How-To: Menus, food and drinks (Updated for 2020)
When it comes to serving food to your wedding guests, you have two primary options.
Option 1: Hosted or "Preferred Vendor List" food option provided by the reception site
All food is catered by either the wedding reception venue or one of its "preferred vendors." In most cases, the wedding reception venue will not give you the choice to bring in your own wedding catering. What's worse, most reception venues will set a "food and (sometimes) drink" minimums that you must spend in order to book a wedding venue.
This food minimum can take a form of a flat fee based on the number of guests you are bringing (say, $5,000 minimum for up to 100 guests) or a simple cost per person (for instance, $45 per guest).
In our quest, for our own wedding, we found reasonable wedding catering in Seattle at around $40-50 per guest for an afternoon wedding.
If your wedding venue does not allow outside catering, the cost of food will almost always be more expensive than if you had a chance to "shop around." In addition, many venues will have a predetermined set of menus to choose from, so you will have less flexibility with the food that will be served.
On the positive side, most wedding venues that do this will take care of providing the furniture, linens, wedding decorations, china, utensils, etc. (some of these items may be included, some come at an additional cost) for your reception, so there will be fewer items on your checklist to worry about.
Option 2: Bring your own catering
Some venues do allow for you to use your own wedding catering, which of course provides an opportunity for you to create your own menu from scratch and to save money.
Many caterers will work with you to fit into your budget. This opens the door for the kind of negotiation where you can name your price per person (we have seen that go to as low as $25 per person) and get competing menu proposals you could compare.
If you are on a very tight budget and cannot afford outside catering, you can also consider ordering all or a part of the food from a store (have a bunch of food delivered from Costco, for example). If you are ordering a part of food from a store, you may also be able to negotiate with your caterer and to get them to serve it together with the food you purchase from them - which means less hassle for you on the actual day of the wedding and a lot of savings on this line item.
Summary: selecting food and drinks option for your wedding
Negotiate to bring your own catering.
If the venue is overly restrictive, look for a more willing venue - there are great venues without such insecurities!
If you're on budget, pre-order bulky food and alcohol at a wholesale store
Costco is your friend and could perhaps save you hundreds of dollars.