by Libby MacCarthy
Your reception food and drinks not only fuel the party (literally), they also provide another chance to infuse personality and style into your unique celebration. From aesthetics to flavor, these expert tips and suggestions will help you choose the perfect sips and plates.
Nail Down a Budget
An amazing menu begins with the right caterer, but to get your first pick, you’ll have to book them early. How early? Usually around 12 months out, at the same time you’re scouting venues. Some venues will require you to use their in-house caterer or will have a short list of wedding pros they work with exclusively. Even if you’re allowed to bring in your own chef, you may be charged extra, so request a tasting with the in-house one. If they’re a no-go, look for chefs who are flexible and excited about trying out new dishes and ideas (and want to go beyond the basics) so your meal really stands out.
Find Your Number
Your guest list will also be a huge factor in determining your menu. If serving an impressive spread is your top priority, consider limiting the head count. If you can’t imagine your wedding without 100 of your closest friends (not to mention every family member—and that’s not even counting your partner’s guests), you may need to cut creative ways.in
Consider Dietary Restrictions and Allergies
Whether you have gluten-free guests, people who don’t eat meat or someone with a peanut allergy, talk with your caterer about these exceptions well in advance to make sure there’s an option for everyone. Dietary preferences and allergies are the last thing your caterer wants to hear about as they’re plating the entrées.
Settle on a Style
Want a delicious, gourmet dinner to be the focus of the night? Opt for a formal, sit-down meal with multiple courses. Expecting music and dancing to be the main event? Choose a less formal (but still satisfying and tasty) dining style and menu, like passed appetizers and finger foods. That way guests won’t be weighed down by a heavy meal and can grab a bite before hitting the dance floor. (Want more trendy catering style options? Get them right here.)
Go Local and Seasonal
Great chefs plan their menus around whatever’s freshest that month or season. Your favorite summer tomato salad, for example, won’t be as juicy or flavorful in January, but pasta with a rich tomato sauce would make a fabulous alternative. Ask your caterer what ingredients will be the freshest on your wedding date, then craft your menu around those foods. Also, find the freshest options by going with regionally grown or raised choice—you have a better shot at finding ocean-fresh lobster in Maine than in Minnesota.
Don’t Risk a Mishap
You want your wedding menu to be memorable—but for the right reasons. Steer clear of potential food poisoning (or third-degree burns), and pass on raw meats, flambé, unpasteurized dairy, exotic animal products (maybe rethink bite-size haggis for a Scottish-themed wedding) or anything that’s crazy spicy. Make sure your caterer is familiar with the foods they’re preparing as well—sushi, for instance, should be made by an experienced sushi chef.
Add Personal Touches
Share the story of your relationship through your menu by serving dishes inspired by special moments, memories or things you love to do together. It could be serving craft beer from the city where you met, poutine that reminds you of your trip to Montreal or paella because it was the first meal your fiancé tried to cook for you (and burnt, but you ate it anyway). Do what speaks to you as a couple, and you know would be crowd-pleasers.
“Think about what the majority of your guests will enjoy, keeping in mind things like where they’re from, age range, food sophistication, time of day and time of year,” says Alison Awerbach, a partner at Abigail Kirsch Catering. Of course, this is your day, but do keep your guests in mind (they have to eat too!). Try to hit all the bases with your spread: beef, seafood, poultry and vegetables. Tap into all the major tastes too—serve something slightly salty, something sweet, something bitter and something savory. If you’re having a pasta bar and always order spicy arrabiata sauce, make sure there’s also a milder option for your those who aren’t big on heat.
Keep Up Appearances
Choose a caterer who cares as much about presentation as they do about taste. Be creative—instead of serving soup in a bowl, have it ladled into a hollowed-out acorn squash. Or why not serve coconut shrimp inside an actual coconut and garnish it with a tropical flower? We also love satellite food or cocktail stations. There are so many ways to dress up a fun and festive station serving up food and drinks everyone can enjoy (think: a whiskey cocktail bar, taco station or make-your-own mac and cheese). Or get totally Insta-worthy with a standout display, like a towering doughnut wall. Check out tons of creative menu and serving options here.
Don’t Skimp on Portions
Even if you’re having a buffet, you should try and give your caterer a pretty accurate head count, and you shouldn’t try to scrimp more than they recommend. Not having enough food at the reception is a surefire way to leave an iffy impression on your guests. While caterers may bring 10 percent extra food, you can’t always count on actually having extra. The surplus is a buffer for unexpected surprises, and the catering team will staff according to your guest count, so be as exact as possible when providing your pro with numbers.