An expert offers candid advice on catering, party rentals, and more.

Sandwiches on a wooden platter tied with twine
Credit: Stephen Danelian, compliments of William Morrow

Creating a memorable event is no small feat. Lulu Powers, chef and wedding planner, shares advice on how to craft a menu, choose party rentals, and stay within budget.

How many appetizers do you suggest serving?
At least four, but I like to have as many as seven, and a huge variety: meatball sliders, mini-grilled cheese sandwiches, bruschetta, sushi, tuna tartare on spoons. There are so many picky eaters, but if you have plenty of options people are bound to find something they’ll enjoy. Also, I prefer not to serve the same hors d’oeuvre over and over—it’s boring. I went to an event recently where these two appetizers were passed around for three hours. It wasn’t long before the guests stopped eating them and the servers looked like they wanted to give up.

What are your thoughts on a sit-down dinner versus a buffet?
I’m not a big fan of buffets. They’re fine for casual backyard or beach events, but, in general, I don’t like the idea of making guests wait in line for food at a wedding. Beyond that, people end up eating at different times, and getting back in line because they forgot things or want seconds—the whole setup is messy and disrupts the flow of the party.

What is your favorite way to serve a meal?
One of my favorite ways to serve a meal is family style, where you put a bunch of different entrees and sides on each table for guests to share. It’s less fussy than having plated courses and passing around great food is a wonderful way to get people talking.

What’s one of your all-time favorite wedding meals?
For a small wedding, I once did a sit-down dinner of lobster rolls, grilled corn, potato and chopped vegetable salad, and coleslaw made from the groom’s grandmother’s recipe. For dessert we served ice cream cake and shot glasses of butterscotch pudding with rum sauce; other shot glasses were filled with berries garnished with mint. On the tables, we had jars of peanut butter pretzel cookies, along with tongs, so people could help themselves, and we served shot glasses of milk. This meal was amazing because it was so true to the couple and everything they loved—they didn’t care about doing what was expected of them.

Any ideas for livening up the ubiquitous chicken entrée?
The key is not to do a slab of chicken next to a scoop of rice and some vegetables—that’s so blah. Also, any food prepared for a large group should taste good at room temperature because it’s just not that easy to serve 150 hot meals. I like to make what I call a “build-a-meal,” where the main course and sides are layered together. You could do a kale or arugula salad topped with quinoa or mashed potatoes and finished with slices of grilled chicken. I think grilled anything is great at room temperature and it looks attractive. Another idea is a layered vegetable terrine with roasted potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and red and yellow peppers topped with roasted, shredded chicken. Or chicken curry over basmati rice sprinkled with toasted coconut and golden raisins—how cool would that be at a wedding?

What are some ways to cut costs on food?
I love to do a “grazing” of heavy hors d’oeuvres instead of a plated meal. This saves on food and rentals and it’s fun. Clients often think a buffet will be cheaper than a sit-down dinner, but that’s not the case. You have to order one-and-a-half to two times as much food for a buffet because guests will go for seconds. Also, when guests sit down for dinner, the reception loses a little momentum. I like to pass things like grilled skirt steak on mini fingerling potatoes, shot glasses of soup, sashimi and fried chicken bites so people feel like they’ve had a meal, but the party keeps going. An appetizer brunch would be significantly less expensive and really elegant. You could have mini frittatas, muffins, bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, and shot glasses of yogurt and granola. Can you tell I love serving things in shot glasses?

What are some ways to cut costs on rentals?
Another thing I suggest is to look into buying some of the glassware and serving pieces instead of renting them. You can get a package of six wine or drinking glasses from IKEA for between $3 and $5, which is less than what many rental companies charge. Mason jars are chic for serving lemonade and iced tea. And you can find really cool dishes and platters at flea markets. After the wedding, you can keep the pieces on hand for entertaining.