caterer should minimize the risk of subpar food. We always do our best to deliver exactly what you wish. But if you’d like to incorporate organic ingredients into your dishes or use those fresh vegetables you received from a friend’s garden, you can!

Cons

Time: Menu planning, grocery shopping, food preparation, serving and cleaning can be particularly challenging during the busy holiday season. Also, you’ll almost always cut or burn yourself. (I always do.)

Stress: Planning and executing a DIY catering event can be stressful, especially if you’re not experienced in cooking for a large group.

Limited Capacity: Your kitchen and cooking equipment may restrict the menu, especially for larger parties. If you’re serving Beef Wellington, Cedar Plank Salmon, and Chicken Kiev—but you only have a single oven—you might want to rethink things.

Clean-Up: Trust me when I say you don’t want to be the only one cleaning up the aftermath of a successful party. You just don’t. 

Potential for Mistakes: When it comes to cooking, time is of the essence. Having too many areas of focus can lead to a crash-and-burn along the way. 

Missing Out: When you’re busy cooking and serving, you may miss out on socializing and enjoying the party with your guests. Why host a gathering if you can’t hear the latest gossip because you had to stir the risotto?

Pointers

If you’ve still decided to cater your party on your own, there are a few things worth mentioning that will make your experience as seamless as possible.

How Much Food to Prepare: Not having enough food can be the kiss of death, which is why every caterer has their own formula. The greater the variety of food, the more will be consumed, because who doesn’t want to try everything?

Hors d’oeuvres: A good rule of thumb is to plan two to three hors d’oeuvres per person if dinner will follow. If you’re only serving heavy apps, you’ll want to have at least five to six options (four or five savory, one or two sweet) with three to four pieces of each appetizer per person. For a higher ratio of men to women, offer heartier items or options that speak to their cravings. This isn’t to say only men eat more—I can wreck a charcuterie display—but make sure you offer a menu that fits the crowd.

Charcuterie: Plan one to two ounces each of cheese and meat per person, with four to five crackers per person. It’s also a kind gesture to offer gluten-free crackers. Accompaniments can include honey and Marcona almonds, an assortment of jams, olive mix, hummus, crudités, various dips (1 cup for every 10 people) and a fruit display (¼ cup per person).

Timing Is Everything: As the party gets started, most guests will grab a drink first before they hit the food table. So don’t stress if you don’t yet have everything ready to go. Let your guests socialize a bit. I’ve learned over the years that if you have the food set up in a different room, it takes a bit of time to be discovered. If it’s by the bar, look out.

Ice, Ice, Baby: I always suggest one pound of ice per person. That sounds like a lot, but you’ll need it for drinks and for chilling wine and beer bottles in tubs.

Glassware: If you’re using real glassware, plan to have one glass per person per hour. Otherwise, you’ll be washing glasses all night long. For disposables, plan for two per person per hour.

Clean Up: After the party is over, set your place on fire and step outside to watch it burn to the ground. Just kidding, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Trying to do it all will leave you exhausted. If you don’t feel you can do all of the cooking, decorating, set-up, and clean-up, ask for help from friends and family or give your caterer a call.

Things To Keep In Mind When Using A Caterer

We love it when you need us, and we’re here to give you the best experience possible when it comes to helping with your holiday party. The pros and cons mentioned previously are still relevant, but those worries transfer from your hands into ours. And we love a challenge! Mistakes can still occur. More times than not, you, as the host, never see it because the caterer has to be a ninja at night when it comes to correcting a mistake. But for a smooth and successful party, here are some tips that can help your caterer:

Communicate: Details such as the type of event, date, timeline (cocktail hour, dinner service), location, and guest count should be discussed right off the bat. Let them know the theme of your party and any dietary restrictions or food preferences.

Schedule: Book your caterer well in advance to secure their services, especially during peak event seasons. Repeat customers are my favorite, and it kills me when I have to tell them I’m already booked and cannot accommodate them.

Give Access: Venue access is everything to us. After a long few days of planning, shopping, prepping, and loading, we’re looking for convenience. Easy access to the workspace, loading zones, uncluttered food service areas and extra refrigerator/freezer space are so, so important.

Equipment and Utilities: Confirm that the venue or your home has the necessary utilities (electricity, water, gas) and equipment for the caterer’s needs. If you’re having a summer cookout, make sure your grill works!

Designated Contact: Whether it be yourself, the host, or another point of contact, be available for communication with the caterer. Stuff happens. We need to know who to talk to when we need assistance.

Seating and Preference: Share the seating arrangements and guests’ protein choice with the caterer to minimize serving mistakes. This adds a personal touch.

Guest Count: Provide the caterer with the final guest count no later than a week before the event so they can acquire and prepare the right amount of food. For larger crowds, it takes days of pre-planning to make sure everything is perfect. Although we know things happen and guests have to cancel, it’s easier to add more last-minute than to take away.

Payday: Each caterer has their own payment policy in place, but I feel it’s up to the two parties on when and how payment should be made. Just be sure to follow through with whatever is agreed upon by both parties.

Feedback: We love to know how we did. Providing feedback after the event helps us to know whether we nailed it or could do better.

So, it’s not 1979, and I no longer play with Barbies. It’s 2023, and I play with food instead … and I do it for a living. I’ve fed anywhere from two to four hundred people at a time, and I love every part of it. It takes a little bit of crazy to love this line of work, and caterers across our city wear it proudly. So, if you don’t want to go at it alone and need our help this holiday season to make your event a smashing success, get in touch with your favorite caterer as soon as possible. We’re here for you! 

Author

  • Ruthie Martinez

    Ruthie owns Black Fig Food catering and is proprietor of the online cooking platform Elevated Plant Plate. Learn more at blackfigfoodprograms.com and blackfigfood.com.

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