Your Guide to Wedding Catering

Treat your guests to an unforgettable meal on your unforgettable day with our step-by-step guide.
By: 
Nicole Burnham Onsi

There are many details your wedding guests will forget days or weeks after the reception, such as what color flowers were in your bouquet or whether your French manicure was chipped. What they won't forget easily? A great meal. They also won't forget a not-so-great meal. For both these reasons, it makes sense to concentrate plenty of planning energy on the food, drink, service and atmosphere of your reception. In this special section: sensible advice to help you plan your affair from hors d'oeuvres to dessert. We even asked caterers to offer some sample reception menus. Hungry for more? Dig in!

Finding Your Style

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"Before you meet with a single caterer or catering-hall manager, you and your fiancé should discuss the level of formality you desire for your reception," says Eileen Livers, author of The Unofficial Guide to Planning Your Wedding (MacMillan, 1999). How formal your event will be is the cornerstone for all other planning decisions, "from the cut of your gown to the style of your invitations, and, of course, your catering selections," notes Livers.

How to decide? Well, what sort of wedding have you fantasized about? If your dreams include flickering candlelight, a traditional gown with a long train and a string quartet, you're likely to gravitate toward a formal sit-down dinner. If they involve a sun-drenched, barefoot beach wedding, a party with rum runners and seafood or a relaxed, outdoor cocktail celebration may be right up your alley. Is neither really your style? Then opt for something in between, such as a garden tea, brunch, a traditional buffet dinner or a simple dessert and coffee reception.

Still not sure what you want? Try this: "Sit down with your fiancé and talk about the things you don't like," advises Livers. If you hated waking up early for your cousin Alice's sunrise wedding and mid-morning brunch reception, or if your fiancé was uncomfortable in black tie at his best friend's ultra-formal soiree, you can probably scratch both those options off your list.

Livers also suggests taking pen to paper and listing adjectives you would like applied to your perfect wedding. "Words like fun, chic, traditional, southern-style, elegant or funky help you nail down your tastes," she says. If southern-style leaps out at you, for instance, you might enjoy hosting an afternoon wedding, followed by a garden tea party with cookies, cake and hors d'oeuvres. Fun or funky might dictate a beach party, picnic or Texas-style barbecue. Elegant might mean an evening wedding with caviar and vodka on ice, featuring filet mignon as an entree, whereas chic might inspire you to host a swanky do in a downtown loft, with free-flowing champagne. Traditional will guide you toward a late-afternoon or evening wedding with a chicken or fish dinner, either with buffet service or as a sit-down meal.

Finding Food Pros

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Once you've settled on a style, you're ready to begin the search for a caterer whose strengths mesh with your wedding plans. Meryl Snow, of Feastivities Catered Events in Philadelphia, says that the best way to find a caterer is to ask for recommendations from people whose weddings you've particularly enjoyed. Narrow down that list to two or three caterers with whom you'll arrange to meet. "If you call more than that, you may become overwhelmed by the selection," says Snow. At these initial meetings, tell the caterers what style of wedding you envision, and ask about their experience in that area. "While a professional caterer can likely create whatever you request, you won't get the best results asking a meat-and-potatoes caterer to do gourmet," she adds.


Second, ask to look at their sample menus, and get their suggestions for various dishes and combinations of dishes. Caryn Hasslocher, of Fresh Horizons Creative Catering in San Antonio, Texas, says that brides often forget that the time of day and location of the reception need to be factored into menu decisions. "Even if you feel that filet mignon fits the formal style of your event, your guests won't expect or want such a heavy meal if you're hosting a mid-afternoon reception," she notes.

In addition, the facility you choose for your reception may limit your menu choices. "The caterer needs to have sufficient kitchen space if your menu requires on-site cooking," explains Hasslocher. "And if you want a buffet or ‘action stations,' where meat is carved or omelets and crêpes are made to order, you need to think about space."