A 42 Degrees chef works on the dinner party at Tom Sietsema’s home. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

[Sietsema reviews 8 caterers | Is hiring a caterer worth the cost?]

Make a date with a caterer as early as you can. Although a small event (20 or fewer guests) can be organized in less than a week, caterers appreciate two to four weeks’ notice. Extra time allows them a chance to make a site visit and go over plans in person.

Consider booking your party during traditionally slower seasons: January (in a non-inaugural year), February, July or August. As for days of the week, Saturdays tend to be busiest, Sundays the slowest.

Although a lot of business can be conducted online, a phone call personalizes the relationship between caterer and client.

Have a vision of what you want. When you contact a caterer, be prepared to discuss food preferences, allergies, the setting and style of service (casual or formal). Eric Michael of Occasions Caterers likens his relationship with clients to that of “a decorator, a collaborator.” Don’t just ask for sample menus. “Be open to ideas,” says Amit Gulati of Spilled Milk Catering. Bottom line: The event should reflect the taste of the client, says Susan Gage of Susan Gage Caterers. “It’s your party, not ours.”

Come up with a spending plan and prioritize your wishes. Money can be an intimidating subject, but caterers are prepared to assist. “Tell me your budget, and I’ll let you know what we can do for you,” says Deborah Allen, an owner of Federal City Caterers (and wife of a former Post employee). In negotiations with several caterers, I abandoned the idea of passed hors d’oeuvres and a signature drink. Instead, I welcomed guests with homemade cheese straws or mixed nuts and a choice of wines.

To save money, consider using your own dishes, linens, chairs and such, instead of renting them from the caterer or third-party supplier. (Items for the table are sometimes delivered separately from the food; someone has to be home to accept them.)

Another way to keep costs down is to replace pricey ingredients with less costly ones — brisket rather than tenderloin, for instance, and salmon rather than lamb. As Gage says, “If the food is prepared well, the guests will enjoy the meal equally as much.”

Buy your own booze.

You’ll want something to dress up the table. Flowers are great, but arrangements can be expensive. “Look around the house” for non-floral centerpiece ideas, says Washington event planner J. Watkins. Example: nutcrackers with candles around Christmas. Mother Nature can help out, too. Depending on the time of year, table decorations might feature baby pumpkins and fall leaves, pine cones or bright green apples: “roadside wealth,” as they’re tagged in the trade.

For hosts who enjoy cooking, some caterers let them prepare a dish. But not all. Frederik De Pue , the owner of 42° Catering, prefers to do everything. The chef once left a party where the host put out Costco snacks alongside his creations. “It was disrespectful,” says De Pue (who didn’t send a bill).

A big part of the budget, labor is not the place to cut. Under-staffing can lead to delays in attending to guests. Part of the reason you’ve hired a caterer is so you don’t have to serve, cook or clean up afterward. In a few cases, I was able to keep costs in line by reducing the length of my dinner party.

Gratuities — a fraught topic in the catering world, where waiters are paid a much higher wage than most restaurant servers — are not expected. However, if a host chooses to tip, $25 to $50 per staff member is an appropriate range.

Tom Sietsema