Ask any wedding guest what makes a good wedding, and their mind soon turns to catering. Enjoying food and beverages is easily the most social part of a wedding, and it is a big decision to get right, as it takes a huge portion of your wedding day budget. With these considerations in mind, you may need some help making the right decisions.
The variety of options available to choose from might seem overwhelming, but these can be really simplified depending on your venue style, the formality of the wedding, and the budget. From there, you’ll be able to make a decision on catering and plan the day’s food and beverages.
From casual buffets and barbecues to multi-course plated meals, I’ve served up the most popular wedding catering styles and menus and provided tips on choosing a catering style to suit you, your partner and your guests.
How you choose your catering style may also be an important factor in regards to the wedding reception decor, on-the-day timeline, and how to allocate the rest of your budget. This article will set out:
- Catering Options
- Things to consider
- Questions to ask your Caterer
Sit-down reception dinner with table service
A sit-down plated reception dinner usually consists of a two or three-course meal, with a couple of options for the main course, served by waiters at the table. This wedding catering option is the most traditional.
A table service sit-down dinner is most appropriate for a formal wedding and an evening reception, where guests may be seated for a couple of hours to enjoy dinner and speeches. This might not be suitable for a particularly festive or ‘party’ wedding, as guests remain seated for a long time for staff to serve and clear plates between courses. If there are lots of children in attendance, or if guests would prefer to be dancing around and chatting with everyone beyond their own table, this might not be the best wedding catering choice.
The expense of a sit-down plated meal is more, because of the number of servers required to attend to guests, especially if they are pouring guests’ wine. However, you can save a lot on the quantity of food required to be provided (compared to a buffet) so you may be able to afford much better quality, and with an ‘alternate drop’ option, there will be no wastage.
Alternate drop means only two meals are prepared (e.g. Chicken and Beef) and half the guests receive each. If guests prefer one over the other, they are free to swap with their neighbors, but they do not get the option of selecting their preferred option.
Slightly less formal than the plated 2 or 3-course meal is the banquet style menu. This is what we opted for at our wedding in February, choosing Italian-style meats and vegetables. Each platter is large enough for every guest to have a little, and it’s the perfect way to cater to those with dietary requirements too, or picky eaters, as they can pick and choose whatever they feel like. Apparently the gnocchi was delicious, but unfortunately Blair and I didn’t have the opportunity to taste it, we were too busy making speeches and drinking champagne!
For an especially large number of guests, or where guests are not necessarily eating at set tables, a self-service buffet provides guests a multitude of options. Buffet dinners are the second most popular choice for an evening reception.
While buffet dinners are suitable for large numbers of guests, be aware of having long lines forming – you may have to plan guests going up to the buffet a table at a time, or having more than one buffet set up.
Often, couples assume buffets will be much cheaper. It may sound like seated dinners are more expensive, but often it is the opposite. Less servers are required, as guests will help themselves, but a lot more food ends up being served (and often wasted), so the costs will be determined by the style and quality of food chosen. Often, even if food isn’t wasted, people go for seconds and even thirds so the amount of food is tripled to accommodate this. Make sure you ask your catering service the actual price difference between buffets and seated dinners.
Check that caterers have enough staff to remove the dirty dishes in time, to fill up the buffets on time and to tend to the other needs of the guests. It is also important to ask about the “shelf-life” of the food in the buffet.
Another popular wedding trend, which we adopted, is to have a Dessert Buffet, rather than a plated dessert. This can be made up of the cake and other finger foods, macaroons, fresh fruits, etc. I had a little taste before the wedding, as well as after…
A less traditional option, but appropriate for an afternoon wedding where guests are not expecting a full dinner. At a cocktail reception, staff will serve canapes either at tables for guests to help themselves from, or by walking around the venue with trays.
For a wedding of over 200, dinner can end up being prohibitively expensive, whereas a cocktail style reception will be much cheaper. You might want to tell guests in advance that the reception will be cocktail style, otherwise they are likely to assume they will have a full meal provided. This might be obvious from the time of the reception, e.g. an afternoon-only reception, or one that begins at 7 or 8pm.
The most casual wedding catering option is a spit roast or barbecue meal, which can either be prepared by family (for example at an at-home wedding) or by a professional company. If your wedding isn’t particularly formal, and/or your really close friends and family and would prefer the informality of a casual meal, this might be the most appropriate wedding catering option. A spit roast company is likely to be the cheapest of professional catering companies.
If you’re not hiring a professional company to come in and prepare the meal, you’ll need to have a good plan of action for the preparation, cooking and serving of food. Be very conscious of the safety and sanitation of preparation, and how difficult it can be to cook huge quantities of food quickly and properly (without burning or fires), and then providing the meal to guests before it gets cold. If you’re a control freak, this may not be suitable. However, if your friends or family have experience in the catering or hospitality business, you could save a lot of money this way.
Weddings are moving further and further away from being constrained by tradition, and it’s not unheard of for couples to host a morning reception followed by brunch or lunch. Brunch food is perfect for buffet style serving, e.g. fruits platters, muffins and different omelettes. If you’re interested, see this complete article on hosting a brunch wedding. Hint, it includes coffee and donuts…
Finally, questions to ask your caterer
- Do they have tastings available? If not, reviews from others are essential.
- How many staff members will be available and will they be available to pour drinks, wash dishes and serve wedding cake, as well as the main fare?
- What crockery, cutlery, glassware, salt/pepper (etc, etc) is included?
- Is tea and coffee provided?
- What will staff wear (and does this suit your formality?)
- Will there be enough food to provide a small meal for your photographers?
- Will children eat the same food?
- What happens to any leftover food (e.g. after the buffet)?
- Are they able to cater to various dietary requirements?
- What date do they require final numbers and dietary requirements? (And then add this to your diary.)
- Is a complete cleanup performed by staff after?
- What space is needed for preparation?
- How much room will be needed on tables for the type of service provided?
We hope it all goes well for you on your wedding day. Let me know about your catering plans or experiences in the comments below!