Your marriage ceremony and the special vows you say to each other will be what remains fresh in your minds for years to come. However, what your guests are likely to talk about is something else entirely: your reception. In addition to the venue and the entertainment, the menu will long be remembered as a high point in many conversations if you choose wisely.
The wedding industry has undergone a massive transformation in the last few years. That is certainly true for how the ceremonies themselves are conducted, but it doesn’t stop there. The choices that were available to your parents concerning the reception have been expanded and amplified in today’s incredibly customizable environment.
What that gives to couples today is the opportunity to make their menu compliment the atmosphere they want to create. Here are just some of the dinner options that have become popular in recent years:
The Plated Dinner
This is the most traditional of the catering styles and probably the one your parents are the most familiar with. The reception room is usually made up of several round tables, each seating 8-10 guests. They will typically be served a three-course dinner consisting of appetizer, entrée and dessert. Occasionally, a fourth intermezzo course, or palette cleanser, is served before the entrée.
Although the selection of plate choices is generally pre-determined by the caterer, you still do have some leeway when it comes to what meals will be served. Of course, it varies according to the venue. The sit-down dinner style is best for couples seeking a tidy, traditional feel. Whether your wedding is intimate or grand, this set-up can work to your advantage.
Pros: The nature of a seated dinner enables your guests to have more time to get acquainted with each other. Food waste is minimized since you have a very good idea ahead of time how many guests you will be feeding. Activities such as get-acquainted games and dances can be interspersed between courses to keep things lively and interesting.
Cons: Keep in mind that it requires more staff to prepare and serve a sit-down meal, so you will have to budget accordingly. Picky guests may leave much of their dinner uneaten, leading to food waste. Furthermore, you will need to have a specific table setting, centerpieces and a seating chart. If your family has complex relationships that you have a hard time keeping track of, this style could give you months of headaches.
Finally, since each plate is pre-set and can be quite costly, this style is best for an adults-only dinner. If kids will be on the scene, offer a child-friendly menu that can be chosen ahead of time when your guests send in their RSVPs.
Usually served on long-sided tables, a buffet features a number of food options. Often, there is a meat, a fish and a vegetarian entrée from which guests can choose along with side dishes. A basket of bread or rolls is frequently placed on each table. This style, particularly suited to larger parties of 100 or more, is especially good if you wish to provide a variety of choices for your attendees.
Pros: You can cater to numerous tastes, and everyone will get something they like. The cost can be lower than a plated meal service since fewer staff are required.
Cons: Lines can be long. Inevitably some tables will need to wait to get the chance to go to the buffet table. The food can get cold, and popular dishes can potentially run out before all guests have gotten a chance to get their dinners. At the same time, less sought-after selections can go to waste.
This is similar to a buffet in that the food is presented on long tables with people serving themselves. However, there is no guest seating. This type of arrangement is especially suited to very large parties of 500 or more friends and relatives.
Pros: In addition to all of the previously described benefits of a buffet, the standing party lends itself to having more food areas scattered throughout your venue. Your large reception room will be buzzing with activity as guests wander from one food area to the next, making new acquaintances and catching up with old friends.
Cons: Space between food areas can become an issue since no one will be sitting down. Furthermore, this arrangement can be unsuitable if you have older or disabled people who cannot stay on their feet for long periods of time.
The food is arranged throughout your reception space in specific stations such as a raw bar, carving or pasta stations and a dessert area. Portions are usually smaller, leaving guests free to try a wider variety of items.
Pros: People enjoy the ability to mingle and choose the dishes they like. Lines are kept to a minimum. Guests can get exactly what they want at cook-to-order stations.
Cons: This style requires a spacious reception venue and additional staff to tend to all of the different stations. People who prefer larger portions might be disappointed.
Like a sit-down dinner, guests generally sit at pre-arranged tables, and waiters bring the food to them. However, in this case guests serve themselves from large platters of food just as they would at home. With Family Style, it’s like a buffet on every table.
- Guests can eat right away, only taking the items they want. Conversations will start as people pass around various foods.
- You eat what you want in the quantities that you want.
- Tends to extend the duration of an event.
- For familial, more social, less formal
- It brings people together over an amazing meal.
Cons: You need large tables in order to hold the bigger serving platters. Food costs may be higher to ensure that there is enough for everyone since people tend to eat more with this dining style.
Over the years, Family Style has is becoming more popular in places like Southern California. For this type of service, it’s important to find a caterer that has extension knowledge and experience in this style to ensure your event goes perfectly.
Instead of providing a sit-down meal, you offer small items and hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. These can be passed around by servers or made available on tables to enable guests to help themselves.
Pros: This casual style lends itself to small venues with an informal feel. You can fit more people into less space because there are no tables. You and your significant other can easily circulate through the room, and your food budget can be more manageable.
Cons: Some guests may be expecting a full meal and may be disappointed if they don’t get one. Be sure to specify that this is a “cocktail reception” in your invitation. As with the standing reception option, some guests may not be able to remain on their feet for the entire evening. If you are serving alcohol, your costs may be higher with this type of arrangement.
This is the “none of the above” choice that enables you to let your guests enjoy themselves with no special arrangements or restrictions. Such a casual option is especially nice at informal venues with small gatherings of guests.
Pros: You can make the food exactly what you want and customize this setting to fit your unique style. Your budget can be smaller as well.
Cons: This isn’t ideal for parties of over 50 because disorganization and even chaos can become the order of the day. Also, guests can become bored if their numbers are too large and there is no readily discernible structure to follow.
One Item You Should Never Give Up
Your reception could be large or small, sit-down or casual. It could be held in a ballroom or a barn, and you could have everything from a chamber orchestra to a punk band. No matter what style you choose, one detail still seems to be traditional: the wedding cake. Nevertheless, your options are numerous. Here are some tips to help you choose confection perfection:
- Ask around. If you went to a reception in your local area and loved the cake, find out who made it and get their contact information.
- Go to bridal shows and search online for cake designers near you. Then meet with them. Discuss their style and price range, and be sure to get a taste sample. Contrary to popular belief, a wedding cake can be both delicious and beautiful.
- Once you have chosen your cake designer, continue to talk with him or her as your plans evolve to ensure that your cake matches the look and feel of your day. Then sign a specific contract that includes the precise location, date and time as well as design details. As your plans come into focus, be sure your cake designer knows about any changes or new details that you want to incorporate, adding them into your written agreement. The clearer you make each specification, the more likely you are to get exactly the cake you want on your big day.
If/When and How to Serve Alcohol
Deciding whether to have alcohol at your reception can be complicated. If you do choose to have spirits, the question then arises as to whether you will have an open bar, a cash bar or a limited cocktail hour. Here are a few suggestions to guide you through this complex question:
- You could have an open bar all night. Just keep in mind that it can get very expensive, and there is always the possibility that some guests will over-imbibe.
- In lieu of having the alcohol flow freely at your expense, you could serve champagne to guests as they arrive, wine with the meal and beer and specialty drinks afterwards.
- If your budget is smaller, offer a punch bowl or buy a limited amount of wine or beer in advance. When it runs out, serve non-alcoholic beverages.
- You can pay per consumption or by the bottle or drink. You can even negotiate an all-inclusive price for each guest of drinking age that includes their meal and all drinks. If you choose to bring your own wine and champagne, you will need to pay the venue a corking fee.
- With Family Style, place bottles at the tables for your guest to enjoy at their leisure.
- Look through your guest list to see how many under-age attendees you have invited. Be sure your contract specifies a lower price for these non-drinkers.
- Nowhere is it written that you must pay for wine, beer or liquor. You can still make it available to your guests; they will simply need to foot the bill themselves.
Whether you decide to have alcoholic beverages or not, you will probably have at least one negative comment from someone. Either a person will be angry that you are condoning alcohol or miffed that you have not made it available. In the end, remember that this is your wedding. Whatever decision you make in this regard is absolutely appropriate since this is your party. People have come to share your special day with you, and that should be everyone’s top priority.
Once you have decided what style you want to serve to your guests, it’s time for the fun part. As you plan your big day, you can taste test various food options until you find the selection that works best for you and your guests. Here are some ideas that you can incorporate according to the catering style you have chosen.
Sit Down Dinner
When you choose this option, some of your work has probably been done for you by your venue. Most will have a selection of dinner packages from which you can choose. Generally, all of the courses have been designed to complement each other, leaving you with little to worry about in this regard.
You do, however, usually have the option to pick your own wines. Make sure they go well with your individual dinner choices. For example, you might want to pair a white wine with seafood and a red with beef or lamb. Speak with your caterer about individual guest needs for those with food allergies and dietetic preferences, making sure all of your guests have the meals they want.
Buffet and Standing Party
This arrangement calls for a wide diversity of food choices and the staff to serve them. Quantity and variety are important with this setup. Therefore, include beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian choices. If your guests are culturally diverse, you might also offer specialty ethnic foods. To make things even more interesting, you could add food stalls on the sides of your venue with the entrees in the middle.
The important thing with this laissez-faire style is to make sure you have enough for everyone and in varieties that ensure that all guests will find something to their liking. One option is to have a potluck in which guests each bring a dish to pass. If you decide on this idea, it makes sense to request that all ingredients are listed on each dish for the sake of diners with food allergies and dietary preferences. If potluck isn’t your style, you could have a good old-fashioned cookout or even bring in a food truck that serves delicious small bites.
Common Wedding Venue Mistakes
No one wants to make embarrassing errors on their most special day, but it can happen. Lessen the chances of committing a big food faux pas by learning what the most common food miscalculations are:
- Offering too many choices. Your food will be one of the most expensive parts of your wedding day. Providing too many options can make those costs soar even higher. That’s because each added type of meal means more preparation time and ingredients to buy. In most cases, three options are sufficient: meat, fish and vegetarian or vegan.
- Trying to meet everyone’s dietary needs and preferences. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to food these days. Guests will ask for gluten-free, diabetic-friendly, vegan, vegetarian, non-GMO, free range and any number of other specifications. Being considerate and offering a reasonable non-meat choice is one thing, but you truly will make yourself crazy if you try to cater to everyone’s preferences. In reality, people with allergies and dietary restrictions know what they can and cannot eat. If you know that one of your guests has a particularly life-threatening allergy, find out ahead of time from your caterer which dishes, if any, contain trigger foods.
- Don’t assume you will always save money with a buffet or food stations. If your reception is being held at a hotel, buffets may be cheaper since the venue will be able to use your leftovers for other meals the next day. However, this does not hold true for other types of venues. In these facilities, it is cheaper to pre-order individual plates for each of your guests. This is because buffets necessitate that caterers bring larger amounts and varieties of food to ensure that everyone gets what they want. You can’t take the leftovers with you either.
Other Wedding Menu Ideas
Making the perfect wedding food selections can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Use these suggestions to further guide your planning to make the process easier:
- Consider the season. Heavy “comfort foods” are best in colder weather and might be too much during the height of summer. If your venue is outdoors, you also need to be mindful of leaving perishable ingredients unrefrigerated for long periods of time.
- Work with your venue’s manager. Ask what reception styles best suit the space you will be renting. You don’t want people to be either over-crowded or rattling around in a room that is far too spacious for the number of guests.
- Choose a cuisine you and your significant other like. It’s your wedding, which means you can offer your guests any types of entrees and side dishes you wish. That being said, remember that not everyone may be as adventurous as you are. Always provide a more conventional alternative such as grilled chicken, broiled fish or pasta with marinara sauce.
- Consider a fusion menu. This is especially fun if you and your partner are from different backgrounds. A creative combination of your culture-specific foods can give your guests exposure to tastes they have never experienced.
- Offer choices for people on special diets. This could include gluten-free, diabetic, vegetarian and vegan options. Also, don’t forget young diners, who are not known for departing from the few foods they like. Your guests will appreciate this thoughtful gesture. That being said, you can’t please everyone, and you will lose your mind if you try.
If you were to take the time to count all of the components that go into your wedding day, you would probably curl into the fetal position or choose to elope. Our best advice is to resist the temptation to enumerate everything you need to do. Instead, divide your day into smaller, more manageable steps. One of these will be the reception and all that goes into planning the menu your guests will enjoy.
As you figure it out, take advantage of the expertise of your venue manager and caterer. Remember, they run successful receptions week in and week out. Finally, even if small glitches happen during the course of your “perfect” day, you will probably be the only one who realizes it. In the end, your biggest and most memorable job will be to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event, and take time to share it with the people who have come from far and wide to celebrate with you.