Wedding Catering is important & can be a big-ticket budget item… How do you choose?
Ask any wedding guest what makes a good wedding, and their mind soon turns to catering – it’s the food that they’re really looking forward to!
Whether it’s a formal sit-down dinner, a cost-effective canape service or just celebratory Champagne and cake, enjoying food and beverages is easily the most social part of a wedding. It is also big decision to get right, as it takes a huge portion of your wedding day budget. Grab your wedding planner book and make some notes – you may need some help making decisions, as there are many, many choices…
The variety of options available to choose from might seem overwhelming, but you’ll probably find that the options becomes more simple with the choice of venue, the formality of the your wedding, and the budget.
From casual buffets and barbecues to multi-course plated meals, I’ve served up the most popular wedding catering styles and menus and provided tips on choosing a catering style to suit you both and your guests.
How you choose your wedding catering style may also be an important factor to assist your wedding reception decor, your on-the-day timeline, and may influence how to allocate the rest of your budget. This article will set out:
- Food Serving Options
- Catering Budget
- Things to consider
- Questions to ask your Caterer
Whatever catering option you choose for your wedding day, consider using the wedding planning pack to help you choose and interview your caterer without making any mistakes.
Seated Reception Dinner with Plated Table Service
A sit-down plated reception dinner usually consists of a two or three-course plated meal, with a couple of options for the main course, served by waiters at the table. This wedding catering option is the most traditional.
A table service sit-down dinner is most appropriate for a formal wedding and an evening reception, where guests may be seated for a couple of hours to enjoy dinner and speeches. This might not be suitable for a particularly festive or ‘party’ wedding, as guests must remain seated for a long time for staff to serve and clear plates between courses.
If there are lots of children in attendance, or if guests would prefer to be dancing around and chatting with everyone beyond their own table, this might not be the best wedding catering choice.
The expense of a sit-down plated meal is more, because of the number of servers required to attend to guests, especially if they are pouring guests’ wine. However, you can save a lot on the quantity of food required to be provided (compared to a buffet) so you may be able to afford much better quality, and with an ‘alternate drop’ option, there will be no food wastage. Similarly, guests usually drink less wine if it’s being served at the table.
Alternate drop means only two meals are prepared (e.g. Chicken and Beef) and half the guests receive each. If guests prefer one over the other, they are free to swap with their neighbors, but they do not get the option of selecting their preferred option.
Once you’ve determined you want this style of wedding catering, you’ve still got plenty of options for the type of cuisine to serve. As this type of catering is pre-plated, you need to be more mindful of dietary requirements, and probably choose items which are more universally loved. With a buffet, banquet or canape style, you can get away with more exotic choices, because guests get to pick and choose.
Shared Banquet Style Catering
Slightly less formal than the plated 2 or 3-course meal is the shared banquet style menu. This is what we opted for at our wedding, choosing Italian-style catering. Each platter is large enough for every guest to have a little, and it’s the perfect way to cater to those with dietary requirements too, or picky eaters, as they can pick and choose whatever they feel like. Apparently the gnocchi was delicious, but unfortunately Blair and I didn’t have the opportunity to taste it, we were too busy making speeches and drinking champagne!
Something to be aware of is how much room this takes up on the tables – because as well as each guest’s plate, platters take up a lot of room. You may wish to omit centrepieces or lots of foliage in the centre of the table. We even had to remove some of our guests’ glassware to allow room.
This is a great catering choice to give guests multiple food options, you don’t necessarily have to have a gluten free or vegetarian option as long as you give them plenty of choice. Good for fussy eaters!
Buffet Catering Menus
For an especially large number of guests, or where guests are not necessarily eating at set tables, a self-service buffet provides guests a multitude of options. Buffet dinners are the second most popular choice for an evening reception.
While buffet dinners are suitable for large numbers of guests, be aware of having long lines forming – you may have to plan guests going up to the buffet a table at a time, or having more than one buffet set up.
Is a Buffet Wedding Cheap?
Often, couples assume buffets will be much cheaper. It may sound like seated dinners are more expensive, but it can be the opposite. Fewer service staff are required for a buffet catering, as guests will help themselves, but a lot more food ends up being served (and often wasted), so the costs will be determined by the style and quality of food chosen. Often, even if buffet food isn’t wasted, guests will go for seconds and even thirds so the amount of food is increased to accommodate this. Make sure you ask your caterers the actual price difference between buffets and seated dinners.
Do check that caterers have enough staff to remove the dirty dishes in time, to fill up the buffets on time and to tend to the other needs of the guests. It is also important to ask about the “shelf-life” of the food in the buffet.
Buffet wedding catering is popular in New Zealand with Maori and Pacific Island communities, as Polynesian island food is typically served in buffets.
Another popular wedding trend (which we adopted) is to have a Dessert Buffet, rather than a plated dessert. This can be made up of the cake and other finger foods, macaroons, fresh fruits, etc. I had a little taste before the wedding, as well as after…
A less traditional option, but one appropriate for an afternoon wedding so long as guests are advised not to expect a full dinner. At a cocktail reception, staff will serve canapes either at tables for guests to help themselves from, or by walking around the venue with trays. This can be more convenient and much more budget-conscious than buffet stations.
For a large wedding, dinner can end up being prohibitively expensive, whereas a cocktail/canape style reception will be much cheaper. You should tell guests in advance that the reception will be cocktail style, otherwise they are likely to assume they will have a full meal provided. This might be obvious from the time of the reception, e.g. an afternoon-only reception, or one that begins at 7 or 8pm.
The most casual wedding catering option is a spit roast or barbecue meal, which can either be prepared by family (for example at an at-home wedding) or by a professional company. If your wedding isn’t particularly formal, and/or your really close friends and family and would prefer the informality of a casual meal, this might be the most appropriate wedding catering option. A spit roast company is likely to be the cheapest of professional catering companies.
If you’re not hiring a professional company to come in and prepare the meal, you’ll need to have a good plan of action for the preparation, cooking and serving of food. Be very conscious of the safety and sanitation of preparation, and how difficult it can be to cook huge quantities of food quickly and properly (without burning or fires), and then providing the meal to guests before it gets cold. If you’re a control freak, this may not be suitable. However, if your friends or family have experience in the catering or hospitality business, you could save a lot of money this way.
Lunch or Brunch Wedding
Weddings are moving further and further away from being constrained by tradition, and it’s not unheard of for couples to host a morning reception followed by brunch or lunch. Brunch food is perfect for buffet style serving, e.g. fruits platters, muffins and different omelettes. If you’re interested, see this complete article on hosting a brunch wedding. Hint, it includes coffee and donuts…
Via Budget Savvy Bride
Finally, questions to ask your caterer
- Do they have tastings available? If not, reviews from others are essential.
- How many staff members will be available and will they be available to pour drinks, wash dishes and serve wedding cake, as well as the main fare?
- What crockery, cutlery, glassware, salt/pepper (etc, etc) is included?
- Is tea and coffee provided?
- What will staff wear (and does this suit your formality?)
- Will there be enough food to provide a small meal for your photographers?
- Will children eat the same food?
- What happens to any leftover food (e.g. after the buffet)?
- Are they able to cater to various dietary requirements?
- What date do they require final numbers and dietary requirements? (And then add this to your diary.)
- Is a complete cleanup performed by staff after?
- What space is needed for preparation?
- How much room will be needed on tables for the type of service provided?
We hope it all goes well for you on your wedding day. Let me know about your catering plans or experiences in the comments below!
See also expert advice on How to plan your Wedding Catering Menu with Chef Tips