Creative and Cost Effective Menu Ideas for Your Next Event


Creative-and-Cost-Effective-Menu-IdeasPlanning the budget pie one slice at a time


Hosting a big event requires consideration of a number of things – food, venue, and budget. One of these depends a lot with the other and while being faced with an unsteady economic outlook; you might think you’re doomed to offering rubber chicken medallions, ho-hum garden salads (with a choice of ranch or blue cheese dressing) and soft drinks or water. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way – there are many palate-pleasing selections which can get attendees buzzing and make your event unforgettable despite being on a tight budget.

For starters, do your homework

The Internet was not developed for nothing. Today, a lot of social media networking sites are influencing each and every consumer. As a host, utilize the Internet to your advantage and begin with some simple online research for the various catering services in your area or at the event’s location. Determine similar events and what they offer. Know more about the attendees and their needs your event aims to address.


Think about the minimum and maximum amounts you are willing and able to spend, and what trade-offs you are willing to make in favor of food with flair. It helps to create a pie when budgeting for your event and determine the size of each slice. Will there be alcohol, and if so, will you have an open or cash bar? Will the food be buffet style, or will you require servers to work the event?


There are other event items, such as music and flowers. Also consider the decor. Most attendees today are into selfies. They even bring mono-pods to take selfies in almost everywhere. A splendid decoration encourages more and more selfies. The more selfies are uploaded to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the more hash-tags your event will have, the more popular you become. Another key factor is the length of the event and built-in breaks. Will there be singing and dancing even during breaks or will the band play a mellow song? Do some research on Pinterest to know what decors and set-ups are in these days.


Know your attendees


“Planning ahead of time strategically and really determining your budget and resources is essential,” says Barbara Burlington of San Francisco Bay area-based Raconteur Foods. “Over the years, we’ve found many instances where people fail to include staff and others who need meals, or misjudge the attendee demographics.”


You need to get a feel for your attendees, and how sophisticated their palate is. Food choices for a gathering of CEOs are likely to be quite different from those for an event aimed at comic-book aficionados or animal rights activists. Keep in mind that many people attend multiple events each year, and that offers you a great opportunity to make your event a standout they’ll remember.


At large corporate events in particular, it’s critical to be respectful of different ethnic backgrounds, food preferences and dietary restrictions. You don’t need to go overboard with labels such as “100 percent organic” and “fair-trade certified,” but it’s always safe to offer vegetarian options. If you plan to have an open bar, serve substantial appetizers, and above all, make sure people have enough to eat.


Do your best to determine attendance so there’s little left over. An R.S.V.P. is still useful these days. Avoid offering one huge meal at lunch. This leads to overfeeding and the resulting food coma. No speaker wants to face 200 stuffed attendees in their 1 to 3 p.m. session. Try to spread things out with a light breakfast, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack break. Try offering more finger foods than steak and other heavy meals.

Other basic considerations:


  • Try to offer at least two choices of entrees (three is better) with one vegetarian option. Remember that non-vegetarians may choose the vegetarian option, so plan accordingly.
  • Offer three or more salad dressing options, including at least one low-fat option.
  • Serve all condiments on the side.
  • Offer two dessert options: one indulgent, one healthier.
  • Be on the safe side and order too much food — especially if it has a shelf life (i.e., energy bars) — and remember that it’s best to ask your caterer for guidelines.

Inside tip: Attendees often have only one hand free while mingling — typically an iPhone or tote bag is in the other. Try considering items they can eat with one hand if you are not ordering a sit-down meal.


Consider “white shirt friendly” options

In hosting business functions, make sure your food choices are easy to eat. “Think of serving food at professional events as though you’re on a first date,” says Burlington. “Barbecued ribs and chicken wings are not a good idea. At a professional event or conference, attendees usually wear business casual attire. Avoid the mess of serving spaghetti or foods wet with sauce.”


Popular “white-shirt friendly” ideas that won’t break the bank include a cold chicken salad with mandarin oranges and peanuts. At breaks, provide health bars, an assortment of nuts, trail mix and fresh fruit. Pears, dried apricots, apples or bananas are the best options (they also happen to be cost-effective). Pitted fruits or those that require peeling are too messy.


Pastas and vegetables are good choices when budgets are tight, and soups continue to grow in popularity — vegetable or clam chowder are great options — especially in winter. In the summer, gazpacho or cold cucumber soup are good choices. They are hearty, filling and don’t cost too much to pull together.


Beware of allergies, especially peanut allergies. Food allergies can be devastating and even fatal to some. Consider designating a contact person to accompany any attendee or staff member requiring medical attention. As much as possible, have a first aid kit around.


Great presentation, multiple options equal happy attendees

You don’t need to serve a thick rib-eye steak or a filet mignon to make a memorable statement. Here are some creative alternatives:


  • Offer a variety of finger food, cold or warm Spanish appetizers, usually served on small slices of toasted bread, which gives meal attendees the freedom to create their own plate and which they will enjoy sharing. Serve it with tapas, meat flavored with garlic, chilies or paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron and usually olive oil.
  • Another option, instead of offering mixed greens, is to serve dim sum which includes siomai, siopao, sharkskin and other Chinese-inspired dishes, traditionally served in bamboo steamers. Its serving sizes are small, with three or four pieces to a dish. Small portions let people try a wide variety. You may want to combine dim sum with something more familiar, such as Thai or Vietnamese spring rolls.
  • Feature a chocolate fountain to allow guests to dip fruits, marshmallows, graham crackers and cookies into the chocolate. This is a fun experience, and the fountain adds a touch of elegance.
  • Offer  mini pizzas or paninis and allow people to choose the add-ons. They can choose from traditional sausage or pepperoni to pineapple, sun-dried tomatoes or artichokes. People will still eat them even when they’re cold!

Inside tip: Match your food with your event theme or, at least, the schedule of your event. For example, your event is scheduled near the 1st of November, consider serving trick or treats even as light snacks. If your event is scheduled on a summer, enjoy a tropical theme featuring pineapples, mangoes or other frozen drinks complete with flowers and other designs.

When in doubt, please the sweet tooth

Chocolate is a big crowd-pleaser. Chocolate desserts, turtle cakes, “fun-size” candies and a hot-chocolate station in the winter months are always popular. Popsicles are another great afternoon snack option. “Chocolate really exists in its own universe,” says Burlington. “Whether you serve chocolate cake, cupcakes, cookies or ice cream, it will disappear. And the best part from the catering perspective is the cost savings. Chocolate can be really inexpensive.” Take note of the list below. Be sure to serve what pleases the crowd the most.

Crowd-pleasing/popular items 

  • Chocolate — in all its delicious forms.
  • Coffee (don’t forget the flavored French vanilla and hazelnut creamers).
  • Energy drinks — Red Bull, Go Girl, Rock Star and sugar-free versions.
  • Energy bars.
  • Anything in a bun — such as bite-sized sandwiches and burgers.
  • Yogurt.

Common leftover items or those with a short shelf-life


  • Carrots, broccoli and celery
  • Sushi and seafood
  • Circus peanuts, black licorice and black jellybeans (repeat winners in the “most-hated candy” category)
  • Generic colas and sodas — These cost less, but stick with brand names; you don’t want to appear cheap.

So, if you are worried on what will the light afternoon snack be, serve small slices of cake or little squares of s’mores. Please the sweet tooth and your guests would adore you.


How to serve the yummy dishes well


Should you have waiters who serve hot hors d’oeuvres? People love being fawned over and treated like royalty and they’ll remember it even after the event has ended. Some can’t-miss choices are baked brie with Portobello mushrooms, goat-cheese croquettes and baked brie with grape leaves on a slice of endive. Another favorite that disappears quickly: tiny beef Wellingtons wrapped in filo dough.


However, beware of chafing dishes (heated serving dishes with serving-size ladles). Although it sounds cost-saving, it really is not. Put hot food in chafing dishes, and people will load up thinking they’re getting a lot for free. By comparison, you can bring out a second or third round of hors d’oeuvres in a controlled way, so there’s little waste.


Inside tip: People will gather near the doors where the servers come out, and load up on your best offerings. Consider serving your lower-cost items in the first round or two, such as egg rolls or finger foods. Stagger the lobster ravioli and blackened salmon in later rounds. Also, locate the bar area away from the server entry; drinkers will “load up,” too.


Since the last thing you want is to run out of food, arrange in advance for the kitchen to have a quick solution on hand — something easy to whip up like egg rolls or cheese and crackers. Note that you must pay for this service whether you use it or not. If you need to cut back on something, consider omitting vegetable and cheese platters, which are left over more often than other foods.

Paying for it all

You may need to compromise some to make your menu as appealing and cost-effective as you like. Serving certain appetizers and finger foods can quickly become expensive. Consider these budget-stretching options:


  • Write your plans and visions for your event. This allows you to analyze every payment you’ll ever shell out for your event. Moreover, it saves you and the caterer some time hashing out the details.
  • After having the vision, plan meals one at a time. Opt for self-serve buffets or box lunches during the day instead of table seating. Hold back the dessert you’d normally serve at lunch, and present it during the afternoon break. That way you’re not paying extra for something that typically goes to waste at lunchtime.
  • Negotiate your budget. Ask the venue to allow you to pay on a consumption basis for soda, beer or wine, rather than pay a high per-person rate. You might pay $45 per person per hour for an open bar, but a lot of people don’t drink or may only have one.
  • Ask if you can provide your own liquor or wine and pay a corkage fee (typically $15 per bottle). You might otherwise pay $90 a bottle for something available at the supermarket for half that. Even with service charges, you typically save $25 a bottle.
  • Find out if the hotel will roll over guarantees to the next day, if you don’t get enough people at your evening affair. Or, ask if it will waive room rental or cover guest parking. This may only work if the venue does the catering.

Budget per person


You may need to do some negotiating to get your best deal, but it’s worth the effort if you can provide great food service that sets the tone from the first course to the last.


Take some time to create a spreadsheet with estimated costs and create a budget per person. It would be easier to multiply or subtract costs that way. Include taxes and tips, highlight areas of concern in red and list known costs for each day. Do your best to determine headcount — play it safe and overestimate so you have some wiggle room with your budget. Be sure to save your spreadsheet to use on future events. That way estimating will get easier. Consider the rent for the venue, location and space, along with payment for the staff, security deposit to reserve the venue, etc. Also consider how much you will pay the caterer on a per plate basis, additional charges, set-up and other fees. If your function requires invitations, budget for that as well.


Think creatively, and reap the benefits


You can always appeal to nostalgia and bring back the kid in all of us. Fun, affordable options include snow cone machines, cotton candy machines, hot dog or corn stands, warm pretzels, animal crackers, kettle corn, and chocolate fountain. As a healthy alternative, consider blended fruit smoothies. “It’s really a matter of balancing your creative goals with your available budget,” adds Burlington. “There are lots of opportunities to offer much more than the typical menu over and over again; you just need to do your homework, investigate and be prepared.”


As the organizer/caterer, consider creative food-related giveaways and promotional items such as logo-branded cupcakes, gumballs, mints, breath fresheners or — for more staying power — a toothbrush with your company logo.


Burlington concludes by adding that “you should have fun with your menu and use the opportunity to talk to others and solicit their opinions. Believe me, when it comes to food — everyone has an opinion.”


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