How to Serve Food at a Wedding


It’s finally time to start planning the wedding. And you’ve been put in charge of organizing the food. While this might seem like a daunting task, I’ll walk you through everything that you need to know to make sure the food is a hit for the wedding.

Food at a wedding should be served in an organized manner that allows guests to eat without interrupting the wedding festivities. Make sure it is clear how guests will be served. The style of service should match the kind of food served as well as the level of formality of the wedding.

Fruit, cheese, and other appetizers at a wedding
Fruit, cheese, and other appetizers at a wedding

There are many different ways to serve food at a wedding, and I’ll explain some of the most popular ones, as well as some other considerations, below.

Food Should = Mood

The food that you serve at a wedding acts as a “thank-you” to everyone who came to show their support. Guests are expecting food to be available at wedding events. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that you get the food right.

One of the most important aspects of serving food at a wedding is making sure that the food matches the mood. This isn’t to say that tacos can’t be served at a black-tie venue, or that you can’t serve caviar in a rustic, backyard-style barn; but if you’re going to do that, make sure that you have provisions in place so that guests aren’t confused about the level of formality. For example, consider serving these gourmet tacos at a formal event, or serving a charcuterie board as part of a sampler at a more casual event.

Prosciutto and cheese boards
Prosciutto and cheese boards

Another important match to make concerning your food choice is the time of day and duration of the wedding. If guests are invited to an afternoon/evening ceremony that will last multiple hours, a full meal should be served. If guests are invited to a later event, such as a reception, where they may come and go as they please, dessert options may be sufficient. Here are some points to consider:

For Morning Events

The #1 rule of holding a morning wedding ceremony? Don’t make it too early! You might be a rise-with-the-sun kind of couple, but not all your guests follow the same routine. The earliest you should consider for a morning event is 9 am. Morning events will tend to serve food that is on the lighter side. Think Brunch. Good examples include gourmet french toast, pancakes, and waffles with fresh fruit, an omelet bar, or biscuits with a variety of jams.

For Early Afternoon Events

Events that last later than 1 pm should not be considered morning events. Only serve brunch at these events if you’ll be offering something else later on (though if that’s the case, consider just shortening the event itself). For early afternoon events, more options are available. For events that start between late morning and noon, a luncheon is a good idea. A luncheon will provide something more than a brunch, but will be light. Options include salads, pasta, sandwiches, and light drinks, like lemonade and punch. Luncheons can be a good option for outdoor events.

If the event is more casual, and you’re willing to be a little unorthodox, consider turning the event into a tea reception. This is ideal for events that take place later in the afternoon (2-3 pm) but will be done before evening, usually around 5 pm. Food served here should be light and easy to eat, like appetizers and finger foods, although serving wedding cake for an event like this would not be disastrous either. Other recommendations include fresh fruit, cupcakes, doughnuts, or dainties.

For Evening Events

Carrots, bacon wrapped asparagus, and carrots

Evening events are the most “traditional” form of wedding ceremonies. For most of these events, you’ll want to provide some form of dinner for guests. The options here are limitless. We discuss different methods of service (such as buffet-style vs. table service) in greater detail below, but be aware that there are as many options for wedding dinners as you can imagine.

For events that take place later in the evening, it is also possible to have a dessert-only event. Keep in mind that guests will likely not be expected to stay as long if this is the case, because they will not spend as much time eating. Nevertheless, a dessert table is always a crowd-pleaser, especially if there are multiple options to choose from. Some personal favorites of mine include a chocolate fountain, an ice-cream bar, assorted pies and cakes, and cookies and milk.

After you’ve decided on what food you’re going to serve, the next step is to decide how that food will be served.

Methods of Service

There are many different ways that food can be served at a wedding. Deciding properly how to serve your food is just as important as deciding what to serve. In this section, we will explore some of these methods as well as give examples of foods that might go well with each method.

White table set with white plates, pink napkins, and pink flowers
White table set with white plates, pink napkins, and pink flowers

Buffet-style

With Buffet-style service, guests will serve themselves from an arrangement of food options that are either in a single location or spread throughout the room. This is the most popular style of service for most weddings, as it requires the least amount of personal service. All you have to do is set up the food and most of the work is done.

Woman in purple dress getting a plate of food at wedding
Woman in purple dress getting a plate of food at wedding

Variations on buffet-style include:

  • Action stations, where chefs prepare and serve food in front of everyone. We don’t recommend action stations for weddings, as it may take away from the actual reason for the celebration: the bride and groom! However, if you want a wedding to be filled with entertainment, this may be a good option.
  • Catering Stations. Like action stations, but chefs prepare food in private, so as to be less distracting.
  • Cafeteria Service, where people go in a line in front of a table, but are served by somebody else. This helps to make sure that food does not run out too quickly, and that everyone has a chance to get food. This can be a good option for weddings, especially if you’re on a tight budget for food.

Pros of Buffet-style: Guests can get as much food as they want (excepting cafeteria service); generally easy setup; and low service fees, as guests will serve themselves (excepting cafeteria service).

Cons of buffet-style: Prices and portions can be difficult to manage because you’ll never know how much food people will take; more casual than formal.

Passed Trays

With Passed-tray service, foods will be prepared and placed on a platter that servers will carry around to guests. This can work well for appetizers and other finger foods. Food used by passed-tray service should be clean and simple and should be able to be eaten in one-to-two bites.

Pros of passed trays: Good for appetizers and finger foods, simple and straightforward, can be formal or casual.

Cons of passed trays: Not meant for anything filling, not good for meals.

Table Service

Table service is equivalent to what most people think of as a “sit-down restaurant” service. People will be seated at tables and served food by servers. This kind of meal is likely more appropriate for luncheons and more formal events than for casual receptions, though more formal receptions may consider this an option as well.

Tables set for a wedding with white table cloths, wooden chairs, and white and gold china
Tables set for a wedding with white table cloths, wooden chairs, and white china

If you plan on having table service, there are a few different ways to accomplish this. One is by treating it like a normal sit-down restaurant, where everyone will be given a menu and allowed to choose from a list of options. However, it is also possible to allow guests to order their chosen dish through an RSVP for the event as well. This will be mainly a preference-based choice, though the organization should be considered for the RSVP option as well.

Questions to consider for an RSVP-based table service include: How will guests find their specific meal? How will we match up each choice with each guest? Will servers be present, or will it be a grab-and-go style meal?

Pros of table service: More formal, can control portion sizes, guests can RSVP and know the menu beforehand.

Cons of Table service: Higher service fees typically take more time.

Catering

Most people opt to cater for a wedding. Catering can be an excellent way to reduce wedding-day stress and ensure that the food served will be of the highest quality. While self-catering is an option, it can be a daunting task, even for the self-proclaimed foodie. While it might be reasonable for smaller events (<20 people), larger events become increasingly difficult to prepare food for. This is why catering is likely the best option for many wedding events.

Buffet table with potatoes, green beens, and chicken
Buffet table with potatoes, green beens, and chicken

When choosing a caterer, it is important to keep all of the above information in mind. Many caterers specialize and likely have pre-planned menus available, according to the style and type of food you want to serve. Find a caterer that fits with what you’re hoping to accomplish for the wedding. Most caterers are likely to be accommodating, but don’t expect a small food truck to perform table service at a formal event. Match your caterer to the event the same way you match your meal to the event.

When seeking a caterer, always make sure to have multiple options and get multiple quotes. Even if you have something very specific that you want to serve (e.g., pies), make sure that you go to multiple pie caterers to compare pricing and other options. Some may offer only the pies, some may offer pre-sliced pies or slices on individual plates, and others may offer table service. If a caterer doesn’t seem to be able to provide what you’re looking for, odds are high that you’ll find one who can (though be aware that specialty requests often come with a price tag).

If you’re considering preparing food for the event yourself (self-catering), there are some things to keep in mind. First is the realistic aspect. If you have a small oven, don’t expect to be able to make 50 pies in a day. Part of catering’s appeal is the caterers’ level of efficiency and their equipment. Another aspect is quality. Making a single pie that turns out perfect takes a lot less effort than turning out 50 perfect pies. When you pay a caterer, you’re paying for quality in addition to efficiency. We list some additional logistical tasks, such as trash collection and tray-switching, below.

Fancy wedding table set with blued fanned napkins, glassware, and food
Fancy wedding table set with blued fanned napkins, glassware, and food

Organization

Okay, so by now you’ve decided on what you’ll serve, and how it will be served, but now you’ve got to figure out all of the background elements. Don’t discount these—behind the scenes is how you know if the wedding is running smoothly, or if it will end up turning into a disaster. Here are some important points when considering serving food at a wedding.

Make sure that the food doesn’t distract from the festivities. A lot of people will come for the food, sure; but everyone is coming to support the bride and groom. This goes back to our point about action stations; you don’t want people watching the chef instead of the couple’s first dance. You also don’t want people crossing the dance floor with plates of food and full cups. You can prevent a lot of these problems by making sure that the layout of the event is well-thought-out. For a buffet-style event, the food should be placed next to tables, but far away from the dance floor. If guests are expected to clean up after themselves, trash cans should be available and easy to find. It should not be hard for guests to come and go quietly.

Gorgeous-looking wedding table with various desserts, fruits, and decorations
Gorgeous-looking wedding table with various desserts, fruits, and decorations

Similar to the above point, it should be obvious where guests can get food. You don’t want to have to answer the question “where does the line start?” a hundred different times during the event. Make the area of food pickup obvious and easy to find, and make it easy to navigate. Nobody wants to clean up spilled food on the night of the wedding.

If you’re the one in charge of the food (i.e, you’re not hiring a caterer), then have plans for changing food. If you have plates with a single slice of pie on them, make sure that the extras are quickly accessible, so that people don’t have to wait for the table to be restocked. If you have to move entire trays, have a plan for how that will work. And if you’re handling trash collection and cleaning, make sure that there’s a plan in place before opening up.

Conclusion

In summary, serving food at a wedding boils down to 3 keys: matching the food with the mood, good organization, and thoughtful planning. Make sure you have all 3 of these, and serving food at your wedding will turn out spectacularly!

Anna Silver

Anna Silver is the principal creator of CookForFolks.com, a website dedicated to new go-to original recipes. Inspired by her grandmother’s love of cooking, Anna has a passion for treating the people in her life to delicious homemade food and loves to share her family recipes with the rest of the world.

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