Wedding Reception Meal: Pros & Cons of Each Style

Wedding Reception Meal: Pros & Cons of Each Style

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Reception food will be one of the biggest wedding bills, which typically accounts for 45 to 50 percent of the total wedding cost. The first major decision you should make is how you want to serve your wedding guests. Long gone are the days of just two serving options (a sit-down dinner or buffet style), now there are many more options for you to choose. Outlined below are five most popular meal options along with pros and cons for each to help you figure out the best service style for your wedding reception and your budget.

Plated Dinner Style

  • What is it? Considered one of the most traditional and formal options, a plated, sit-down dinner typically serves three courses: appetizer, entrée, and dessert (sometimes a fourth course—an intermezzo or amuse bouche—is served before the entrée). Guests usually select from two or three entrée options before the wedding (via RSVP card). Another method is to serve each guest a duet plate, which includes two proteins, such as chicken and fish, on one plate.
  • Pros: Each guest will receive their good all at the same time. Also, your caterer will have an accurate gauge of exactly how much food to purchase since each meal is pre-selected. In this case, your food costs may be lower than a buffet or family-style meal. You can have activities (e.g., dances and toasts) occur in between each course to keep guests engaged and maintain a great energy throughout the evening.
  • Cons: Due to plating tasks in the kitchen and serving duties, a sit-down meal requires more servers. Therefore, the staffing portion of your bill may be higher. Also, the food options will be limited to what you selected during your tasting—some picky eaters my not eat everything on their plate.
Buffet Style

  • What is it? Considered the most casual style of meal service, guests have the opportunity to serve themselves at food stations set up on long tables. Another option is to have servers stationed behind the buffet tables to serve each dish.
  • Pros: You’ll need fewer servers with a buffet style meal, so you may save some money on the catering-staff charges. However, keep in mind that you will still need some staffers to manage the buffet, and waiters to serve wine and water to the tables. 
Also, guests can have more of a variety of choices with a buffet style meal, which will come in handy if you have guests with food allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • Cons: It could take a little longer for all guests to receive their food since each table will have to wait their turn to head to the buffet. This may cause long lines to form. You may be required to rent linens, chaffing dishes, and serving pieces if your caterer does not include them. Also, consider that having guests serve themselves and carry their own plates may not be as elegant as you would like. When it comes to expenses, buffets may hike up the catering cost since larger quantities of food are required to feed guests who are likely to eat more when they serve themselves.
Food Stations
  • What is it? With this style, food is spread out among different “stations” throughout the reception venue. Possible stations my include a carving station, raw bar, tapas station, dessert station, and so on. Food portions may be served smaller at each station, typically requiring just two or three bites to finish.
  • Pros: Creative food station displays are crowd pleasers, and guests will likely appreciate the wide selection of foods. Another perk: guests won’t have to wait in long lines since stations will be spread out throughout the space.
  • Cons: Your reception site will need enough space to accommodate the additional space food stations require. You may also need more chefs if you have cook-to-order stations (e.g., pasta, carving stations, etc.), which will likely add on to your catering bill.
Family Style
  • What is it? Similar to a sit-down dinner, a family-style reception has guest assigned to specific dinner tables where waiters service food directly. Large portions of dinner food are placed on every table on serving platters for guests to make their own plates (it’s just like a sit-down dinner at home with your family).
  • Pros: Guests can serve themselves as much food as they desire. The mealtime will be very efficient because guests can start eating immediately after serving themselves.
  • Cons: This dinning style requires ample space on dinner tables to accommodate various platters and dishes. Also, your food costs may increase since the caterer will need to prepare extra food to make sure nothing runs out.
Cocktail-Style Reception

  • What is it? Cocktail-style receptions are a more recent trend featuring hors d’oeuvres and other small bites offered all evening long in place of a sit-down meal. Usually made in one- or two-bite size portions, hors d’oeuvres can be a combination of hot and cold options. The hors d’oeuvres can also be passed by servers or made stationery so guests can grab food on their own. For couples wanting a more casual atmosphere, this reception style is a good atmosphere where guests can socialize and meet each other.
  • Pros: In smaller venues, cocktail receptions allow you to invite more people since you won’t need dinner tables and chairs for every guest. Cocktail-style receptions are typically shorter than sit-down dinners, allowing the couple more space to easily move about the room and talk to everyone. Also, since you’re not serving a main course, food costs may be more affordable.
  • Cons: Some guests who have never been to a cocktail style reception may be a little confused if they are anticipating a full meal. For this reason, it’s important to include clear wording like this on your wedding invitation: “Please join us for a cocktail reception after the ceremony.”
    You should also keep in mind that even though your food costs may be lower, guests will likely drink more than they would at a dinner reception, so your liquor cost might increase.

Featured Cover Image: Heather Hawkins Photography

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