Reducing the cost of a fancy dinner

Catering on the Cheap

by Debra Karplus

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Your daughter has recently announced her engagement. Or maybe someone in the family is about to retire or will be celebrating a milestone birthday. It's time to plan a party. And what's a party without food? But with your job and other responsibilities, who has time to be preparing cuisine for 20 or 40 or 100 of your closest friends and relatives? It might be time to explore the option of catering., the catering industry's trade journal, states that catering revenue has doubled in the past ten years, and in 2013, it had increased to about forty-five billion dollars annually. That statistic implies that you, the consumer, can expect to pay big bucks for a catered event. But maybe there's a way to serve an affordable catered meal.

Catering businesses typically provide price quotes based on the price per person or the price per tray of the food served. Sit-down dinners obviously cost more than buffet-style. Though sit-down dinners appear to be classier, many people are on special diets such as gluten-free, diabetic, or vegan and appreciate the option of choosing their own food in the quantity they can eat. Searching online, you will discover that a catered dinner can cost between $17 and $25 per person. The nature of the food served, the quantity, and the geographic location of the catering service are a few of the many factors influencing their prices.

Party trays from the supermarket or specialty grocery can reduce the cost of a catered event.

Places like Sam's Club, Subway, or the grocery in your neighborhood sell attractive party trays. For example, a sandwich tray can be ordered online from your nearest Subway Shop for $35. The Subway site states that the tray feeds five to nine people, which calculates to $4 to $7 per person. But remember that is just for small sandwiches and does not include chips or beverages or their delicious cookies. Sunset Foods in Chicago's north suburbs is a chain of upscale groceries that have an in-store chef and catering professionals who can provide consultation and help plan and prepare gourmet cuisine for your next celebrations.

Culinary school student interns may be able to provide affordable classy catering for an affordable price.

If you have a cooking or culinary school in the vicinity or better yet a community college, you may be in luck. Students interning at these schools are required to complete several hours of hands-on work to complete their certificate of college degree. The website lists culinary internships and also externships, which are a bit different from their point of view but might be able to cater your next event.

The Community Culinary School, located in New Milford, Connecticut, the northwestern part of that state, has a formal program for providing internships for its students as part of its job training program that could help you if you live in that area. There are other Community Culinary Schools in that part of the United States. Proceeds benefit non-profit organizations, such as feeding the hungry. Look at their website and you can see that several dinner entree choices, such as parmesan crusted chicken, sell for $90 per tray and serve 20 people. Order a side dish with that, such as roasted potatoes, and pay $45 more to serve 20. For dessert, a delicacy such as apple crisp costs $70 to feed twenty people. Do the math and you will see that for $205 dollars you can feed elegant foods to 20 people, averaging about $10 per person, considerably lower than any commercial caterer.

There are other culinary school programs that may be a source for hiring affordable catering services. Kendall Community College in the Chicago area claims to have one of the best Culinary Arts Schools. If you live in the area, they may be able to help you.

Kingsborough Culinary Arts School in the New York City is part of the College of New York (CUNY). Learn more about their program here to see if they can help you with catered food at your next event.

Search online using key words "catering school," "culinary school," "culinary arts," "chef," or "food service" and see if anything in your area might provide catering. Contact your community college foods department. Helping an enthusiastic student earn their college degree while providing the elegance of catered food to guests at a celebration that you are hosting is always a win-win situation. Make some phone calls and see if student interns can help you throw the best party your guest will ever attend.

Reviewed June 2017

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on (kindle), has written several travel articles for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and several articles for and volunteers as a money mentor for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension money mentoring program. Learn more about her at

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