4 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Wedding Reception Food Style

Selecting the menu for your wedding reception is a pretty fun to-do item, but before you dive into choosing specific dishes to serve, you may want to consider the type of food service you want at your event.

Each wedding has a different kind of energy, depending on the personalities and preferences of the couple. Some couples are foodies and put a lot of emphasis on their menu and bar selections, offering dishes you might not normally see at a wedding or providing a wine pairing for each course. Others are more of the drink-and-dance type – they want the food to taste good, but would rather see everyone with a drink in hand, rocking out on the dance floor than spending time with guests over a multi-course meal.

The type of food service you go with can have an impact on the atmosphere of your reception as well as what can be served. Cvent (a software solution for event managers) goes into some nice detail explaining how the type of service you select can affect the food your caterer is able to serve. 

Try to envision the type of celebration you want to have when you’re mulling over the plated versus stations debate. In our initial meetings with couples, we’ve had some of them say they want to go with a buffet-style service because they’ve been at weddings where the plated meal took way too long to come out. Every caterer has their own approach, so if a past experience as a wedding guest is coloring your thinking, ask your caterer questions to find out more about how they will serve your guests and their server-to-table ratio (1 server to 1 or 1.5 tables is the optimum).

Before your meeting, review some of the differences between service styles to find out which one might suit you best.

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Plated Service

Eats: Food is served to your guests and there are typically three courses – a soup or salad, an entrée, and dessert, though additional courses can be added. Guests are asked to make their entree selection at the time of sending in their response card. Most caterers offer 2-3 entree selections plus a vegetarian option.

Energy: This is a more traditional and formal way to go, so guests will be seated for the duration of the meal. You can work with your caterer on the timing of when each course comes out if you want to take care of toasts or dances between courses. Once the meal is over, your band or DJ can start playing higher energy music as everyone transitions to the dance floor.

Efficiency: With a good caterer and ample service staff, this should be handled quickly once people are seated. Ask your caterer how their servers will bring out the food to your guests. Once the entrees are consumed, most guests will leave their tables to get more drinks or start dancing. If a plated dessert is being served you want the dessert to follow as a course with dinner. Otherwise, we suggest a dessert display that guests can pick from in between dancing.

Expense: A plated meal has a controlled portion size so you can control the cost more than with stations or buffet-style service. Pricing also depends on the type of dishes you’re offering, so if you’re choosing a more expensive cut of meat, your cost will reflect that.

Dinner Stations

Eats: Your guests will have more choice over what they eat and when they eat it. Stations give you the flexibility to offer different types of food in smaller portions. Stations can be themed and can feature some interactive experiences where food is being prepared at the station. Stations allow for creativity while have a 'safety' option for your less adventurous guests. See if your caterer can personalize stations with your favorite foods or dishes from a certain region or style of cuisine that relate to your families’ backgrounds.

Energy: Stations are a lot of fun for guests, especially when a chef is preparing the food in front of them. This style is a little less formal than plated, where people can chat on their way to and from stations, eat a little, dance a little.... In this format it's better to keep the feel cocktail style with cocktail size tables and lounge furniture to encourage mingling. (If you want assigned seating for your guests then don't opt for a stations format.)

Efficiency: Guests are served by an attendant manning the table or station. You'll want to have stations set up throughout the room, in areas that are easy to access without disrupting people's abilty to flow through the room nor blocking any seating.  

Expense: Your caterer will serve up the portions at the station but the overall amount of food a guest has access to is more than a plated meal, so your cost could be a bit higher per person. 

Another thing to ask: Will you be responsible for renting chafing dishes or serving pieces from the caterer if your venue does not provide them?

Buffet

Eats: Here, again, your guests will have a few protein, starch, and veggie options to choose from.

Energy: Buffets are a very casual service style. 

Efficiency: These two options mean that your guests have to physically get up and serve themselves, or wait in line to be served or help themselves to portions. For a buffet service, you’ll want to keep in mind the number of guests that have to move through the line. Can guests go down the line on both sides of the table or only one? Opening the second side cuts wait time in half. If you have 200 guests you should have 2 buffets that are served from both sides giving you four food lines.

Expense: Couples often think that a buffet option will be more cost-effective than a plated. However, that isn’t always the case. With a buffet, the amount of food prepared per person is larger (to compensate for those who choose larger portions or come back for seconds).

Another thing to ask: Will you be responsible for renting chafing dishes or serving pieces from the caterer if your venue does not provide them?

Cocktail Reception

Eats: Lighter fare and finger foods are passed or you may also have a table with easy-to-grab items that do not require cutting. To ensure that no one leaves hungry, talk to your caterer about how many pieces per person they recommend.

Energy:  If you’re going for a party atmosphere where people are mixing and mingling as they eat and drink, you’ll want this style service. Also, because you won’t have a room full of tables (see below) your guest count doesn’t have to be as limited as it might be with other styles. This is a great option for couples who don’t want formality or are eschewing the elements (formal dances, bouquet throwing) of a traditional reception.

Efficiency: For this type of party, you would likely have a mix of high and low tables for guests to stand or sit at, but this style does not provide 100% seating for guests (so you can skip the struggle of putting a seating chart together)! If you have older relatives or kids attending, you may want to have a few reserved tables to make things easier for them.

Expense: This style can be less expensive than those that provide a full meal. 

Family Style

Eats: Allows for your guests to have some choices; dish options will be similar to what you might see on a buffet, just portioned for 8-10 people per table.

Energy: Everyone passes dishes and digs in; this style is reminiscent of a big family dinner at the holidays.

Efficiency: This style means everyone is seated, but serves themselves from platters on the table. One word of caution - food could cool down before the last guest at the table gets served.

Expense: Pricing may be similar to a buffet to account for extra food pre-prepared. Also – since the platters and bowls will take up a lot of room on the table, you may need to use larger tables to accommodate the serveware, any table decor, and to space guests so they don't feel cramped. Think about tall centerpieces that don't take up needed table space. 


 

The size and layout of your venue may also be a factor in which styles are available to you. Can the space you’re in accommodate the number of tables needed to comfortably seat 100% of your guests if you go with plated? If action stations are placed around the room, is there enough room for guests to easily move around the tables to get to them while still having enough stations so people aren’t waiting for a long time?  You don’t want your guests to have to work for their food.

And let’s face it – we know the food & beverages are going to be one of your biggest expenses. If you have a limited budget, there are a couple tricks you can use to save money:

Start earlier or later: Choosing an earlier ceremony and reception time means you could host your meal as a luncheon, rather than a dinner. The portions will be slightly smaller which will save you on food costs. Or if you host something later, say after dinnertime, you can do a reception that includes a bar and some savory and sweet smaller bites, or simply a dessert reception.

If you’re having a smaller reception at a venue that allows outside food or in your backyard, perhaps your family and friends would help you by bringing pot-luck dishes.

At the end of the day, remember that no one is going to notice what isn’t there and your family and friends are there to celebrate you! If the atmosphere is engaging, the food tastes great, and the service is attentive, your guests will have a great time!

Check out some of our sample menus!

SKY Armory

Written by SKY Armory