Wedding Catering 101

Peter Callahan of Callahan Catering in New York City is known for miniaturizing iconic comfort foods and whipping up one-of-a-kind meals. Here is his expert advice on making sure every detail of your wedding catering runs smoothly.

What should couples look for in a caterer?
We all have our niche, whether it's fancy French, farm-to-table, or Indian cuisine, so make sure the person you choose is the right fit for your day. Then, of course, it's crucial that you like the food. Nowadays, it's common for caterers to offer you a tasting before you've even hired them-the initial meet-and-greet is becoming a meet-and-eat! They should also provide staff, oversee rentals, and be comfortable working in a makeshift kitchen. And it's always smart to verify that your point person will be on-site the day of.

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Do all packages include rentals?
Not necessarily. You'll need to find out what comes standard--china, glasses?--and request to look at it. If you don't like it, see if you can upgrade. Also ask if items like coffeemakers or an oven will cost extra. Don't assume anything.

Catering is one of the biggest wedding expenses. About how much should couples expect to pay per head?
It's a wide range, from $100 in small towns up to double that in cities like New York or Los Angeles. That should include servers--you'll need at least one waiter per 10 guests.

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What are some simple ways to cut costs?
Booze is an easy one: Have a signature cocktail instead of a full bar. Also, use lots of veggies, which are inexpensive but look bountiful, as sides and hors d'oeuvres. And if you're serving beef, consider flatiron steak instead of filet. It's much cheaper, yet really tender.

Are there any foods people should avoid?
Yes. Pork can be a tricky main course since some people don't eat it. And certain dishes, like rack of lamb or Dover sole, are challenging to do well for a large group.

What should couples keep in mind when coming up with their menu?
Often couples don't grasp how long each course takes--they might want to squeeze four into an hour, which just doesn't work. For each course, the rule of thumb is: 10 minutes to serve, 10 to eat, and 10 to clear.

How can couples personalize the meal?
Get family involved. Give your caterer the recipe for your grandmother 's signature dish--we made a great Scottish fruitcake once--or set the tables with heirloom china. One bride used several different patterns and matched her flowers to the designs.

Any interesting new catering trends?
Formal dinners will always be popular, but some couples--especially those with younger guest lists--worry that seated courses will kill their reception's party vibe. So rather than interrupting the music to serve dinner, we set up food stations where each one offers something different. There's less structure, and guests can eat what they want, when they want.

Top Tip
Focus on cocktail hour food, because it's the first thing people taste. It's often better to put your money there than on an extravagant entree. Passed minis are always well-received, and people love carving stations with artisanal meats, too.

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