Everything You Need to Know About Planning a the Most Memorable Rehearsal Dinner

With the help of a pro, we're breaking down how to prep for the rehearsal dinner.

Rustic Italian wedding in Tuscany

Photo by Carla Penoncelli 

For many couples, rehearsal dinners have evolved into full-blown events, but there's no need to stress out about planning your own. With less than 24 hours until you and your partner tie the knot and the arrival of your friends and family, it really is the perfect time to throw a celebratory bash. But there are a few things to consider as you're planning. From creating a seating chart to selecting a unique venue and coming up with a menu, you'll have plenty of creative freedom. Whether you host an intimate affair or a larger shindig, the possibilities are endless.

Traditionally, the rehearsal dinner was given the night before the wedding by the parents of the groom. Everyone in both families, in the wedding party, and from out of town was invited to the dinner, and it was a more formal affair. But like many other wedding traditions, couples are starting to make these pre-nuptial parties their own. Rehearsal dinner agendas are sometimes much more casual or more intimate and, really, the way you plan it is all up to you.

Meet the Expert

• Layne Povey is the principal designer and planner at The Lynden Lane Co., a California-based wedding and event design and planning boutique. 

• Sunna Yassin is the owner of Bash Please, a full-service creative event production company with studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In whatever way you choose to use your rehearsal dinner to kick off the festivities—whether strictly for pre-ceremony practice or a little bit of fun—there are a few key points to think about.

Here's everything you need to know to plan the perfect rehearsal dinner.

How to Plan the Perfect Rehearsal Dinner
Jessica Olah/Brides 

Rehearsal Dinner Etiquette

Who Throws a Rehearsal Dinner?

Times are changing. "In years past, it was expected that the groom's family hosted and threw the rehearsal dinner, but today, it can be the couple themselves or either of the couple’s family. Sometimes it will even be a mix of all parties," says Layne Povey, principal designer and planner of The Lynden Lane Co.

Who Pays for the Rehearsal Dinner?

Under the traditional assumption that the bride's family is footing the wedding bill, general etiquette suggests the groom's side organize and pay for the rehearsal dinner. We all know that in modern times, finances, etiquette, and tradition have expanded and changed, but for super-traditional couples, this is the general rule of thumb.

For all couples, a general rule is to have an open and honest discussion, similar to that of who's footing the wedding bill, about your plans, budget, and hopes with both families to ensure a drama- and stress-free rehearsal dinner.

What's the Proper Way to Invite Guests To the Rehearsal Dinner?

When it comes to rehearsal dinner invitation etiquette, it's not as strict as wedding invitation etiquette. While everyone coming should receive some kind of invitation, it doesn't have to be a formal invitation. For a rehearsal dinner, an online invitation or phone call is perfectly acceptable. Typically, more formal affairs come along with a formal invitation via post, and more casual, laid-back gatherings come with a phone call or e-vite. Sunna Yassin, the owner of Bash Please, chimes in, "We like to include the invite with the main invitation suite so that the design is cohesive."

When Do You Send Out Formal Wedding-Rehearsal Dinner Invitations?

As with any organized event, guests should be informed four to six weeks prior to the date for planning purposes. Rehearsal dinner guest lists cannot be assumed, as some couples opt for immediate family only and others invite nearly half their wedding guest list. Let your guests know in a timely and considerate fashion.

Who Gets Invited to a Rehearsal Dinner?

Generally speaking, you should invite "immediate family members, the wedding party, their guests, and sometimes out-of-town guests if they've traveled a long way," Povey says. Additionally, the officiant and any readers or ushers may be added to the wedding rehearsal dinner guest list. Depending on how large your families and bridal party are, that can add up to a pretty sizable crowd right there. Beyond that, many couples also invite extended family and the ring bearer and flower girl (depending on their ages and closeness to the couple).

When Do You Throw a Rehearsal Dinner?

For traditional Saturday weddings, rehearsal dinners are most often hosted on the wedding's eve, directly after rehearsing the wedding ceremony. Couples that don't have an actual rehearsal often opt to still celebrate with a dinner or gathering. For the increasingly popular Sunday or Friday weddings, dinners can be hosted the Thursday, Friday, or Saturday prior. In regard to timing, plan so that all guests (and the soon-to-be bride and groom, of course) don't have too late of an evening. After all, the main event is yet to come!

Where Should the Rehearsal Dinner Be Held?

Proximity is key. Aim to have your rehearsal dinner celebration within 20 or so miles of the hotel where your guests are staying and/or nearby the actual venue where your ceremony is taking place. Keep in mind that your guests are traveling to celebrate your weekend, so they shouldn't be expected to travel much more than 45 minutes to your rehearsal dinner. Wherever possible, it's always appreciated if you provide clear directions or even transportation.

How Formal Should the Rehearsal Dinner Be?

The rehearsal dinner can be as formal or informal as you like, depending on your budget and desires. Many couples try to keep the rehearsal dinner on theme with the wedding, however, so the dinner feels like an extension of the wedding itself and blends seamlessly into the rest of the weekend.

Povey echoes this sentiment. "Sometimes when the couple is having a really traditional wedding they want a traditional rehearsal dinner to set the tone, but sometimes they want to have something that feels more relaxed and easy. There are no rules. We have done fantastic rehearsal dinners where the guests never sat down and music played all night," she says.

What Roles Do the Bride and Groom Have at the Rehearsal Dinner?

Yassin says it best, "Sit back, relax, and enjoy being surrounded by love."

What Are Some Ways To Make Your Rehearsal Dinner Memorable?

Take a walk down memory lane by sharing photos and videos of the couple or by creating an experience that guests won't forget. "It's fun to do cocktail napkins or coasters with questions about the couple, which can help break the ice at the dinner table for family and friends that may be meeting for the first time. This is also the best time to show any type of video," Yassin says.

10 Steps to Plan a Rehearsal Dinner

1. Decide Who Will Host

Traditionally, the groom's parent's take care of the rehearsal dinner, but these days, anything goes. If both sets of parents are splitting the cost of the wedding, then perhaps you and your partner may want to pay for the rehearsal dinner. Talk with your partner and your parents to find the best solution for your situation.

2. Choose a Fun Theme

A fun way to kick off the wedding weekend is to incorporate a theme into your rehearsal dinner. You can build the party around your cultural background or play up the wedding's location.

Pick a theme that is unique to you and your partner's interests. Consider an outdoor barbecue (the perfect excuse to grill up a feast and play softball), a seaside soirée (complete with a bonfire and s'mores), or a taco-night-turned-backyard-fiesta featuring your favorite food trucks.

3. Pick a Unique Location

Whether you pick a favorite family restaurant or a place that has sentimental value to the couple, you definitely have options. "We love a rehearsal dinner that is intimately held at a family home. Or if your wedding venue is at a hotel, consider spots in the hotel that are more unique than the traditional wedding locations. Around the pool of the hotel, in a charming bar, or even a large guest suite with a view," Povey says.

Hold your party at the microbrewery where the two of you met, the Italian restaurant where you had your first date, or the beautiful park where your significant other proposed.

4. Create the Guest List

The rehearsal dinner guest list typically includes close family members and anyone participating in the wedding ceremony (including the officiant), plus their spouses or dates. It's also considerate to invite your out-of-town guests to the festivities. However, if you end up with a long list of people to include, you can keep costs down by serving only cocktails and hors d'oeuvres or desserts as opposed to a full meal.

5. Consider Timing

The rehearsal dinner schedule is traditionally held the night before the wedding, most often on a Friday. Usually, the ceremony rehearsal begins around 5:30 p.m. and typically lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. The dinner takes place immediately after the rehearsal, usually around 7 p.m. For a Sunday or holiday wedding, you have more options, and some couples decide to hold the rehearsal dinner two nights before the wedding so that everyone has more time to relax and recuperate before the big day. If most attendees won't be arriving until late on the eve of your wedding, a breakfast celebration on the morning of the wedding is also a possibility.

6. Plan Out Your Menu

Whether you plan on hosting the rehearsal dinner at your favorite restaurant or a banquet hall (in which case, you'll need to hire catering), be sure to get your menu squared away early on in the planning stages. When in doubt, consider serving up hometown favorites as a way of introducing out-of-town guests to your local cuisine. Who doesn't love Chicago pizza, New Orleans Cajun, Tex-Mex, and Maine lobster? Your guests will eat it up.

7. Plan To Pass the Mic

While it's customary for the host to welcome guests at the beginning of the party, some guests may also want to get up and give a quick toast. Yassin encourages couples to "pick an emcee for the evening who can oversee all of the toasts and speeches." Don't be surprised if there's as much roasting as there is toasting—and take it all in good humor. You and your partner should also plan on making short speeches yourselves (either after the host does or just before the evening ends).

8. Give Gifts To the Wedding Party

The rehearsal dinner is the traditional time to present gifts to members of the wedding party (especially if the gifts are items you'd like them to wear during the wedding). Feel free to also take a moment to thank your parents for their love, guidance, and support—any gifts you have for them can also be handed out at this time.

9. Take Care of Any Last-Minute Reminders

Before the dinner comes to an end, take a moment to slip in any announcements about the wedding day. Double-check that everyone in the wedding party knows what items they're supposed to bring and when and where they're expected to arrive to get ready. If you have a larger audience, remind guests about any activities for them the next day as well as any pick-up times and locations for transportation you've arranged to get them to and from the ceremony.

10. Remember to Have Fun

After you and your partner have worked so hard to plan your wedding together, you deserve to enjoy this evening with each other and your loved ones. Plan for something fun and your rehearsal dinner will be totally stress-free.

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