Everything You Need to Know About Choosing Your Reception Menu

Learn about the most common meal styles and tips on how to execute them.

Reception Meal Styles

PHOTO BY REBECCA YALE PHOTOGRAPHY 

The food at your wedding is undoubtedly one of the most important elements of the whole event. No matter which style you pick, whether it’s a formal plated dinner or a cocktail-style reception, the menu should reflect the two of you as a couple.

“You are inviting people to the most special dinner party you’ll ever throw,” says Nancy Parragué, Director of Sales at the famed Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events in Emeryville, CA.

Meet the Expert

Nancy Parragué is the Director of Sales at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering & Events, which has been at the forefront of the wedding scene in northern California for decades. It has built its name on gourmet, stunning menus that feature hyper-local, hyper-seasonal dishes.

Though Parragué says a plated sit-down dinner is the most common format, that's not the only way to do it. We consulted with her for expert tips on how to execute every type of reception meal like a seasoned pro, the upsides (and downsides) of each style, and the cost factors associated with them.

Wedding Reception Meal Styles
BAILEY MARINER/BRIDES  

Plated Sit-Down Dinner

The most traditional reception style, a plated meal is what the majority of couples choose. This is when all the guests are seated and served a formal dinner. Typically, it consists of two courses (an appetizer and an entrée), plus dessert if it’s served tableside. Everyone is usually served the same appetizer and then the main course is handled a few different ways:

  1. Guests are served the same entrée with a silent vegetarian or vegan alternative.
  2. Guests are able to select their entrée from a menu, which is typically a meat or fish option plus a silent vegetarian option.
  3. Guests pre-select their entrée choice when they submit their RSVP.
Plated Sit Down
PHOTO BY LIZ BANFIELD, Catering by Boathouse Restaurant

Pros

  • It immediately sets the tone for a more formal gathering. 
  • You have the most control over the look and feel of the meal.
  • You can work closely with the caterer to execute your vision for the meal.
  • It is an efficient way to serve the reception meal and keeps things running according to schedule.

Cons

  • The limited variety and can be challenging for guests with dietary restrictions.
  • It typically requires more manpower to help with serving and plating, so staffing fees tend to be higher.

Cost

A plated sit-down dinner can be quite cost-effective because you essentially can control the price. In terms of food costs and rentals, a plated dinner typically costs less than a family-style or buffet meal because you don’t need to have as much food (in terms of sheer quantity and variety), but the service costs tend to be a bit higher.

Tips

Typically, couples do a first course and entreé here,” says Parragué. We like to do something a little different and have the couples select one first course and one entrée for all guests, plus there’s always a silent vegan/vegetarian option. It’s a nice guest experience. When you invite people over to a dinner party at your house, you don't typically ask them what they want. This also really helps with food waste, which is a big priority for us.”

Family-Style Dinner

A family-style meal is exactly as it sounds: Everyone is seated as big platters and bowls of food are passed around the table, just like you might do with your own family at home. This is a great option if you want to keep people seated at tables but don’t want something as formal as a plated meal. The first course is typically served with about one or two options and the main course includes as few as a protein and two sides or multiple proteins with multiple sides.

Family Style
PHOTO BY KATE HEADLEY, Catering by Shinola Hotel

Pros

  • It offers you variety—there are lots of choices, which can be easier to accommodate picky guests or guests with food allergies.
  • It makes the reception meal feel more casual and laid-back.
  • It's good for community building—when people are passing the food around their tables, they chat and engage with each other.
  • It is an efficient way to serve your meal—you don’t have to wait for people to make it through buffet lines or the stations. Everything lands at the table at roughly the same time and people can help themselves.

Cons

  • Family-style meals are typically the most expensive option because of the service ratio, needing the highest amount of food, and the cost of rentals. 
  • The platters and dishes take up delicate table real estate. If you want elaborate florals on your tables, this is not the option for you.

Cost

Expect to pay 10 to 30 percent more than a plated dinner since you will likely have more menu items and less control over how much people eat, according to Parragué. You absolutely don’t want to run out of food, so always order more than enough here.

Wondering how much food to order? Parragué suggests one or two different dishes for the first course and as few as a protein and two sides for the main course or as many as two proteins and four sides max.

Tips

“We always work closely with the designer to understand the table layout well in advance,” says Parragué. “There is nothing worse than having nowhere to put the food, so make sure there are places on the tables for everything and the platters and bowls are appropriate for the tablescape. It’s a good general rule of thumb to avoid super gigantic platters. Also, make sure to educate the captains and servers about where each platter or bowl is going to go on the table and run through the service flow to make sure it’s all as smooth as possible.”

Buffet-Style Dinner

A buffet features long tables topped with a wide variety of food options. This meal style offers the most variety for your guests, making it particularly desirable if you want a wide range of cuisines or have picky eaters. The most important thing to consider here is how to get your guests through the food lines as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Buffet Style
​PHOTO BY KINDRED WEDDING STORYTELLERS, Catering by La Crème

Pros

  • From a guest standpoint, buffets are great because they can not only pick what they want but how much food they want. 
  • Abundant buffets can be visually appealing and photogenic when executed well, with vibrant food and a talented design team.

Cons

  • The tremendous variety and quantities of food that you get with a buffet comes at a price. Buffets are typically higher in price than many of the other reception meal styles.

Cost

Similar to family-style, expect to pay 10 to 30 percent more for a buffet than a served dinner since you will likely have more menu items and less control over how much people eat, according to Parragué. The upside of a buffet, however, is staffing costs could be about 20 percent less than they would be for a plated or family-style meal, depending on the layout and how much service you want.

Tips

“Think about all the elements and focus on the visuals,” says Parragué. “You want the food to be vibrant and vivid, so be thinking about the colors of everything. If you have lots of starchy items, think about mixing them up with some colorful elements.”

Have plenty of access points to the food so that people aren’t waiting in line forever. Parragué suggests an access point per every 50 guests and stresses the importance of having staff available at various points to educate guests as they navigate the buffet to avoid any traffic jams. Also, if at all possible, don’t send all the guests up to the buffet at one time.

Buffets are all about having a beautifully displayed bounty of foods, so the sky’s the limit here. A few things to keep in mind when planning the menu? Avoid nuts! Think about foods that will be challenging for guests to navigate and consider adding a chef or staff member to serve that particular item, or remove it from the buffet. You don’t want your guests to have to work for their food.

Self-Serve Stations

Stations are very similar to buffets in that they give your guests a nice variety of food options. Stations typically have tables or areas specifically dedicated to certain dishes or types of foods. These are often more interactive and involved than a help-yourself buffet, so you will need people to staff these stations.

This is a great opportunity to get creative and inject your personality as a couple. For example, if you love oysters, do an oyster shucking station. If you’re pizza-obsessed, bring in a pizza oven and have the chef whip up pizzas made-to-order. Love cheese? Put together an epic cheese bar!

Self Serve
PHOTO BY AARON DELESIE, Catering by Brush Creek Ranch

Pros

  • Like buffets, stations offer up great opportunities to create stunning visual displays that lend themselves nicely to photos. 
  • If there is a dish that would be challenging for guests at a buffet, attended stations are a good workaround. 
  • Stations encourage guests to interact and engage with each other, particularly if they are chef-attended stations where they are picking from different options and consulting each other about their choices.

Cons

  • Rental costs and staff ratios could make stations quite costly. 
  • Depending on what kinds of stations you ultimately decide on, they could require a lot of space, so keep your room size and physical station sizes in mind as you plan.

Cost

The menu price is going to be similar to a buffet or family-style meal. The staff ratios and costs are typically on par with a buffet, but keep in mind that if you have multiple stations, the cost of rentals will be much higher.

Tips

It’s important to consider the layout and floor plan for your stations, making sure to keep in mind all of the other design elements that will be in the space, like lighting fixtures, tables, couches, and the bartops. You want to maximize the space so people can easily move about and access the food and drinks without any trouble.

Keep in mind the same guest access point rule we mentioned in the “buffet” section. Guests should be able to easily access the food. A good rule of thumb is one access point per every 50 guests. Parragué suggests having a variety of three stations, perhaps two self-serve, grazing stations, and one chef-attended station for a wedding of 250 people (with multiple chefs at the station).

Cocktail-Style Dinner

Buck tradition and do a cocktail-style wedding reception. It combats a lot of issues that couples typically face while planning their wedding, like where to sit a bunch of people who don’t seem to fit at any one table. A cocktail-style reception means no seating charts, no tablescape fuss…none of that. Instead, you and your guests can mix, mingle, and dance all night long and snack on small bites (either tray-passed or laid out on a grazing table in advance) whenever you feel like it.

The most important thing here is to offer your guests a nice variety of options, including a few that are vegan/vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free, so there is something for everyone.

Cocktail Style
PHOTO BY CHI-CHI ARI PHOTOGRAPHY, CATERING BY BELLE MER

Pros

  • You can easily move around the reception and chat with your guests in a way that some other styles (like a plated dinner) do not allow. 
  • A cocktail-style event is engaging and interactive for your guests. 
  • If you want to invite a lot of people but you aren’t able to fund a full meal for that guest count, this is a more cost-friendly approach.

Cons

  • Older guests might not be able to stand the whole time, so make sure you have seating options in case they need a place to rest their feet. 
  • People are likely to drink more because they have access to the bar (rather than the servers serving set amounts of wine and cocktails).
  • Guests might not be familiar with this style of reception, so inform them ahead of time of what to expect in terms of the food.

Cost

This is a more budget-friendly alternative to a full-fledged dinner because you have far less food in terms of both quantity and portion-size. Depending on how big your wedding is and how many different dishes you want to serve during the reception, be prepared for the service costs to be bumped up.

Tips

“People absolutely don’t want to see the same appetizer for hours and hours, so make sure to mix it up,” says Parragué. “Vary the menu and serve five different items for the first hour-and-a-half and then five completely new items for the next hour, or however long your reception is taking place.” Also, think about the plating here—just because you aren’t doing a full-fledged dinner doesn't mean you can’t get creative with the presentation and plating.

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