Planning An Affordable Menu

Food & Beverage

The best memories I have of events are based around the food that was served, and while it was all beautiful and delicious, not all of it was expensive. So don’t turn out your pockets in despair at the thought of planning a decadent event complete with a sumptuous meal. There are plenty of ways to get a fabulous and satisfying menu without breaking the bank.

Ed Rigsbee, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and author of PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances and The Art of Partnering, says that people in general forget what can be done to give the perception of spending a lot of money without actually spending a great deal. A simple shift in our thought process from “This must be good because it costs so much,” to “This is just as high quality but costs less,” is what can keep us all on budget when planning an event.

Buffet vs. Seated
In the battle of which dining style to go with, buffets often seem to be the more cost-effective option. There is no waitstaff to pay and there are cheaper food options. Yet when you delve beneath the surface of a buffet—with its steam tables and carving stations—there are some food costs many people may not be aware of.

The appeal of a buffet is the chafing dishes; these are laden with multiple choices, and are always full and steaming. You never see an empty serving dish because more food is always coming out from the kitchen to replenish the supplies. This means, of course, the half-filled chafing dish is whisked away to the kitchen to be emptied, cleaned and refilled. This is not to mention the fact that a lot of people think the word “buffet” is French for “all you can eat,” and load up their plates but only eat half of what they take. There are no doggie bags here; all that wasted food being swept into the trash bins equals food cost and that means money.

With a seated meal there is a greater appearance of elegance and even more control. A three-course meal can satisfy all the attendees, and because you control the amount of food that is prepared and served, you still have control over your budget. That isn’t to say that all buffets are bad and that all seated meals are better, but there are other ways to offer your clients and attendees a well-prepared and presented meal in a cost-effective manner.

Some budget-friendly tips
Avoid serving shrimp at a buffet. The shrimp station is to a buffet what the water cooler is to an office, a hangout. Avoid having to constantly refill a shrimp-cocktail station: Have the shrimp served as passed hors d’oeuvres, present it as an appetizer or even place it alongside an entrée at a seated meal, suggests Bill Hansen, president of Bill Hansen Catering and current president of Leading Caterers of America.

Please pass the hors d’oeuvres
Hansen says a menu based around passed or “butlered” foods often provides higher quality than
a buffet, since the food is prepared only before service. This cuts down on wasted food, meaning
less cost to you. Ed Rigsbee also advises serving a menu of hors d’oeuvres, and says that, at a cocktail party, people are more likely to only take what they actually plan to eat.
Go ethnic
There are so many options to choose from when you decide to go with ethnic cuisine, which is usually less expensive and definitely more interesting. Hansen recommends trying paella, a rice dish originating in Valencia, Spain, which combines chicken, vegetables, seafood and chorizo sausage, all in one. He also mentions a meal based around La Caja China, a wooden box lined with aluminum in which a whole pig can be roasted in as little as four hours. Ethnic meals such as these provide a bit of adventure, but can also be far less expensive than more traditional fare.

Just say “no” to an open bar
An open bar is almost like handing out wads of bills at the door to all your attendees. “At an open bar people tend to drink just to drink,” says Rigsbee. To avoid this pitfall he suggests offering your guests a “welcome beverage.” Just one free drink, perhaps sangria, a daiquiri or even champagne, is going to be cheaper than providing an open bar. Rigsbee also notes that not everyone is a sommelier, and therefore, you can dress up less-expensive champagnes with flavored liquors or fresh fruit while still providing an impressive and elegant drink.

I’ll have what they’re having
Some venues may have more than one event happening on the same day; take advantage of
this fact and see if your menus can use some of the same ingredients. You can lower your food
cost by choosing a menu that coincides with that of another event.

Do yoga
Be flexible when planning your menu. “Top sirloin cap has no fat, no gristle, is tender and is half the price of filet mignon,” says Hansen. He explains that using cheaper cuts of meat doesn’t mean any of the quality or flavor is sacrificed. If the client or meeting chairperson requests a specific cut or certain type of meat that has a reputation for being expensive, try suggesting an alternative. “Don’t be too docile,” says Rigsbee. “Stand up and say ‘If you want X, we can do it. But if you’re willing to go with A, B or C, we can save 20 percent and the food will be just as good.’”

Start the day off right
As I wrote in this space last month, breakfast is making a comeback. Luckily for event planners, breakfast foods are significantly cheaper than most lunches, some cocktail parties and all dinners. While the old standbys are usually continental breakfasts and ooey-gooey baked goods, there are healthier and less expensive items on offer for breakfast. Oatmeal is a healthy, filling and low-cost breakfast item that provides long-lasting nutrition and can be dressed up with do-it-yourself toppings such as fruit, granola or nuts. Eggs and savory breakfast items are excellent from a health standpoint and also easy on the budget.

Pack a lunch
More and more caterers offer boxed lunches, and while they may not be a good old pb&j like mom used to make, they are still fantastic and affordable. “A good quality boxed lunch can contain one of a variety of sandwiches, really good potato or pasta salad, some nice chips and a great dessert,” says Hansen. One of his favorite informal desserts for a boxed-lunch event is a frozen slice of Key lime pie dipped in chocolate on a stick “Google it,” he says; you’ll be happy you did.

Keep track
Ed Rigsbee cannot count the number of events he’s been to where, of the 500 seats in a banquet hall, maybe 100 are empty. “Those are seats you paid for,” he says. By simply tracking the attendance record of previous years and planning a menu based on those numbers, you can ensure that type of money loss doesn’t happen again. “When I am at an event and I see them scrambling to add another table for the dinner service, I know that event planner is on top of their game,” he says. Cutting it close and keeping the numbers tight is better than overestimating and watching your budget disappear into empty seats.

Things to remember
Know your budget and let your caterer know the limitations of your budget.  Be honest and inform your caterer of what is expected of them. Provide as much information to the caterer as possible: the who, where, when and whys of an event are crucial to planning a menu. “The more information we know, the better we can plan,” says Hansen.

Give your caterer free reign. Make suggestions for what you would like to see at the event, then
give the caterer the freedom to create a menu. Chances are they will know what is in season at
the time of your event, which translates into less-expensive ingredients. Ordering produce out of season costs more than going with locally grown seasonal produce, which is usually of a higher quality. A good caterer will know what can or can’t be done on the budget you provide.

Stay in contact with your caterer throughout the process. Hansen says that clear, frequent and timely communications are vital to providing an excellently catered event. If there are changes to the event, additions or subtractions, let the caterers know in a timely fashion so they can work with these new requests. “Caterers look for a long-term relationship with clients,” says Hansen, “so it has to be give and take. Think of it as a partnership.” With a little communication and mutual respect, you can be sure to receive excellent service each and every time.

As always, think of the nutritional needs of your attendees. Healthier, less-processed foods are generally going to cost less while providing more. So when you plan your menu for five or 500, remember that affordable menus differ greatly from the cheap-value meals at the local fast food joint. You can have beautiful memorable food without busting your budget.