Step-by-Step Guide: How to Plan a Wedding Reception

Your wedding reception sets the stage for the entire party. Here is a step by step guide to help plan the perfect wedding reception your guests will remember.

Step 1: Set the wedding date before you actually start looking for locations for the reception

Depending on how far in advance you start looking for the perfect spot to celebrate your marriage, some venues may be booked up to a year (or more) in advance, so be ready to choose an alternate date or search for another location.

  • The time of year can significantly affect availability of venues, and generally it’s easier and sometimes less expensive to plan a winter wedding than during the peak season.
  • While Saturday is the most popular day to get married, consider a Sunday wedding, which could also save on your total budget.
Step 2: Determining your reception budget

Once you set the date, you should also start thinking about your overall budget. Many venues carry a minimum so be sure to ask this while you’re looking at venue options. The reception site will also need an estimate of your guest number so that they can give you a better idea of the total cost.

Step 3: Deciding on the key elements of your reception
  • Will you have an indoor or outdoor reception?
    If you choose an outdoor celebration, be sure to have an alternate plan in case of rain.
  • What type of reception do you want to have?
    While a sit down dinner remains the most popular type of reception, other choices to consider are a cocktail reception, breakfast or brunch, a luncheon, or an afternoon tea. Here are some things to consider when choosing the type of reception.
  • Do you want to have a receiving line?
    The good thing about a receiving line is that you can greet all your guests and it gives them an opportunity to congratulate you. However, it can be very time-consuming and many couples today prefer to visit each table instead, which is a less formal alternative to this tradition.
    If you do choose to have a receiving line, the order should be: mother or parents of the bride, mother or parents of the groom, bride, groom, maid of honor, then bridesmaids.
  • Do you want to be officially announced as you enter the reception?This can be a fun way to start off the evening and you can simply be introduced by the DJ or bandleader for the first time as a married couple. Sometimes the introductions include both sets of parents and the bridal party as well, and you can have them all line up on the dance floor to watch you in your first dance, if you choose to go straight into that.
  • Do you plan to have toasts?
    Toasts can be a wonderful moment for the couple and guests, but it’s best to keep them short and sweet. Ideally, they should be made during or in between dinner courses, and kept to two or three at a time.
    Request that anyone giving a toast keep it relatively short and assign someone in your wedding party to keep an eye on the time.
    The bride and groom can also say a few words of thanks just before they cut the cake.
  • When will dancing begin?
    These days, dancing usually begins after dinner is finished, rather than doing dance sets in between courses. Other than your first dance, be sure to select some music that all guests will enjoy, providing a variety for all ages.
  • What types of photos would you like?
    The reception is another opportunity for great photos, so think about any groupings that you might not get to earlier in the day, with some family and friends. You can also let your photographer know if there are any particular details shots you’d like from the reception space.
  • Are you considering a bouquet and/or garter toss?
    This is a tradition that can be fun and get your guests involved, but some couples choose to skip this part of the reception altogether.
Step 4: Making seating arrangements

If you are having a sit-down dinner, sorting out the seating can be quite a task so it’s good to get an early start on this.

  • The bride and groom can either sit alone at a “sweetheart table”, usually facing their guests, or they can join their bridal party at a larger table. However, some couples prefer to place the table amongst the guests for a more modern feel.
  • Parents will usually sit together with close family and friends at their respective tables.
  • Be sure to think about the elderly and their placement so that they are not too close to any speakers or in a location inconvenient for any other reason.
  • While place cards are the most formal way to arrange seating, it may be a great option if you are concerned about placing people next to each other who might not get along, and it can be helpful to the guests as well. Otherwise, escort cards with just the name and table number are a common way to arrange seating and they can choose their own seat at that table.
Step 5: Deciding on your reception menu

To many couples, and their guests, food is one of the most important elements of the reception, and something that everyone will remember for years to come.

Select the food:

  • Choosing a menu can be fun and you can offer your guests something truly special, but remember to keep in mind that some guests might have dietary restrictions and discuss this with your caterer to find out options. It might be a good idea to find out from your guests in advance if they have any allergies or special requirements.
  • For a sit-down dinner, it is typical to have printed menus at the table.
  • You need to decide whether there will be a buffet or plated meals served at the table. There are also other alternatives, such as family-style or food stations, so discuss all these options with your caterer.

Choose where the wedding cake will be placed and decide when it will be cut:

  • Usually there will be a separate small cake table and you need to decide when the cake will be cut.
  • Decide if you want the cake to be part of the dessert or if guests will take a piece home with them at the end of the night.
  • You can cut the cake whenever you are ready to serve dessert – some couples choose to do so right after dinner or earlier in the evening so there are no interruptions in dancing, or an alternative is to do this about an hour before the end of the reception.
  • Be sure that the photographer knows your plan so that they are ready to capture the moment when you cut the cake.

Featured Cover Image: Jenna McElroy{"url":"","count":43})


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