For many attendees, substandard event food can ruin the whole experience. Knowing what types of food will appeal to a large group of people might seem like an impossible task. You want great catering ideas that are delicious and definitely not ordinary. It can’t be too messy, and the fewer utensils needed the better, right?

What makes it even more of a challenge is that food trends change all the time. Will those in the know say your event’s offerings were on the cutting edge, or yesterday’s news? We went looking for unique catering options and trendy catering menus for you, taking a peek at Instagram and other social media and reviewing the top chefs’ best catering menu ideas.

It’s always the trend to include seasonal flavors, with hearty chicken pot pies or hors d’oeuvres featuring preserved meats served in winter months, and more herbs, fruits, and vegetables served in the summer months. But you also want to keep in mind presentation as much as flavor: since the pandemic, many chefs prefer individually packaged items that limit touching and exposure to germs for their special events catering.

We think we’ve found the most mouth-watering ideas to keep your guests wanting more, no matter your budget. Browse by meal type to get the planning process started.

Breakfasts of champions

For morning events, something to give people energy can also add some zip to your event.

Photo by ELISA KERSCHBAUMER on Unsplash

Photo by ELISA KERSCHBAUMER on Unsplash

Event catering idea #1: Artisanal doughnuts

It started with the cronut, the unbelievably delicious croissant-doughnut hybrid popularized by NYC pastry chef Dominique Ansel. Now, specialty doughnut shops are popping up all over the country, and your event could follow suit. But don’t limit yourself — while it’s among the most popular breakfast catering ideas, it’s also a great choice when you’re simply looking for fun catering options.

Event catering idea #2: Smoothie bowl bar

These beautiful breakfast bowls typically consist of a mix of fruits, veggies, oats, yogurt, and “superfoods” like acai, chia, and hemp. A perfect choice if you want a range of healthy catering menu ideas or even easy catering ideas that don’t require a lot of dishes or utensils. Serve them in recyclable bowls for even quicker cleanup.

Drinks

If you’re looking for refreshment ideas for events, a simple bar serving drinks makes a lot of sense. For evening events, alcohol is always a hit, and coffee, tea, and non-alcoholic cocktails make a great choice any time of day.

coffee

Event catering idea #3: Coffee bar

A mainstay for corporate event catering — and a must at any morning event — coffee is always a safe choice. But you can turn common catering foods into great catering foods with just a little creativity, and coffee is no different. Turn your pots of decaf and regular into a diverse coffee bar that has it all: pour-overs, cold brew, nitro coffee, and all kinds of non-dairy milk. Not sure how to pull this off? Enlist your local hipster coffee shop as an event vendor.

Event catering idea #4: Zero-proof cocktails

With “healthy” as the big buzz in food, everyone’s jazzed about booze-free cocktails. And there’s more to virgin drinks than the venerable Roy Rogers and Shirley Temple. Hire a mixologist to set up a non-alcoholic specialty bar, and your attendees can experience the joys of revelry without hangovers.

Event catering idea #5: Matcha tea

A traditional green tea made from powdered tea leaves, matcha has recently exploded into urban tea bars. It comes with health benefits, and it can be served hot or iced, or used as an ingredient in shakes and smoothies. The vibrant green hue of matcha tea makes it also photogenic, perfect for social media posts touting your cool catering ideas.

Event catering idea #6: Milkshake IPAs

This non-traditional type of beer is gaining momentum in the craft-brew circuit. The creamy texture and sweet added ingredients (like fruit) mimic the goodness of a milkshake, plus adding these IPAs to your beverage repertoire gives you instant craft-beer credibility.

Appetizers and small bites

Catering for events requires you to consider not just the food, but the setting. If people will be standing for most of the evening, tasty treats you can pop in your mouth are among the better party catering ideas.

toast

Event catering idea #7: Skewers

The ideal grab-and-go food skewers consist of anything on a stick, including grilled meat, veggies, and fruits. They make good catering menu ideas because they can be prepped ahead of time, stacked, and offered as a self-serve option to attendees.

Event catering idea #8: Tapas

Many people prefer to eat small bites rather than large sit-down meals at an event. And tapas are an economical approach to catering, too, making them both great event buffet ideas and fun food for company events (where your boss will appreciate the budget-consciousness).

Event catering idea #9: Bespoke toast

Toast is not just for breakfast anymore. Dressed-up bread with custom combinations of toppings, from smashed avocado to chèvre cheese, is a wholesome spin on the old bagel bar. If you’re looking for cool food catering suggestions that are both trendy and budget-friendly, spread a little flavor on toast, and watch your guests’ faces light up.

Event catering idea #10: Miniature foods

It’s a fact that small equals cute. Take tiny tacos. What could be cuter? Tiny pizza? Tiny lobster rolls? “Yes” to all of the above — and they’re easy to pass around at an event. An ever-tasty choice if you’re looking for small catering menu ideas that pack a lot of punch.

Family friendly

We understand that kids can be picky eaters. Lobster rolls and steak tartar are definitely not optimal foods for catering if kids are going to be eating. Look for catering menu items that put a playful spin on a trusted favorite and your kid guests will love it — and you’ll likely see some parents chowing down, too.

cupcakes

Event catering idea #11: Popcorn bowl bar

Popcorn may not be the first idea that comes to mind when considering catering food ideas. Movie popcorn is a sublime treat, and artificial butter flavoring is not the only topping that’s delicious on popcorn. Also notable: nutritional yeast, parmesan cheese, sesame oil, kale flakes, and, of course, caramel.

Event catering idea #12: Rolled ice cream parlor

The frozen dessert originally from Southeast Asia is also sometimes called “stir-fried ice cream”. Think delicious gelato, flattened on a sheet and then rolled into a vertical cylinder. Add toppings, stick a spoon in it, and bam! You’ve got yourself a delicious — and highly Instagrammable — festival treat.

Event catering idea #13: Shaved ice

Traditionally a Hawaiian treat, shaved ice has made its way around the rest of the country, replacing our outdated ideas of snow cones with healthier and more exotic topping options from lychee to tiger’s blood.

Event catering idea #14: Unicorn food

Technically speaking, unicorns aren’t real. But that doesn’t stop unicorn food from being a legit food category, even according to the New York Times, which defines it as “any food item jazzed up with dye or cute accessories like fruit cut into little shapes or mountains of pastel marshmallows.”

Eco-friendly and sustainable

When you want party catering menu ideas that will appeal to the environmentally conscious among us, go with natural foods, local sourcing, and seasonal ingredients.

produce

Event catering idea #15: Composting-friendly meals

This one’s not about what you eat, but what you don’t — a composting initiative at your event demonstrates that you’re invested in sustainable practices. It also gives attendees a chance to give back.

Event catering idea #16: Farm-to-table meal

Dishes made with local, seasonal ingredients are often deemed healthier and more environmentally friendly. These include ingredients sourced from nearby farms and ranches, as well as locally made specialty food items.

Event catering idea #17: Farmers’ market

Along with the “locavore craze,” farmers’ markets are experiencing a major revival. Add a mini farmers’ market to the mix of your event to capitalize on this craze.

Event catering idea #18: Grain bowls

Think farro, quinoa, forbidden rice. Layered bowls of grains, veggies, protein, and sauce provide a versatile, creative catering choice. Attendees can mix and match options, too.

Event catering idea #19: Vegan options

Plant-based diets are getting a lot of play lately, as a focus on healthy eating and environmentally sustainable practices ramps up. Whether you go full-on vegan or simply offer a tempeh Reuben option at your sandwich bar, honoring your vegan contingent is a nice way to say “we get it”.

What’s trending

If you want to stay up to date with current trends or simply like to see the latest and greatest, try out some of these catering food menu ideas.

food truck

Event catering idea #20: Food trucks

Food trucks have transitioned from being the cutting edge of hipness to a must-have at many events. In fact, food trucks are one of the top three types of food-related experiences Americans are most likely to go out of their way to check for.

Event catering idea #21: Gluten-free options

Whether it’s for allergies or other health reasons, you might find that many people are skipping the bread these days. If you’re planning a sandwich bar or cheese and crackers, be sure to pick up some gluten-free options as well.

Event catering idea #22: Pop-up restaurant

Move away from the traditional food court setup and instead surprise attendees with pop-up food options in unexpected places.

Event catering idea #23: CBD anything

CBD, or cannabidiol, is popping up in everything from sodas to smoothies. Infusing your event’s food with this buzzy (but non-intoxicating) ingredient is a surefire way to draw attention and attendees. Play it safe by using CBD from hemp and double-checking your local laws before serving.

International culinary adventures

One of the best things about food is the way it lets us experience different cultures, even when they’re right in our own backyard. These can make great catering food ideas that explore unique ingredients, unusual preparation, and most of all, incredible flavors.

bento box

Event catering idea #24: Bánh mì

Vietnamese for “bread”, bánh mì is a sandwich that includes traditional Vietnamese ingredients like pickled daikon, cilantro, and spicy chilis. Typically a casual street food, bánh mì sandwiches are a perfect stand-and-eat foodie choice for a busy event.

Event catering idea #25: Bento boxes

Bento is a traditional Japanese lunch served in a box with compartments. Typical components might include rice or noodles, sushi or fish, and chopped or pickled veggies.

Event catering idea #26: Fermented foods

Kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut — in other cultures and centuries past, fermented foods were a smart way to preserve food for longer. Today, we eat them because they’re yummy and healthy.

Event catering idea #27: Italian food

Okay, Italian is more a staple than a trend. But after “American food,” it’s many people’s favorite type of cuisine. You can never go wrong with pizza and cannoli.

Event catering idea #28: Hot chicken

Nashville, and much of the South, has been in love with hot chicken lately. This spiced-up version of fried chicken is great on its own or alongside other comfort food dishes. Offer it at your event for Southern flair.

Fine dining for the people

For appealing small party catering ideas, consider doing something a little fancier. With fewer guests, a more elaborate meal becomes a possibility, so take advantage.

chef

Event catering idea #29: Chef’s table

Recruit a local or celebrity chef (even better, a local celebrity chef) to conduct hands-on demos for attendees. People love cooking shows, and as Candace Price, the regional event director for iHeartMedia, says, “This is like a cooking show where they can interact with the chef while he’s at work. It makes for a unique and lively experience”.

Event catering idea #30: Local restaurants

Partner up with a local restaurant to create a one-of-a-kind catering experience. “Restaurants can be a lot more personable and willing to create something together than a typical catering partner who cranks out events”, says Annye DeGrand, Senior Event Director, Octagon.

Make your event stand out

Brainstorming ideas that cater to the multitudes might seem challenging, but coming up with innovative catering ideas will make your event menu stand out. Remember that breakfast and lunch catering ideas call for different recommended food catering choices than those for an evening dinner or cocktail event. And hey, throwing out ideas is one of the event catering activities you can do yourself — once you’ve made your decision, it’s just a matter of hiring the chef and servers.

Once your menu is set, sell tickets with Eventbrite.