When a client comes to you for a catering job, the possibilities seem endless. Will they want fluted salads, ornate appetizer platters or a simple plated meal? Will you be serving food at a wedding, corporate retreat or anniversary party? How much food you’ll provide depends, of course, on several factors, including the type of event and how many people are attending.
Start With the People
Always start with a count of the number of people attending the event. To get the most accurate headcount possible, give a deadline to your client so you know the number of people will not change. Let the client know that having an accurate headcount will help to eliminate extra expenses and food waste. A deadline also ensures you have enough time to purchase and prepare the food.
Gather all the Details
You’ll also need to consider if the event is formal, like a wedding, or casual, like a retirement party. This may affect the type of food being served as well as the quantities and price. At formal events, guests typically eat one serving, but guests may graze or go back for seconds at a casual event.
You will also need to take into account how the food will be served, such as plated or buffet style. It is often a little more expensive to serve plated food because servers will need to attend to the tables and guests. The same is true if servers will be passing around hors d’oeuvres versus having them set at a table. Again, people are likely to help themselves to more food at a buffet than if it’s plated and served.
Specify a Budget Limit
Some clients want to keep costs very low while throwing a lavish party. For others, cost is not an issue. Knowing what money you have at your disposal will help you determine how to better plan the menu and figure out how much food to serve.
Create the Menu
Once you have all of this information in hand, start planning the menu by asking your client if there are any specific food requests or any restrictions. Get a feel for what type of food he wants and how he wants it served. If he wants some higher-priced items like seafood served along with a simple salad, you’ll be able to let him know in advance how that will affect the budget. You and your client may have to hold several conversations as you finalize the menu.
Determine the Amount of Food
Now comes the fun part: purchasing the food. Think in terms of 1 ½ pounds of food per person as a starting place. In most situations this is more than enough food, so don't worry if you end up actually making a little less. Divide this amount among the various dishes you will be making, and assess which menu items people are likely to eat in the largest quantities. People generally take more of the main dishes and less of the side dishes.
Figure at least two units per person for finger food items served as discrete units (such as stuffed grape leaves or canapes). Prepare more of a particular dish if there will be a limited number of appetizers and less if there will be a substantial variety.
For proteins, one chicken breast, three to four lamb cutlets or two lamb chops or about ½ pound of beef per person should be adequate. If you’re serving 50 people, for example, you’ll need something along the lines of 25 pounds of chicken breast, 20 pounds of pork or 15 pounds of fish. For 100 people, those numbers would double.
When serving large groups, it's often easier to purchase by weight instead of individually. That way you err on the side of having extra just in case you need it. That includes condiments such as butter that you’ll need as well.
Catering to Special Dietary Restrictions
The reality in the catering world today is that a good number of your clients will ask for meals that incorporate special dietary restrictions. This will skew your numbers on a wide variety of food categories.
With vegetarian meals, of course, you'll save money by eliminating meat, poultry and seafood courses, but that could be offset by an increased number of vegetable dishes. In addition, you'll need to pay special attention to providing dishes that include vegetable protein such as beans, tofu and nuts.
The increasing number of people with diabetes can create a customer base looking for low-carb menus. In addition, the Keto low-carb lifestyle is one of the most popular weight-loss programs in the country. Catering to a low-carb crowd will mean additional meat servings as well as a larger variety of vegetable and dairy dishes while restricting or eliminating pasta, bread, potatoes, fruit and other catering staple items.
Victoria Bailey has owned and operated businesses for 25 years, including an award-winning gourmet restaurant and a rare bookstore. She spent time as a corporate training manager in the third-largest restaurant chain in its niche, but her first love will always be small and independent businesses. Bailey has written for USAToday, Coldwell Banker, and various restaurant magazines, and is the ghostwriter for a nationally-known food safety training guru.