Reception Food and Drink

Planning, Menu Options, and How to Please Everyone's Palettes

Ever tried organizing a holiday meal for the family? It's not easy. Factor in 100+ guests to the equation and you've got yourself a challenge: Planning a wedding menu. Unless yours is an intimate at-home wedding complete with home-cooked food, thankfully, you'll have a helping hand from the catering company. As with most aspects of wedding planning, you should start thinking about your menu as far in advance as possible. The earlier you start searching for caterers, the less stressful and time-crunched you'll be as the big day nears. Extra time is especially essential with a themed wedding as there will most likely be extra elements involved. Remember: You'll want to have a variety of meat, seafood, and vegetarian options. The menu can be a reflection of the wedding style, formality, and location. Here, your go-to grub-guide for the big day.

The Wedding Style and Formality

This is by far the most important thing to consider when planning your wedding menu and reception. You want the food to fit the mood, not overpower it or come up on the short side. Imagine bringing stiff formal linens, candelabras, and filet mignon to a beach wedding? It just doesn't jive! However, if you chose fresh fish, mixed greens, fruity salsas, and breezy tablecloths decorated with votives, things would seem just right. Here's the bottom line:
* '''Think of the location'''.
** Beachy weddings need light seaside fare, such as seafood, salads, and light pasta dishes. A country style wedding might be more casual, think checkered napkins, barbecue chicken, mac 'n cheese, corn bread, and corn on the cob. Something in an urban metropolis might be well-suited to ethnic cuisine or something ultra-chic.
** Thinking of a destination wedding? Take advantage of the local fare to create a menu. Or, if you are having a themed wedding, use the theme to seamlessly incorporate the food into the reception. Remember that certain locations are better than others for fish while others are used to serving meat. Choose accordingly.
* '''Big wedding, small wedding... Size matters.'''
** Surf and turf, caviar, or filet mignon might be high on your priority list, but they are also high on the price list (1oz. of Beluga caviar can run you about $270). If you are planning a 200-person wedding, remember what these fancy meals are going to cost. Sometimes you might need to compromise a fancy meal if you want to have more guests.
** If you are having a small wedding, the food will play a bigger role in the affair so make it count. Remember, food is an instant conversation starter, it keeps people happy, and leaves guests with a special memory of your wedding.
** Don't forget that some foods are more practical than others. For example: you're considering a great seafood bisque served in a bread bowl. Best serve it promptly so that the bread stays crisp and doesn't turn to mush. If the food can't be served promptly, it may lose its presentation value or taste. With large weddings that take a while to serve, opt for foods with big staying power.
* '''The four seasons.'''
** A hot summer day warrants cool lemonade, light salads, refreshing fruits and vegetables, and easy-to digest dinners. Winter calls for hearty, rich dishes to warm the belly. Choose food according to the season.
** When in doubt consult your caterer! They can usually help you choose appropriate food selections for the time of day and year.
* '''Fancy does it.'''
** The taste is as important as the look of the food.
** When sampling caterers options, make sure that the presentation is up to the formality of your wedding.

Time of Day

There is no rule that says all wedding receptions must be formal sit-down dinners in the evenings. In fact, your reception can take place in the morning or even at midnight! For example, a midnight cruise with snacks, cocktails, and dancing until dawn might be great for a second marriage. Or, for something more traditional, here are the options, plus their advantages and disadvantages:

You and Your Guests

You might have noticed this from attending other people's weddings: The bride and groom barely get a chance to eat the food because they are socializing, dancing, and celebrating. The point is to think about your guests -- the ones who will be eating -- as much as what foods you enjoy. You may love veal but that may not please your vegan friends' palettes. Likewise, a succulent lobster dinner may please your adult guests, but as a hard-to-eat option, it may not be ideal for the children at your reception. Make certain to have something that will please everyone.
* Will there be children at the wedding? Consider a kids meal for them.
* Do you have any Jewish or Muslim guests who will require kosher or halal food? Is having pork on the menu going to be a problem?
* Are your friends or family members vegetarian or vegan? It's always a nice option to have a dish for them, since it's not unusual for them get stuck eating wilted veggies and a potato at many receptions.
* Do you have anyone coming to the wedding with strict dietary needs? It's often a good idea to check with your caterer about low-sodium, gluten-free, or lactose-free food options.

When in doubt, offer a wide variety of different things. That means that the meat and potatoes lover gets his hearty foods, while someone who dines on the light side can still get her fill.

Going Ethnic

A great option for wedding receptions is to select a theme based on an exotic locale. It's easy to offer a Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, or Asian dinner. Simply discuss the options with your possible caterers to see if they are worldly enough to whip up such cuisine. If it's not their specialty, move on.

Drinks & Alcoholic Beverages

Once you have the food planning out of the way, the next thing to work on are the beverages. The main issue that arises when talking about beverages is how to serve the alcohol. There are many schools of thought on how to go about serving. For example, some say that it is never acceptable to have a cash bar, for the main reason that when you have a party at your house you don't charge your friends to drink. It's simply part of being a host. Thus, the same is said to be true at weddings. However, others suggest that how you serve is more a matter of budget -- not everyone can afford a full open bar throughout the entire wedding. Nonetheless, there are many options for keeping costs down and still offering alcoholic beverages at your wedding. Here are some of the options to consider:
* '''Open Bar'''

: It's costly, but you will be considered to be a great host. The open bar consists of a fully stocked bar, loaded with everything from vodka to scotch and a variety of wines and beers. It becomes expensive because none of the guests pay, hence, you get stuck with the tab at the end of the night. Plus, this type of bar setup often leads guests to overindulge. So, be sure to warn the bartender about any guests who you feel tend to drink in excess. Also remember that depending on which state you are marrying in, the laws differ about drinking and driving, and the liabilities that you might be accountable for also vary. Do yourself a favor and ask your reception site manager and the local authorities about rules and regulations.
** If the catering service you hire offers liquor services too, check to find out how the bar fees will be charged; per person (usually $15-$40 a person), per drink, or for the total amount of liquor consumed. Also check on any additional costs for the server(s), taxes, and the gratuities.
** If the cost seems too high to hire liquor services through your caterer, consider hosting your own bar and hiring a bartender from outside. You'll have to check with the caterer and the reception hall to verify that this is allowed and that you won't be charged a corkage fee. Read more about '''Stocking a Bar'''.

* '''Partial Open Bar'''

: Thinking that the costs for a full open bar are going to send you over your budget limit? Consider hosting a partial open bar. This means that you keep an open bar for a portion of the wedding, usually during the cocktail hour. It will help lower costs but still offer guests a variety of their favorite drinks before the main meal. Then during the dinner or lunch you can serve a selection of beer and wine only.
* '''Limited Bar'''

: A limited bar allows you to offer your guests alcoholic beverages throughout the entire affair. However, this method only consists of some specific drinks. For example, you might choose to only serve beer and wine. You might also choose throw in a few hard liquor choices, such as vodka, gin, and rum. On the other hand, if you are hosting a themed wedding, an easy way to restrict the quantity of liquor served is to offer a special drink that fits the occasion. For example, a summer wedding might only serve refreshing mojitos; a beach wedding, margaritas; a winter wedding, only mulled wine; a Mediterranean affair, pitchers of sangria; or an Asian fling, sake. Don't forget the mimosas and bloody mary for breakfast and brunch receptions.
* '''Cash Bar'''

: Shunned by most as being a major faux pas, cash bars require that your guests shell out for drinks. However, if you don't want to deny Uncle Joe of his coveted top shelf gin martini before dinner or Cousin Sally's favorite after-dinner drink, let them have their drinks -- but pay for them. You can provide complimentary beer and wine throughout the evening, but also have a bar set up for those that want something of the stronger variety. This way you won't look like a poor host, but you will also give guests options.
* '''No Bar'''

: This isn't exactly a type of bar, but rather a way of life. If you and your spouse don't drink and know that most of your guests don't either, you may want an alcohol-free reception. This is also the bar of choice for morning receptions. You don't want Aunt Mae getting tipsy before noon, do you?

Cutting Costs on Alcohol

* '''The toast''' -- Instead of pricey bubbly, opt for something cheaper. Prosecco, cava, or sparkling wine will do the trick and serve the purpose. Then when half the guests don't bother to drink it, you won't feel like you've just wasted a lot of money on nothing. Or, if you are having a casual wedding, forgo the champagne all together. Usually people have a drink in their hand anyway, and it's just as easy to toast with soda, beer, or wine.
* '''The bar''' -- Whether you are providing the alcohol or your reception site or caterer is, ask them to skip the top shelf brands. Get something with a recognizable name, but without the big price tag.
* '''Pass the drinks''' -- During the reception cocktail hour, opt for passing glasses of wine or champagne on trays. It will look suave and keep costs down by limiting the selection and consumption levels.
* '''Hold that thought''' -- Tell the waiters and servers to avoid refilling glasses during the meal unless guests ask for another glass of wine or beer.
* '''After the meal''' -- If you have a bar, shut it down once the meal is winding down. It will cut down on people drinking after dinner and usually curb any recipes for driving disasters. You can, however, opt for giving guests an international coffee (Irish with scotch, Mexican with Kahlua, Italian with Sambuca, etc.).

Fun Non-Alcoholic Drinks

Don't leave the non-drinkers out of the fun. Offer more than just coke and water. Be sure to provide kids with a selection of juices and milk -- even chocolate milk. Play up the theme of your wedding, offering tangy lemonade during the hot summer months and warming cocoa or cider for a winter wonderland wedding.
* '''Basics '''
** Water: sparkling and flat, mineral or flavored.
** Sodas: colas and uncolasspellerr, such as 7Up or Fanta.
** Non-alcoholic beer and wine or virgin frozen drinks like piƱa coladas or daquiris.
** Juices: orange, cranberry, and apple for the kids.
** Smoothies or a smoothie bar.
** Fruit punch.
** Sports drinks.
** Kon-Tiki, Chapala, Orange Smile, or another exotic cocktail, tropical refresher, or sweet confection.
** Sparkling apple cider, such as Martinellis. Mix it with juice or serve it straight up.
** Bubbling Pineapple Punch
** Apricot Sparkler
** Mock Champagne