9/16 Broke-Ass Advice: The Pros and Cons of Food Service Options

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Buffet line

Credit: Lucky Photographer from Kate & Daniel’s Real Wedding

One of the decisions that can significantly impact your wedding budget is about how you’ll serve your guests. This applies whether you’re serving dinner, appetizers, cake and punch, breakfast-for-dinner or any other type of meal. So let’s break down some of the options, shall we?

Buffet

Pros:

  • This is typically a more cost effective option if you want to offer more variety to your guests (and yourselves!).
  • Often guests can go back for seconds since buffet-style calculations tend to overestimate to prevent running out of food.
  • Guests can pick and choose exactly what they want on their plates.

Cons:

  • A buffet line can really slow down the flow of your reception. (Pro Tip: Try for two buffet lines to keep things moving, and assign someone to call each table.) 
  • The buffet display itself takes up a good chunk of space in the room — and it might take away from your dance floor or make things crowded.
  • Although most caterers are awesome about calculating for buffets, humans are unpredictable and it’s a good possibility that you may run out of one or more popular food choices … or on the other hand, that you’ll have a lot of wasted leftovers. (Some venues / caterers will allow you to take leftovers home, but many will not.)
  • If guests self-serve at the buffet, the chances increase that you’ll run out before the last table gets up. (Pro Tip: Hire catering staff to serve appropriate portions at the buffet.)
  • Buffets force guests to make decisions on the fly, which is part of what takes so much time at the buffet line. (Pro Tip: Display menus either at each guest place setting or on a board at the front of the buffet line, so that guests can plan ahead and make quicker decisions in the buffet line.) 

Sit Down / Plated

Pros:

  • Plated meals can be served more quickly than buffet service by an experienced catering staff. (Pro Tip: If you want dinner to move faster, have bread and salads or appetizers preset on the tables before guests enter the room, and keep the dinner service simple — two courses, max.)
  • It’s easier to greet guests table-to-table while they’re waiting for plated service. (Pro Tip: Or just have a receiving line. Either way, make time to eat your own dinner!) 
  • With plated service it’s easier to close down the bar and serve wine at the tables — which can save you an hour or more of bar time (and $$$).
  • Takes no extra space in the room, since meals are served directly at the tables. More space for dancing!
  • With plated service there’s almost no leftover wasted food since each portion is calculated in advance.

Cons:

  • Plated meals are usually more costly, and require additional staff. (Pro Tip: Check to see if your catering package includes the cost of service, or if that will be added to the total meal cost.) 
  • You and your guests will have fewer meal options on the wedding day.
  • Guests are a bit “stuck” at their tables until after dinner, whereas getting up for the buffet line lets them stretch their legs and mingle with guests at other tables.

diy-taco-bar-elissa-nick-southern-california-real-wedding

Credit: A Sight of Love Photography from Elissa & Nick’s Real Weddingtaco-signage-elissa-nick-southern-california-real-weddingCredit: A Sight of Love Photography from Elissa & Nick’s Real Wedding

Family Style:

A cross between buffet and plated, where each table gets its own larger servings and then guests serve themselves at the table

Pros:

  • Like with a buffet, guests can pick and choose exactly what they want on their plates.
  • Again, as with buffets, guests might have the option to self-serve seconds. (Pro Tip: It’s still a good idea to have catering staff bring the platters to each table and maybe even serve the first round of each item, but after that, guests can usually manage their own service.) 
  • Often family style offers a couple of options to each table, so more variety is possible here than with plated meals.
  • Family style encourages guest interaction in a way that the other meal service options don’t.

Cons:

  • Family style platters can be heavier, and messes are almost inevitable. (Pro Tip: If serving family style, make sure there’s at least one adult at each table where children are seated.) 
  • Larger platters crowd the tables. (Pro Tip: If you’re serving family style, cut back on the glassware, favors at the table and centerpieces. There won’t be room for them as well as food unless you increase your table size.)

Stations

Pros:

  • Stations are pretty similar to buffets in many ways, but because they’re spread out into different areas, they move guests around the room and can go more quickly.
  • Stations allow for a bit of extra creativity, since you can serve mini-buffets at each. Think mashed potato stations, s’mores stations, carving stations, sushi stations, etc.
  • Guests seem to love the novelty of station food service, and it allows them to mingle with other tables more than other methods.
  • Some stations can be left up while the dancing begins.

Cons:

  • Like the buffet, stations usually take longer than plated meals.
  • Stations can take up a lot of space in a room, depending on how many you have.
  • Stations can create traffic jams unless the traffic flow is carefully mapped out.
  • Guests can be indecisive at stations, especially if they’re set up as mini-buffets / bars. (Pro Tip: As with buffets, providing menus at the table or at each station will help to speed up guest decision time.)

And as always …

Be sure to find out definitively if any of your invited guests (or their guests, if you’re offering a +1) have food allergies or dietary restrictions — don’t guess!
It’s a good idea to offer at least one vegetarian option, even if you don’t think any of your guests are vegetarian. First, it’s often the top choice for kids (if invited), but it’s also usually a safer choice for those with dietary restrictions and guests looking for lighter options.

Note, too, that if you have any guests with gluten sensitivities or other food allergies, you’ll need to check on (or assign someone else to check on) those specific meals with the catering staff on the wedding day.

Finally, make sure you take time to eat at your own reception (don’t forget appetizers, cake and plenty of snacks beforehand! And hydrate!), and if you’re not serving appetizers to guests (especially after a cocktail hour), consider placing non-perishable pre-dinner snacks on the tables, like popcorn, pretzels or chips and salsa.

Lisa Paladin is the owner of Event Plan-It, a wedding planning and design company located in The Heart of It All. Lisa loves helping creative couples to plan EPIC weddings without any highway robbery, and believes there is no such thing as too much glitter. Or color. Or animal print. Lisa is a volunteer cat/kitten foster mom, a collector of neon things, an Argentine Malbec aficionado, a treehugger, a dabbler in all things crafty and a word nerd (despite excessive use of exclamation points and parenthetical statements). Follow Lisa on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, or email Lisa at info (at) eventplanit (dot) com about your Cleveland wedding or The Walking Dead.