Wedding planning can be confusing if it's your first time planning a large, catered event. Don't worry, it's not as complicated as it seems! But choosing the style of wedding reception you're going to host is a LOT easier if you understand the correct terminology. Here's the breakdown of your options.
Seated/plated/served menus are for couples who envision a formal dinner where the guests remained seated while servers bring everything to the table. Although you can bump the costs up tremendously by choosing expensive food, seated/plated is frequently less expensive than other options because the caterers know — in advance — how much of each entrée they need to prepare for the guests. Expect the caterer to require you to submit a complete list of dinner orders 14-30 days ahead of your event so they can plan.
Tip: Strongly consider using placecards (rather than open seating) so the service staff knows who is getting what at which table come dinner time. Otherwise, they'll have to get orders at each table and hope guests remember what they requested.
A buffet features long tables with all of the dinner offerings presented in one line. Usually, there are servers behind the buffet to describe each dish (especially for allergy purposes) and to put appropriate portions on each guest's plate. If the wedding is large, it's not uncommon to have two separate buffet tables with the same food to keep things moving. The buffet will remain open for all of the guests to make one trip through, and for extra hungry guests to visit it again, but then it will be shut down rather quickly.
Tip: It's an excellent idea to have the salads (or soup) served at the table before, or immediately after, the guests are seated so that people have something to nibble on as they wait for their turn in the buffet line.
No less satisfying than a seated/plated meal, and open for much longer than a buffet, food stations have become very popular for wedding receptions. The concept breaks up your food displays — unlike a buffet which directs everybody through the food in the same order — with different tables offering different things, usually by category. Stations are a great way to incorporate a theme into your food. We've done "around the world" stations where different countries' were represented on each table. More traditionally, you'll find entrées in one spot, sides in another, salads in another, etc. They're spread out a bit more to let guests roam around and pick and choose. Not everyone has to stop dancing and eat at the same time. Stations are usually kept open two to three times as long as a regular buffet, and have station chefs creating items by requests, much like a traditional omelet station.
Tip: Although you don't need as many servers as a seated/plated dinner, make sure you have plenty of hands on deck to remove the copious number of empty plates that are likely to be discarded everywhere as people choose their next bite.
Sandy Malone is the owner of Sandy Malone Weddings & Events, a full-service traditional and destination wedding planning company and Do-It-Yourself wedding planning consulting service for DIY brides and grooms based in the Washington, DC area. Sandy is the star of TLC's reality show "Wedding Island," about her destination wedding planning company, Weddings in Vieques. Sandy's book "How to Plan Your Own Destination Wedding: Do-It-Yourself Tips from an Experienced Professional," will be released on March 1st, but is available online for pre-orders now where books are sold.