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How to Plan a Perfect Rehearsal Dinner in 11 Easy Steps

We're breaking down how to prep for the the most memorable rehearsal dinner, ever.

Wedding Fiesta in Sonoma, Welcome Dinner
Photo by Jenn Byrne

Rehearsal dinners have evolved into full-blown events, but there's no need to stress out about planning your own. You've got less than 24 hours until you and your betrothed tie the knot. Family and friends have all arrived. Only one thing can keep you from having a major anxiety attack—a really fun party. 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. The dinner was a more formal affair, but like everything else wedding-related, couples are making these pre-nuptial parties their own—rehearsal dinner agendas are sometimes much more casual, more intimate, or serve as another raucous party! Now, as weddings have often turned into weekend affairs, the rehearsal dinner has become the grand kickoff to the festivities. Here are a few good ideas for how to plan a rehearsal dinner with our ultimate rehearsal dinner checklist.

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1. Decide who's hosting.

Traditionally, the bride's parents paid for the wedding and the groom's parents took care of the rehearsal dinner. These days, anything goes. If both sets of parents are sharing the costs of the wedding, then perhaps you and your fiancé may want to pay for the rehearsal dinner.

2. Consider keeping it casual.

More and more couples are opting to keep the rehearsal dinner relaxed and low-key. Do something chill and outdoors if the season is right and you have a friend or family member willing to let you host it at their home. Aside from ensuring that it won't upstage the more formal wedding, a casual rehearsal dinner will loosen up guests who are meeting for the first time. The dress code can come down a notch or more from the wedding attire. Break out the jeans and beer—or at least khakis and cappuccino. You're going to dress to the nines for 12 hours at the wedding the next day, so you might as well be comfortable at your rehearsal dinner. Even highbrow types, according to our experts, are going for barbecues or casual affairs. To encourage conversation among guests, you might consider open seating rather than assigned tables and buffet or family-style food service.

See More: Rehearsal Dinner 101: What to Wear and How to Deal with the In-Laws

3. Choose a fun theme.

A fun way kick off the wedding weekend is to incorporate a theme into your rehearsal dinner. You can build the party around your cultural background, for example (as in a colorful tapas-and-paella fiesta to reflect a bride's Spanish heritage), or play up the wedding's location (say, a wine-and-cheese-tasting party if there are some vineyards in the area). Here are a few more rehearsal-dinner themes:

Outdoor Barbecue: A grilled feast and a game of softball is an inexpensive, relaxed, and easy-to-prepare party for groups both large and small.

Seaside Clambake: Lobster and clams on the sand at sunset is a deliciously low-key and informal treat. Add a bonfire and s'mores for a sweet ending.

Sports Night: Baseball-stadium boxes are a fun party spot for all ages. Serve ballpark faves such as hot dogs and beer.

First-Date Celebration: Chances are, the place was romantic enough to inspire the two of you; let that same spirit infuse your dinner. Hold the party at the site of your first date and name tables after other spots that are meaningful to you.

Hoedown: A country-themed bash, complete with a square-dance caller, will keep guests entertained. Serve southern favorites like fried chicken and cornbread so guests can do-si-do the night away.

4. Pick a unique location.

Hosting the party in a unique location can also give the celebration a different feel. Venues to consider: a bowling alley, a beer garden, or even a local park for a casual barbecue. Restaurants are a popular choice for good reason: The staff can handle every aspect of the evening, from cocktails to menu to music to flowers.

A beach or a pretty yard requires little extra decoration (if you're thinkingn about budget). Remember it's not the wedding reception and you don't necessarily need over-the-top centerpieces. If you're tying the knot in a temperate climate, you'll find that the open air will boost your party spirit, especially if you have guests traveling from places plagued with nasty weather. If you can find a location that will allow you to have the party outside, it's even better. People can really relax and mingle.

Guests will love the story behind the locale if you bring them to one of your most memorable spots. 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 he proposed.

5. 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.

6. Time it right.

The rehearsal dinner schedule is traditionally held the night before the wedding, most often a Friday. Usually, the ceremony rehearsal begins around 5:30 p.m. (which gives wedding-party members enough time to get out of work and head to the venue) 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 attendants won't be arriving until late on the eve of your wedding, a breakfast celebration the morning of the wedding is also acceptable.

See More: Should We Invite Our Officiant to the Rehearsal Dinner?

7. Think about the food.

The easiest way to choose the food? Host the rehearsal dinner at your favorite restaurant! You know you'll be getting top-notch grub from the get-go. Or, serve up hometown favorites—especially if you'll be introducing guests from out-of-town to your local cuisine. Chicago pizza, New Orleans Cajun, Tex-Mex, Maine lobster—your guests will eat it up. Plus, with fewer guests than you'll be feeding on the big day, you will have fewer likes and dislikes to worry about—so be daring. Serve up a fajita-filled fiesta at your local cantina. Or kick in some foreign flavor with Thai, Indian, or Greek food.

8. Pass the mic.

It's customary for the host to welcome guests at the beginning of the party. But because the atmosphere at a rehearsal dinner tends to be relaxed, some guests may also want to get up and say a few words about you, so consider opening the floor. Don't be surprised if there's as much roasting as there is toasting — and take it all in good humor. You and your groom should also plan on making short speeches yourselves (either after the host does or just before the evening ends).

9. Give gifts to the wedding party.

The rehearsal dinner is also 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), as well as to the parents, to thank them for their love, guidance, and support.

10. Make any last-minute friendly 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 pickup times and locations for transportation you've arranged to get them to and from the ceremony.

11. When it comes down to it: remember to have fun!

Experts recommend that you do something fun and simple. After you and your fiancé have worked so hard to plan your wedding together, you deserve to enjoy this evening with each other and your loved ones.

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