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Simple food, streamlined drink menu can help trim the budget for a catered meal

Romain Avril doesn’t usually cut corners. The chef, after all, has been working in Michelin-star restaurants across Canada and France since he was about 17.

But when it comes to catering, he knows there are plenty of tricks that can be used to serve a meal that gets everyone smiling and keeps your bank account far from depleted.

Catering a meal can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the type of food, number of diners and staff required. Extra guests, a round of steak or that decadent dessert can all add a few hundred dollars more to a bill.

To keep the costs of catering from skyrocketing, Avril says one of the easiest things to do is focus on what you’re serving.

“You don’t need caviar and truffles to make the best meal in the neighbourhood,” he says. “Beef, lamb, shellfish, something like oysters or lobster, will make (the price) hard to swallow.”

Chicken and turkey are far more affordable, he says. Relying on seasonal ingredients or making the dessert yourself can also keep costs down.

Some catering services will offer discounts for higher quantities of food, people who book on off-peak days (usually anything other than a Friday, weekend or holiday) and customers who lock in an order well in advance, provide and set up their own linens, silverware and decor, and don’t request cleaning.

When setting a menu, remember that food isn’t the only thing that can add up. 

“If you have an open bar, you can pretty much say goodbye to saving,” Avril also says, chuckling.

Skip the cocktails, which tend to cost more. 

“When you’re drinking, you’re going to be spending a bit of money, but if you aim for beer and wine only and count three drinks per person that is usually enough,” Avril says. Three beverages is what restaurants usually plan for the average person to drink.

You can also restrict the number of bottles placed on a table during a seated meal or cut back on how often servers top up glasses.

If you’ve planned to cater a dinner and the price is higher than you hoped for, consider a breakfast, lunch or brunch instead, Avril suggests.

“Those are much cheaper than a dinner, so that could be a good way to still gather together, and not spend extra money,” he says.

Plus, the earlier in the day a gathering is, the less booze people are likely to drink.

Regardless of which meal you go with, a buffet will always be more affordable. A sit-down affair is often more expensive to cater because it typically involves more courses, staff and a higher level of service.

Avril suggests making use of your home, a condo party room or an inexpensive Airbnb and then hiring a chef — easily found online — for one day or meal.

“That (chef) probably will end up being $300 max, when you could have been in the thousands of dollars,” he says.

Servers will also set you back a pretty penny, so skip using them or enlist some family or friends to help pass out food.

“Maybe, in return, when it’s their party you can trade services,” Avril says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2019.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press