After choosing a venue, the next big decision you need to make is what food to serve the guests. Back in the day, couples pretty much had two choices when it came to wedding food ideas: a sit-down dinner or a buffet. But nowadays, the decision is much bigger than figuring out a plated vs. buffet wedding—there's also family-style dinners, mini food stations, cocktail-style receptions, and even food trucks to consider. To help you figure out the best serving style for your celebration, we've outlined each of these food options, along with the pros and cons of each.
1. The Classic: A Plated, Sit-Down Dinner
This traditional option is where guests are seated and served a formal dinner. 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).
• 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.
• Everyone at the table gets their food at the same time.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• If you allowed guests to choose from different meal options, you'll have to use place cards and demarcate them (either by color or accent) so that the wait staff knows what meal to serve each seat. Most venues require place cards in these situations.
2. The Smorgasbord: Buffet-Style Wedding
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.
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.
• Fewer servers are needed with a buffet reception, which means you may save some money on your catering staff charges.
• 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.
• Buffet-style service also promotes mingling and interacting among guests.
• 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, chafing 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.
3. Serve Yourself Food Stations
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 (for example, "around the world" stations where different countries' foods are 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 stations.
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.
• Creative food stations and presentations give a visual wow factor and are crowd-pleasers for that reason alone.
• Guests will 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.
• 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.
4. Family-Style Wedding Dinner
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).
• 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.
• 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.
5. Cocktail-Style Reception
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. Plan on serving 12 to 14 hors d'oeuvres per guest. Typically, the servers circulate for two hours.
• 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.
• Cocktail-style receptions allow you and your partner to easily circulate throughout the room and chat with everyone.
• Since you're not serving a main entrée, your food costs could potentially be more affordable.
• 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").
• 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.
6. Food Trucks
The most recent development in wedding food ideas is having food trucks roll up and serve your guests. Ideal for outdoor receptions, food trucks will definitely give your event a hipster flair.
• The sky's the limit: You can have as many of your favorite food trucks as you want pull up and start serving.
• Done right, food trucks can be a really unique wedding food style that most guests will have never experienced before.
• As with cocktail-style receptions, food trucks really push the envelope of what's expected, and guests with traditional tastes might find food trucks at a wedding flat-out bizarre.
• Food trucks aren't fancy, but that doesn't mean they come cheap. You'll have to rent each truck and its entire staff for your reception.
• Since you'll be dining al fresco, you might have to rent your own tables and chairs, depending on your venue.