Not every event needs servers and multiple options for every course. Every event, however, should have great food, no matter who cooks it. Full-service catering is only one of many options available, and is frequently the most expensive. Choosing partial catering can help save money and still have an end result with great food that looks — and tastes — great.
Many, if not most, caterers are open to partial service catering as an option. Partial catering can be just about anything you want it to; after all, it's a service you're going to be paying for! However, it's worth noting that some catering companies have "set" partial-catering menus and services. So make sure, when shopping around for caterers, that the scope of what you have in mind falls within what they can do.
There are many ways to handle using a
caterer for an event: you can let them handle everything, from tables/linens, serving, and cocktails to desserts, or you can pick and choose their level of
involvement. Sometimes you may just want them to provide the food and nothing more; sometimes you may want them to handle serving
the main course only. Perhaps you want to make the majority of the food, but have a single, staffed
station for a special entree. Or you may want to just hire a personal chef rather than a service to handle all the cooking on site. The options are endless, and limited only by your imagination and the willingness of the caterer you choose.
A note about desserts:
One easy way to save money on smaller catered events is to take care of the desserts yourself. Bakeries and supermarket bakery sections have a variety of
desserts available, and the pricing is generally much less expensive than using a caterer. With the exception of specialty cakes, it's generally not too difficult to handle dessert on your own.
Select a catering company for partial catering the same way you would if planning a fully catered event. Let them know up front that you're looking for partial service. But if you let your imagination fly when planning and talking to your caterer, you might just be amazed at the world of possibilities that open up when you decide to incorporate some but not all caterered party food into your event.
Pre-Made or Pre-Cooked Food:
Most restaurants, supermarkets and many specialty stores sell pre-cooked food made to order. In general, buying pre-made food is less expensive than catering, but carries an added cost in time, serving, and cleanup. On the positive side, it is possible to be very creative and authentic with your dishes by buying pre-made, especially when taking advantage of catered food from restaurants. Ethnic foods and dishes that take a long time to prepare or require specialized equipment are perfect choices for buying pre-cooked!
One consideration in buying pre-made food for parties is to make sure that you have enough dishes and space to handle storing, re-heating and serving. In addition, pay attention to how much time each dish will take to prepare/reheat, and take the timing into account.
Home-made Party Food Options:
Potluck dinners are always an option when entertaining. How things turn out is a function of how well your guests cook, how much they care about the resulting party, and how well organized the party is. Potluck dinners can be great, but they can also be a pain to coordinate, and there's always the chance of ending up with five tuna casseroles on one table. However, well planned potlucks can be fun as well as relatively inexpensive. Check out our themed potluck dinner ideas for inspiration!
If all else fails, there are many fine cookbooks available for reference, or you can always enlist your friends for a potluck. If you decide you're doing the cooking
yourself, keep careful lists of ingredients and prep time, and make sure your recipes are adjusted to handle the number of guests involved. There's nothing worse than
running out of food. On that note, make sure to have a back-up plan, in case something goes wrong and one of the dishes can't be served.
Deciding which way to go...
Is a matter of figuring out what you want and how to get it while staying within your budget and not driving yourself insane in the process.
Cooking for groups requires time as well as kitchen space in addition to the cost of the food and supplies (and clean-up). Pre-cooked food is available from many restaurants, speciality stores and markets, but the costs can add up if you're not careful. Potlucks are easy as far as cost and cooking time go, but can be difficult to organize and a pain to clean up after.
First, decide what your event is and who will attend; pick a date, and then decide how much you want to spend on it. Take into consideration how much time you want to spend in prepping and cleanup, and take a good look at the facilities (your kitchen or the kitchen of wherever the event will be held). Think about the menu you want, and how good/comfortable you are at cooking what you want to serve. Then use those factors to help decide whether to use a caterer or not, and to what extent. The more details you take into account, the more likely you are to have both a great event and a great time.
There are a thousand variations on how to combine different catering options for your event. Find what works for you, and have fun with it!