There are many different wedding reception dinner ideas, and deciding how you feed them will be one of the most significant decisions you make. The budget and flow of the wedding reception will be based heavily on whatever you decide.
There are many different ways to serve dinner at your reception, and they all have variables you need to consider. Let’s go over them so you can make an informed decision about which option is best for your wedding.
Plated meals are the most classic of all wedding reception dinner ideas. This means that all guests will remain in their seats, and servers will bring their food to them. Caterers usually do a plated meal as a two-course dinner, with salad being the first course. Many caterers or venues only allow plated meals because they are the most elegant way to serve the meal. Most caterers recommend giving guests a choice between two proteins or a vegetarian/vegan meal. Bread is also typically included, and each guest will have their own or a basket to share with the table.
Plated dinners are a little more work for you, as you need to have your food choices decided on by the time you send out invitations, you need to gather meal choices for all of your guests, and not only do you need to assign them to a table, but each guest needs to have their escort card with a meal indicator on it for the serving staff. This also means that there will likely need to be more staff on hand to conduct dinner, thereby increasing the fees for service. However, your food costs for plated dinners can be less because the caterer will know exactly how much food they need to make, vs. a buffet where they have to make enough for everyone to have everything.
There are many benefits to having a plated meal outside of the known food cost. First, it’s just a more elevated experience for your guests. They get their food brought to them and spend time at their tables visiting with others, rather than standing in line. Second, it is much easier to estimate the time it will take to serve a plated meal than how long it will take everyone to go through a buffet. This makes planning the timeline and all the events that depend on the timing of dinner much more manageable and can be worked out ahead of time with all the vendors who base their work depending on how long dinner takes. Finally, by giving your guests a set amount of food, no one will overeat (and not feel like getting down on the dance floor), and there is much less food waste.
Option: Talk to your caterer about doing a pre-set salad. When guests get to their seats, their salads will already be on the table. This can be a good option if you want or need to have a shorter dinner time, or if you have something at the beginning of your dinner that will take some time, and you don’t want servers putting salads out for people or make guests wait for their food. Not all caterers or venues allow this for one reason or another, but it can be an option if it makes sense for your wedding.
One of the most popular wedding reception dinner ideas is to do a buffet. With so many barns, farms, and more casual venues out there, this style of service can lend itself to that atmosphere. Most buffets will offer one to two salad options, two proteins, a vegetarian option, a starch, and a vegetable, along with bread on the buffet as well, or sometimes in baskets on the guest tables.
Buffet dinners can be a little less work for you when it comes to the seating chart. You do not need to have individual escort cards for each person since everyone is getting the same meal. You can just make a seating chart that lets everyone know what tables they are at, and there are lots of fun ways you can display this chart.
As mentioned above, sometimes buffet dinners can cost $2-4 more per person because the caterer has to make more food as they do not know how much everyone will take. Buffets are also a little more unpredictable when it comes to how long they will take, especially if guests have a lot of options to pick from (such as many toppings from a taco bar), and some guests may need to wait 45-60 minutes before they get food if it is a large guest count and they are one of the last tables to get dismissed.
Option: Talk to your caterer about either having pre-set salads or setting salads on the table family-style, so guests have that available to them while they wait for their turn at the buffet. It will make their time in line go a little faster and potentially cause them not to take as much food since they will have already eaten something before getting to the buffet.
Confession time: family-style is by far my least favorite of the wedding reception dinner ideas. I get the appeal of it in that you get the ease of a plated meal, but guests still get to “take what they want” like a buffet. You don’t have to get meal choices as you do for a plated meal or create escort cards, but the caterers have a known amount of food so that it can be less expensive than a buffet. While all of those things are true, let me make a case for why I don’t like this option.
It starts with the name: family-style. Everyone who sits at a table together at a wedding is not family. Often at a table during a wedding reception, people may not know anyone else at their table other than the person they came with (assuming they came with someone). Frankly, it can be awkward sharing food with people you don’t know. Also, the last person who gets that plate of chicken parmesan may think to themselves, “oh, I get the last piece of chicken that no one else wanted, or “there aren’t any strawberries left in the bowl of this strawberry walnut salad,” so really they aren’t getting to take what they want. Finally, if you have family-style, you need to plan to have virtually no centerpieces on your table because you need room for the platters.
If you are very set on having family-style, consider having it still served up by the catering staff at the table to make it a little easier for everyone. Then they can just take that platter or bowl away after everyone has taken from it. Family-style is also a pretty predictable way to serve food, so your caterer should be able to give you a solid timeframe for how long it will take.
Food Stations are less common but more fun and interactive of the wedding reception dinner ideas. These are usually tables that are staffed by chefs from the caterer and are making food or serving it upon request for each guest that comes to it. Some popular options are a pasta station, a carving station, or even a grilled cheese station.
Guests are still dismissed by the table to visit the stations, but it is a little less formal and harder to manage who goes where than a buffet. This means that you will probably want to allot more time for dinner, and you want to have salads and potentially side dishes served to each guest at their tables while they visit the stations for their main meals. I recommend only doing food stations if you have a smaller guest count, closer to 100 people. If you have more than that, it won’t have the casual atmosphere that you are probably going for with having food stations, as it may become chaotic.
Heavy Appetizers/Small Plates
Everyone loves appetizers, and some couples choose to have them be the main food they serve to guests. This can be a way to keep your reception from feeling formal and give it more of a party atmosphere.
One of the biggest things to keep in mind if you are considering doing heavy appetizers for your wedding is the timing of the day. If you ask guests to come for a 5:00 ceremony and ask them to stay the rest of the night at your wedding, you need to feed them dinner. However, by having a later ceremony, closer to 7:00, guests will likely have dinner before they come to the ceremony. Then, having some appetizers and desserts makes more sense (especially if you say “appetizers, dessert and dancing to follow” on your invitations).
When serving appetizers, small plates, and desserts to your guests, you do not need to have assigned seating for everyone. I still recommend making sure the couple and VIPs have reserved tables. Then you can have a fun mix of tables, hightops, lowtops, and lounge furniture for your guests to mix and mingle at, and then you also don’t have to worry about needing to move tables off of the dance floor if your venue is smaller.
Food trucks have become a very popular and unique way to serve dinner at your wedding reception. There are many types out there and can be a fun photo opportunity as well. However, there are some logistical things to take into consideration when using food trucks.
First of all, it is still basically like a buffet or food station, so there will be a line for it no matter what. Second, you want to make sure you are giving your guests a limited menu to choose from, and having some of the same salads and sides for everyone. Finally, you will want to make sure you talk to the food truck caterer about how long it will take to feel your guests, how to best serve them, and most importantly, who is cleaning up after everyone.
No matter how you choose to serve food to your guests at your wedding, guests may not exactly recall what you served them but they will remember if the food was at the right temperature if it was decent, how long it took them to get the food and if there was enough of it.
Side Note One: Have your seating chart/escort cards alphabetical by the last name, NOT by table number. When a guest comes up to see where they should sit, they will look for their name, not their table number.
Side Note Two: Yes, you do need to assign people to tables if everyone is sitting at once eating. If you don’t, then it gets very awkward for guests to decide where to sit, they may not get to sit with everyone they came with if they don’t grab a table early enough, and you have to have more tables because not all of them will be filled since there will be random empty seats at them all.
Side Note Three: No matter how you serve your wedding reception dinner, make your catering staff aware of any dietary restrictions or food allergies that guests have. They will want to know their names, which table they are sitting at, and what they are. If you are having a plated meal, be sure to have those indicators on the card along with their meal choice.
Side Note Four: Serve children at their tables no matter what, and serve them early. That doesn’t mean parents can’t get them some items from the buffet or feed them off their plate too, but let the catering staff get them their food early at their seats. This makes them happy, and makes their parents happy too, as then they can potentially enjoy their own meal without having to feed their children at the same time. You can even consider having elderly guests receive a plated meal instead of going through a buffet so a family member doesn’t have to try and handle two plates in line if you are doing a buffet.
Do all of these wedding reception dinner ideas sound like things you don’t want to manage? A wedding planner can take a lot of the burden of having to think about all of these details off of you. If you want to talk about how to get this off of your plate, contact Keyed Up Events.