Photo: John Dolan
Food will be one of your major wedding costs — typically, the catering bill accounts for 45 to 50 percent of the total wedding budget. The first big choice you'll make as you plan your dinner is how to serve your guests. Back in the day, couples pretty much had two choices: a sit-down dinner or a buffet. But nowadays, there are so many more options to explore when deciding how to serve your reception meal. To help you figure out the best serving style for your celebration, we've outlined the five most popular meal options, along with the pros and cons for each.
Reception Meal Style #1: Plated Dinner
What it is: A plated, sit-down dinner is considered the most traditional and formal option as each guest is individually served a plated meal. Typically, guests are served three courses: appetizer, entrée, and dessert (sometimes a fourth course—an intermezzo or amuse bouche—is added before the entrée). Caterers will usually give guests a choice of two (or three) entrées, which they select beforehand; another option is to serve each guest two proteins, such as meat and fish, on one plate (sometimes called a "duet" plate).
See More: What Catering Really Costs
Pros: Everyone at the table gets their food at the same time. Also, your caterer will know exactly how much food to purchase since each meal is pre-selected, so your food costs will be lower than a buffet or family-style meal. You can spread out activities (like dances and toasts) in between each course to keep guests engaged and maintain a nice energy throughout the meal service.
Cons: A sit-down meal requires more servers, both due to the plating in the kitchen and to serve the meal to guests. So the staffing portion of your catering bill will be higher. Also, the food options are limited to what you picked during your tasting, so if you have a lot of picky eaters in attendance, there's a chance they may not eat everything on their plate.
Reception Meal Style #2: Buffet
What it is: Food stations are set up on long tables where guests can walk along and serve themselves. Another option is to have servers stationed behind the buffet table serving each dish. A buffet-style reception is usually considered the most casual style of meal service.
Pros: Fewer servers are needed with a buffet reception, which means you may save some money on your catering-staff charges (though you still need staffers to tend to the buffet, and waiters to provide water and wine to the tables). Buffets make it easier and more cost effective to provide guests with a variety of choices, which is helpful since many people have so many types of allergies and dietary restrictions. This service style also promotes mingling and interacting among guests.
Cons: Since each table will have to wait their turn to head to the buffet, it may take a while for all guests to receive their food; lines may also form. You also might have to rent linens, chaffing dishes, and serving pieces if your caterer does not provide them. Guests have to serve themselves and carry their own plates, which may not be as elegant as you would like. Buffets also require larger quantities of food since people tend to eat more when they serve themselves, which will add to your food costs.
Reception Meal Style #3: Food Stations
What it is: A station-style reception is one where the food is spread out among different "stations" throughout the reception space. For example, there may be one area that is a carving station, a raw bar, a tapas station, a dessert station, and so forth. The portions served at each station are typically on the smaller side, usually requiring just two or three bites to finish.
Pros: Creative food stations and presentations are crowd pleasers; guests will also appreciate the wide variety of dishes and the interactive element. Since the stations are spread out throughout the space, guests won't likely have to wait in line (for very long, at least). At cook-to-order stations, guests can request exactly how they would like their dish prepared. This meal style also promotes a lot of interaction among guests.
Cons: Your reception site will need ample room to accommodate the extra space food stations require. You will also need more chefs if you have interactive stations (i.e. pasta, carving stations, etc.), adding to your catering bill.
See More: How to Pick the Right Wedding Menu
Reception Meal Style #4: Family-Style
What it is: Similar to a sit-down dinner, a family-style reception has guests assigned to specific dinner tables and waiters to bring the food to the table. Large portions of the dinner offerings are placed on each table on serving platters for guests to fill their own plates (it's just like sitting down for dinner at home with your family!).
Pros: Guests can help themselves to as much food as they'd like. The mealtime will be very efficient since guests can begin eating immediately after serving themselves.
Cons: Family-style dining requires ample space on your dinner tables for the various platters and dishes. You may need to increase your budget for rental items to account for additional platters and serving pieces. You may have increased food costs because your caterer will need to make extra food to ensure nothing runs out.
Reception Meal Style #5: Cocktail-Style Reception
What it is: A more recent trend, a cocktail-style reception features hors d'oeuvres and other small bites offered all evening long in lieu of a sit-down meal. The hors d'oeuvres are usually one- or two-bite portions and can be a combination of hot and cold options. The hors d'oeuvres can be passed by servers or stationary for guests to get themselves. This reception style is a good choice for couples wanting a more casual atmosphere and for their guests to really mingle and meet each other.
Pros: If your venue is small, cocktail receptions allow you to have more people since you won't need dinner tables and chairs for every guest. They're also typically shorter than a sit-down meal, and they allow you and your groom to easily circulate throughout the room and chat with everyone. Also, since you're not serving a main entrée, your food costs could potentially be more affordable.
Cons: Some guests may not have attended a cocktail wedding reception, so there may be some confusion if they are expecting a full meal (which is why it's important to word your invitation clearly, like this: "Please join us for a cocktail reception after the ceremony"). However, while your food costs might be lower, your guests will likely drink more than at a dinner reception, so your liquor costs might go up. Since most people won't be seated, some guests will have trouble seeing events like the first dance.