How to Pace the Food Served at Your Wedding

Here's how to keep guests well-fed and happy during cocktail hour, dinner, and dessert

couple kissing during reception

Photo by Kelly Brown

You’ve said “I do” and now it’s time to celebrate! Often a wedding reception involves a perfect mix of sentimental speeches, sweet dance moments, fun music, and personal touches like a photo booth, signature cocktails, or a cigar bar. But no one will remember any of those details if they spent your wedding night sitting around wondering when their next meal is coming or stuck in their seats because they’re stuffed from rapid-fire course servings. If you’re going with a traditional appetizer, entree, and cake option, making sure to space out the food served at your reception can be key to keeping guests in party mode.

Working with the wedding caterer to share your ideal timeline of the party can be a great place to start, but if you and your partner aren’t quite sure whether you want to do the father-daughter dance before or after the salad course, the caterer can often help advise. “I’m more than just a caterer,” Gayle Orth of Gayle Orth Catering in Tacoma, Washington. “I can be an event planner for couples. I can point them in all the appropriate directions. There’s nothing worse than going to a wedding and having lapses in how the evening flows. So I’m very much a part of making sure all that happens.” 

Start Off the Night Right

Orth knows most couples want to party after tying the knot, so she suggests serving food swiftly at the beginning of the reception so they can get to the dancing. “If they are having a cocktail hour, we try to move right into being seated for a blessing or a greeting and immediately start dinner service,” she says.

Jodi Raphael of Jodi Raphael Events suggests starting with some dancing to get the party going. “When we come from the cocktail hour, it’s the best buzz of the evening, so people usually come right into the dance floor and do a dance set,” the Boston-area wedding planner says. “Then sit down and have the salad served.” Next, come the speeches. “Towards the end of the salad, have the welcome speech and maybe a father-daughter dance or something like that,” continues Raphael, who notes that most receptions today skip doing both an appetizer (such as a soup) and a salad in favor of just the leafy greens.

After that, Raphael says that some newlyweds “like to get up and do more dancing,” while others, “go right from salads into the meal and then we would do toasts at the end of that.” Orth likes the former option, as, “We have everyone controlled,” she says. “It’s hard to get everybody's attention back together [after dancing].”

Gather for the Main Course

In terms of serving the entree, Orth suggests keeping buffet-style events organized by having the DJ or MC call each table individually, and not letting guests serve themselves. “To expedite and also control how the service goes, we call them by table,” she says. “They come up and we always serve at the buffet so that goes quickly. We always have a professional menu obvious right at the beginning of the buffet, and if there are a lot of dietary issues then each individual thing can be named so that people know what it is."

Whether you go for table service, a buffet, or family-style dining, Orth says she keeps the eating portion of the evening to no more than an hour—no matter the size of the party. “At this wedding we did very recently, we got everybody, 250 people, done in under 40 minutes!” she boasts.

Don't Make Cake Cutting "A Thing"

When it comes to cutting the cake, keep it short and sweet. After the entree, Orth advises her couples to go into toasts, but, “Keep the toasts to no more than 20 minutes,” she says. “People lose interest real fast, even if it’s their most beloved family and friends.” Then a quick cake cutting, followed by the first dance and parent-child dances, during which time her servers will finish cutting and serving the cake. “It moves pretty effortlessly into enjoying the cake,” Orth says. “Then after the cake, that’s when the DJ ramps up the music and people start to really party.” Raphael reiterates that the ceremonial slicing shouldn’t take too long. “A lot of couples lately have not been stopping the action to cut the cake,” Raphael says. “During the entree, they’ll sometimes do a little photo opp cake cutting, and then the cake gets pulled out to be cut.” 

Serve Late-Night Bites

She suggests doing dessert stations or passed treats on the dance floor. “It’s is a great way to not have to stop the action and keep the dancing going all night,” Raphael explains. Orth also likes serving a special treat closer to the end of the night. “We’ve been incorporating a late-night snack, whether it’s an ice cream cart, nachos, or something special to the couple,” she says. “That also keeps people interested. They know that there’s going to be a late-night snack so that keeps people involved.”

Surprise Your Guests!

No matter what you decide to do in terms of food, you don’t have to lay it all out for guests ahead of time on the wedding invite or website. “Say ‘ceremony at this time and then dinner and dancing to follow,’” Raphael recommends. And don’t require guests to make an entree selection ahead of time! “On a Tuesday in March, I don’t know what I want to eat in May,” adds Raphael with a laugh. “Couples do that because they feel that it’s going to make things run smoother and they want to feel like they’re offering a choice. I try to have my couples either serve one dish with a vegetarian option or have a choice at the table.”

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