Wedding Reception Food Planning:
Ideas for Serving Your Reception Meal

Your wedding reception food ideas and menu can make or break your wedding budget, and I'm not just talking about the food itself. One of the key decisions you’ll need to make when planning your wedding food is how you will like the meal to be served.

Buffet? Dinner stations? Family style? French service?
Most people assume that buffet style is the least expensive of the wedding reception food ideas, but that’s not always so. Based on your wedding reception menu choices, you may want to explore other options with your caterer just to see what’s actually possible within your wedding food budget. If you’re having an at home reception, or DIY-ing the wedding reception meal, don’t assume a buffet is your only option. With some help (hired or volunteers), you can mix it up.

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Finger foods or heavy appetizers?
With this style of wedding reception food service, no meal is served and waiters circulate offering trays of appetizers to standing guests. You may want to augment the passed trays of appetizers with a buffet of fruit, cheese and crackers.

Wedding food on a buffet

This service is good for the cocktail hour and appropriate for late afternoon or early evening weddings. Finger food is best for 2-hour wedding receptions, but can work for 3-hour receptions if you have the additional fruit and cheese table. And don’t expect your guests to stand for three hours and eat off of napkins! Offer some seating and small plates. You will need to serve at least 6 different appetizers for a 2-hour wedding reception, and at least 9 for a 3-4 hour event. This wedding reception food service is by far the most economical choice. You may also place the less costly foods on the buffet with the fruit and cheese and have only the pricier appetizers passed around by waiters. DIY-ers, you can easily do this for an at home wedding too! Hire a professional wait staff, or just enlist one or two people to run the kitchen and your neighbor’s babysitter and a few students to serve. Once the service time is over, put the remaining appetizers out on the fruit and cheese buffet and have someone keep an eye on the buffet, replenishing, and keeping it tidy.

A buffet is one of several budget wedding reception food ideas

This is the most common and generally the most economical style of wedding food service. Guests serve themselves plates of food from the buffet, and servers replenish the food and keep the buffet attractive, as well as go to each table and clear plates. A buffet style of reception meal service will require more food per person, as guests can return multiple times for food, and may also require that you rent more plates. You can set up the buffet on one long table (least expensive foods to most expensive), or break it up into smaller tables for better flow. If the caterer you’re using only provides the food, make sure they give you recommendations on how many servers you need to hire to set up the buffet, to keep it replenished and the tables cleared, and for breakdown. Generally you’ll need 1.25 plates per person for a buffet, but the number can rise if you serve multiple courses and have dinner stations.

A buffet is not always the least expensive wedding reception food choice

Dinner stations
Dinner stations are tables of food dedicated to a theme or a certain food. You can have a station dedicated to sushi and tempura, another can be a fajita bar, or dedicate a station to building an outrageous baked potato. A minimum of three dinner stations is recommended by caterers. For this wedding reception food idea you will generally need to provide 5 small plates per person, but this could vary based on how many stations you have and how long your reception lasts.

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Sit down service
This wedding reception food service is considered the most formal, and is usually the most expensive. There are several styles of sit down service.

Wedding reception food on a spring table

Plated service – this is where the dinner plate is prepared in the kitchen and brought out to the guest. If you’ve chosen pricy ingredients for appetizers and the main dish, this service may not be more expensive than a buffet as the guests can’t go back for seconds. Russian service – Platters of food are put on a tray and brought to the table. Guests are served from the platters of food to plates already on the table. French service – Two waiters serve guests from platters of food on a tray, one holding and one serving. This can also mean that one waiter serves the food and another comes behind and sauces, or even that some of the meal is actually prepared table-side. French service is the most complicated and will be the most expensive. It’s also not very practical for large weddings. If you’re considering a sit down reception meal for an at-home wedding, you’ll need to hire a food prep staff and one server for every three tables. Remember, this is a guideline. You’ll need more servers if your tables seat 10 people each or your servers are inexperienced.

Family style
Family style service is where servers place several dishes of food on the table and guests share and pass the platters around to each other.

This service is warm and congenial, and encourages conversation among the guests. If you’re having an Italian or a French Country themed wedding, this is a great way to go. In general, a family style wedding meal is less expensive than most of the sit down services, but this will always depend on your menu choices. It's your wedding reception, feel free to mix it up! You can serve salads and appetizers family style, and have a waiter bring out the main dish, or have plates of olives, nuts, breads and cheeses on the tables and a buffet for the main course. Do whatever suits your style, theme and budget. As long as your wedding reception food is presented well and the guests are enjoying themselves, go for it.

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Book the Wedding Caterer for Your Reception: How to Find and Hire a Wedding Catering Service
Budget Wedding Food Ideas: Wedding Reception Menu Planning, and DIY Wedding Buffet Tips
Wedding Traditions: A List of Wedding Ceremony & Reception Traditions
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