Wedding catering service Ideas & Advice Wedding catering styles

Catering Serving Style Breakdown

Serve it up! A primer on wedding reception catering styles…

Before you begin choosing between filet and chicken, consider how you’d like to serve them. The most common options include plated meal, buffet, family style, or a simple and fun Tapas reception.To help you decide, we’ve compiled all you need to know about these serving styles.

Wedding Catering - Things to Consider:

The time of day during which your event takes place

If your reception will be held during brunch or cocktail hours, a 5 course meal may not be necessary. If your reception will occur during dinner hour, you should serve more than just appetizers.

The formality of your event

While it’s perfectly acceptable to have a buffet at even the most formal of events, tradition still tends to dictate that a sit-down meal is the most formal. If you envision guests dressed in white tie, sipping French champagne and serenaded by a full orchestra, a seated meal may be the way to go.

Your guests

Always take into account the nature of your guest list. Elders or more traditional guests may feel more comfortable at a seated dinner, while younger guests may yawn at the idea of being forced to sit still for a few hours. Also remember that an extremely large guest list may not be conducive to a buffet, as hungry guests may be forced to wait in line for a turn at the table.

Personal preference

That said, it’s your wedding. There really are no rules these days, so if you have your heart set on a particular serving style - go for it!

Wedding Serving Styles - An Overview:

Plated Meal

At a plated meal, guests are seated and served by a waitstaff at tables pre-assigned by you. This style is the most traditional and typically the most formal. Servers often first bring out a plated salad, followed by a full plated meal.

Things to consider with a plated meal…

  • While this choice tends to be more conventional in essence, it can be modified to suit your ambiance. A more casual twist on the plated meal is to just serve the salad family style with large bowls passed around the tables as guests help themselves.
  • When choosing your entrees, include items that will have the widest appeal to your guests. Don’t rule out chicken because it screams traditional. Chicken is probably the safest option preferred by most guests. Whatever you decide to serve, make sure to choose an entree that will not become soggy or cold while being served to the amount of guests at your reception.
  • If you choose to go with a plated meal, pay close attention to your seating arrangement in order to stimulate conversation and keep the event lively and festive.


Don’t assume a seated meal is a drain on your wedding budget. Costs are moderated by the fact that guests eat what they’re served and cannot go back for seconds, making the amount of food consumed easier to manage. Costs also depend almost completely on what you choose to serve. One way to save cash is to decrease the number of courses. For instance, serve either soup or salad, not both. Chicken tends to be the most inexpensive of the proteins, and although beef is typically the priciest, you can cut down on cost by serving a triangle-cut sirloin or flank steak. If you prefer seafood, consider a simple white fish which tends to be reasonably priced.


At a buffet, guests select their food from either one long table or stations strategically placed throughout the room. (think pasta station or carving station.) An advantage is that you can serve a varied menu from which guests can choose what they like. Having a buffet-style meal does not mean that you have to sacrifice sophistication. A buffet can be formal when served by stylish wait-staff or more relaxed with self-serve stations.

Things to consider with a buffet…

  • A buffet-style wedding reception typically stimulates mingling and socializing, which can be ideal for a festive affair. In addition to the regular single table buffet, food stations are a nice variation that can add to the meal’s overall presentation.
  • Consider having your florist place a centerpiece that revolves around your decorating scheme in the buffet area.
  • Whether you opt for assigned seating or even a seat for each and every guest is your choice, but at least try to provide a suitable place for guests to eat. If your guest list is large, you may want to consider a different serving style, as the buffet line may back up, resulting in a group of hungry and impatient guests.


Although you will save on the cost of wait staff by presenting your meal buffet-style, the total cost may not be less. People tend to eat more because they can return to the buffet as often as they wish, so you may need to order more food, which can cut into your wedding budget. Again, costs depend almost entirely on what you choose to serve.

Family Style

Family style simply means that servers bring out large bowls and platters of food, which are then placed on the tables for guests to pass and self-serve. It often feels like the holidays and creates a fun, family-oriented. It also helps guests get to know each other since they often help serve one another and chat while doing so.

Things to consider with family style service…

  • There are lots of additional platters, plates, and bowls that will need homes on the table once the food is brought out. This takes space away from your centerpieces and other fun table décor.
  • Family style can be a nice way to control the quantity of food served while still offering people the ability to decide what they feel like eating that night. Guests won’t have as much freedom as they do at buffet but they’ll get to make some decisions about how much they would like of a certain type of food.
  • This is most likely a time where you’ll want to narrow down your main dish choices. Just because it’s family style, doesn’t mean you have to serve more options. Choose one or two proteins and a vegetarian option, like a homemade ravioli. Add a big salad and a side like rice. If you get too many platters going on the table, it might get a little hectic.


You have less servers than a plated meal and more control over quantities, so family-style can be a nice budget-friendly alternative. You can ask that your caterer refill platters on the tables once but no more than that, allowing you to control portion while still giving your guests choices and small tastes of each item.

Tapas Reception

At a cocktail or tapas reception, there is no full meal. Instead waiters circulate the room, offering trays of hors d’oeuvres to standing guests. This style of service is ideal for a cocktail reception, which is often a shorter duration than a full reception.

Important Tips

This option is suitable for a late afternoon or early evening wedding reception. Serve at least six different appetizers for a two-hour reception and at least nine for a four-hour soiree. Augment passed-tray service by including a harvest table with fruit, cheese, crackers, cured meats, dips, and breads. Whatever you choose to serve, make sure it is something easily picked up with fingers or toothpicks. Overly messy items will inconvenience your guests.


If cost and time are major considerations in your wedding planning, then a passed Tapas-style reception consisting entirely of cocktails and appetizers may be the perfect option for your wedding budget. This style is typically the least stressful and the most wallet-friendly. If you’re considering a cash bar, we recommend going with a Tapas-style reception instead. Would you ask guests to pay for a drink in your home? If not, then you should always say “no” to cash bars and a cocktail hour reception with small plates can help you fit an open bar into the budget. Since these events typically run for only two hours, in addition to savings on food and beverage - location, staffing and other rental fees are also considerably reduced.