Once you’ve chosen where you’re going to hold your reception, the other big consideration is the food you’re going to serve your guests. Selecting your wedding caterer is a big, buttercream-frosted, served-on-a-silver-platter deal. And the more elaborate your wedding, the bigger a deal it becomes. Catering will usually account for your single largest wedding expense, so take extra care when selecting the person responsible for the “yum factor”. You don’t want your guests remembering your wedding for the rubbery chicken and soggy potatoes.

Fortunately, caterers are expert party planners and can advise you on more than just a reception menu. They can organize all the mini celebrations that come before and after the ceremony itself. For example, many couples rely on their caterer for help with their engagement party, the rehearsal dinner, perhaps a post-wedding brunch following the big day. Even a small, intimate reception can benefit from the services of a professional caterer. If you are unsure of the type of affair you want to host, ask your caterer for suggestions. They should be able to steer you towards the style of reception that fits your tastes as well as your budget.

Selecting a Caterer

Where to Start

Book your caterer six months to one year in advance, depending on the level of service you will need. First talk with a representative at your chosen reception site because many facilities have in-house caterers. If not, they will certainly have a list of preferred catering professionals. Or if you know someone who has hosted a recent wedding or other major event, ask them for their advice. You can also check for referrals from The Better Business Bureau and other wedding professionals in your local area.

Narrowing It Down

Begin narrowing your candidates down to ones who will be available on your chosen date. Ask those caterers for references, sample menus and prices. Their former clients can tell you about the type of reception they had, the quality and presentation of the menu, as well as the service they received. Menus will clue you in to the caterer’s style. Narrow your choices down to a manageable number and then start setting up interviews. For advice on choosing the right caterer for you, visit this mywedding planning page.

When Meeting Caterers

Now is the time to decide what sort of reception you will have. Schedule tastings as part of your interviews. Discuss your budget and the time of day when you will be hosting the reception. The caterer should then be able to talk about menus choices and suggest affordable options. Ask each candidate for a written estimate based on the menu you’ve selected. This cost-per-person quote should include any other charges such as equipment and alcohol-service fees. Also ask to see samples of their rental items. A great price on china isn’t much of a good deal if your guests end up eating off chipped plates.

Get it in Writing

Once you’ve found a caterer you like, you’ll want to make sure that all details and arrangements are spelled out in the contract. It not only protects your interests, but also serves as a handy checklist for keeping up with the many details.

Food for Thought

  • The event time will be a primary factor when selecting your reception menu. Breakfast is usually served until 11am; brunch from 11am - 2pm; lunch from 12:30 - 3:30pm; tea or desserts from 3 - 5pm; dinner from 7 - 9:30pm; and a late-night dessert from 9 - 10:30pm.
  • Many couples try to stick with foods that will appeal to a wide variety of guests. Most gatherings include members of every generation so try to keep the make-up of your guest list in mind when planning the menu.
  • When giving your final head count, don’t forget to include the other wedding professionals (musicians, DJ, wedding coordinator, photographer, etc.) who will be on hand. Their meals can usually be prepared less expensively and be served out of sight of the wedding guests. Be sure to discuss your preferences with the caterer.
  • Some couples choose to donate leftover food to charity while others have it sent home with relatives who are hosting out-of-town guests.
  • Many couples are so busy that they miss out on much of the menu served at the reception. Have the caterer prepare a special selection of food samples for you. It’ll make a great snack when you collapse in your hotel room and realize you’re starving!
  • Think about the number of guests when planning your menu. Besides the cost per person, consider how long it will take for food to be served. An elaborate, multi-course meal may be too time-consuming to serve to a large number of people, but it might be perfect for an intimate group.
  • The time of year also makes a difference. A heavy pasta meal might be more welcome in the winter. Elaborate fruit sculptures will be tastier and less expensive if ordered in season.
  • Beverages should complement your menu. Punch and champagne would work for a midday meal. But wines, tea and coffee might be the best selections for dinner.
  • The formality of your menu and the presentation of your meal should harmonize with the tone and style of the overall celebration. In other words, you wouldn’t want to follow a full-scale, formal wedding ceremony with a backyard barbeque.
  • Consider the way your guests will be eating the foods you are serving. Will they be sitting at tables or will they be mingling as they eat? One setting allows for the use of silverware, while the other calls strictly for finger foods.
  • Don’t opt for mayonnaise, cream sauces and custard fillings if food will be unrefrigerated for any length of time. Giving your guests food poisoning = major fail.
  • A new trend hitting the wedding scene is food trucks. Some couples use their services for the main meal while others have it to provide an extra snack – perhaps later in the evening. If this appeals to you, be aware that some venues or caterers may have restrictions about this kind of thing. A reception at a private residence would be ideal for a food truck.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Caterer

Will you be the primary service coordinator?

At the very least, you’ll want your caterer to oversee the meal at the reception. Many caterers often serve as the primary service coordinator as well (someone to cue the couple when it’s time to cut the cake and move on to other reception traditions). If your caterer will not be doing this, you might want to consider hiring a wedding coordinator.

Do you book more than one wedding per day?

You’ll want personalized service from your caterer, so avoid the ones who book multiple events close together.

What’s your ratio of servers to guests?

There must be enough wait staff to serve your guests properly. The ratio will vary depending on the type of reception. A seated dinner, for example, should have at least one server for every 10 guests. If it’s a buffet service or cocktail party, you could get away with fewer servers. Discuss the options with the caterer and detail your decisions in the contract.

Can you show examples of table displays?

You want to know how the caterer arranges the food and what type of decorations they use. Some caterers will work with your florist to coordinate designs.

What accessories and equipment do you provide?

Ask if the caterer provides place settings, table linens, tables, chairs, etc. or if they will arrange for rentals. And ask to see samples of any accessories or equipment. You’ll need to figure in additional rental costs if you want anything nicer than the caterer’s standard issue.

What services do you provide?

Find out the specific services your caterer provides as well as how much they cost. Some caterers merely prepare the food, but most will handle set-up through clean-up, as well as provide equipment and servers.

What are the menu options?

Hopefully, you’ve already viewed sample menus so you have a pretty good idea of the caterer’s selection. This is the time to bring up special requests such as vegetarian or kosher variations and favorite family recipes.

When do you need a guest total? Do you have a minimum number?

You want to know how much lead time you will need for invitations and responses, as well as any additional charges for headcount changes made after that date. Many caterers base their estimates on a minimum of 100 guests so there may be an additional fee if your number falls below that. Be sure to ask. You don’t want any surprises when you get the bill!

How much do you estimate the total cost will be? When are the deposit and balance due?

As your single largest expense, it’s important to have a good idea of what your final costs will be. Are additional charges itemized based on your food selections or figured as a flat rate percentage? Estimates should include all fees. Be aware that a deposit of 50% or more is usually due at least a month before the wedding. And most caterers will expect final payment on or before the day of the reception.

How and where do you prepare the food?

You need to know where the caterer will be preparing the food and if any special arrangements need to be made with the site manager.

Do you offer wedding cakes? If so, would you work with a different baker?

Your caterer may offer wedding cakes and not be willing to work with a different baker. Others deal with everything except the cake. In that case, expect to pay an additional cake-cutting fee. Provisions for the wedding cake could play a pivotal role in the selection of a caterer.

Please can I see your license(s)?

A licensed caterer has met all health department standards and carries liability insurance. Ask specifically about a liquor license if you plan on serving alcohol.

How do you handle alcohol?

You need to know if your caterer offers alcohol or if you’ll need to sort out the bar separately. Find out about any selection your caterer carries and whether there will be a corkage fee if you bring your own alcohol.

What’s your back-up plan?

People get sick and transportation breaks down. As with all wedding professionals, any caterers you consider should have a solid contingency plan in place. Make sure that such emergency provisions are listed in the contract.

Costs Involved

The reception is a public celebration of your newly wedded state. It can be as lavish or as simple as you like – so you can control the costs. The important thing is to be realistic about what will work for you. Get a general sense of what you can afford to spend per person by dividing your catering budget by the number of guests.

Based on that amount, you and the caterer can talk about your various options. Dinner is the most common meal served, but you may find a more affordable brunch is the best option for you.

Cost Considerations to Discuss with Your Caterer


You can order as little or as much as you want. The per-person costs will reflect your choices. A few dollars each can cover a basic cake-and-punch reception or you could pay $100 or more for a formal dinner with an open bar. Think carefully about the type of meal you want to pay for:

  • Breakfast
  • Brunch
  • High tea
  • Lunch
  • Dessert
  • Hors d’oeuvres
  • Dinner
  • Late-night dessert
  • Services

Most independent caterers charge a fixed hourly rate per server. If your site management handles the catering, you may be charged a 15-20% fee based on the total food and equipment bill rather than an hourly rate. Keep service fees in mind when determining the level of service you’ll need:

  • Formal seated meal with “white glove” service
  • Less-formal, yet traditional sit-down meal
  • Family-style seated meal
  • Cocktails and cake service
  • Passed hors d’oeuvres
  • Self-serve hors d’oeuvres
  • Formal buffet
  • Food stations
  • Self-serve buffet

To sit or not to sit? For advice, visit:


Drinks, particularly alcoholic ones, can account for a large portion of your catering budget. It all comes down to what you want to serve:

  • Open bar
  • Cash bar
  • Limited-hours bar
  • Champagne cocktails
  • Beer and wine
  • Wine with dinner only
  • Champagne toast only
  • Non-alcoholic drinks only

“Raise the bar” at:

The Contract

Your contract will serve as your catering checklist. Of all the contracts you sign with various wedding professionals, this one is the most important. This is where you will spend the majority of your budget and cover the largest number of details.

Look it over thoroughly! Ask any questions you can up front and point out any errors. Do not sign this document until you feel completely comfortable with its contents.

Important points to cover in your catering contract:

Date and hours of the reception. Exact reception location including street address and room name or number. Deadline for final head count including fees for any changes after this date. Server details including server-to-guest ratios, number of bartenders and expected dress code. Description of meal service such as cocktails, buffet or seated dinner. Specific menu and any fees for later changes. Acceptable substitutions if a certain food or beverage is not available. Type and amount of any alcoholic beverages caterer will provide. Wedding cake details if provided by caterer. List and description of any rentals. List and description of any duties of the caterer during the reception. Proof of licensing and liability insurance. Any and all fees including: sales taxes, gratuities, bar or corkage fee, rentals, delivery, cake-cutting fee, kitchen staff and server wages. Total estimated cost of services. Deposit amount and date due. Balance amount and date due. How leftover food and beverages be disposed of/distributed. Cancellation and refund policy. Caterer’s name, contact information and signature.

Wedding Favors

Wedding favors are small gifts that you offer your guests as a memento of your wedding. They add a special touch to your day and people often keep them forever as a keepsake (if they’re not edible, obvs). You don’t have to spend a king’s ransom to get incredible wedding favors. Often the most memorable and appreciated are the ones that are handmade and encompass the bride and groom’s personality. Are they whizzes in the kitchen? Give the guests herb seeds that they can plant and use in their cooking. Is it a Christmas-time wedding? Offer an ornament for the tree with the bride and groom’s names and date of the wedding on. Do they love to travel? How about a cute luggage tag? You should give favors that people will want to take home with them (or use/eat on the day of the wedding) – there’s nothing more depressing than scanning the room post-party and seeing a sea of discarded sticks of rock candy.

For more fun, creative wedding favor ideas, visit:

Other Things to Consider

Gift Attendant

Although no one likes to think that they’ll have thieves at their wedding, bear in mind that there will be many people milling around who you don’t know – staff working at your wedding, other guests of the hotel where your reception is being held… wedding crashers! A gift attendant can watch your gifts to make sure that no one with sticky fingers gets tempted by the presents intended for you. They are also responsible for transporting your gifts from the reception to your bridal suite or car. It’s not the done thing to ask a guest at the wedding to be the gift attendant as they will want to enjoy the reception. One option is asking a kid from your neighborhood to watch your gifts – they’ll probably be cheaper than a “professional gift attendant”.


Many reception sites, such as hotels and restaurants, charge for parking. It’s customary for the wedding host to pay this fee for each car. When you compare the cost of reception sites be sure to add the cost of parking to the total price. If you’re having an at-home reception, perhaps you should consider hiring a professional valet service if you envisage parking being a problem. If you do this, make sure that the service is fully insured.

Renting Items

Sometimes the venue that you go for will not provide all the items you need for the reception. Below is a list of things that you may have to rent if they are not included in your package (be sure to factor these in your budget when you’re figuring everything out):

  • Tent/Canopy. For receptions outdoors, a large tent or canopy may be needed to protect guests from either the rain or the sun. Check with party-rental suppliers about your options but remember that they can be expensive because of the work involved in delivery and set-up. If your reception area is a peculiar shape, you may need to hire several smaller tents rather than one large one. This could create an added excuse to have fun with your themes (one tent could have a beach theme, one could have a mountain theme and one could be a “walk in the woods”, for example).

  • Heaters. If your reception is outside and you expect it to get chilly, you’ll need to keep your guests warm. Electric or gas heaters could be the way to go – the gas variety is more popular as there’s no need to plug them in (electric cords + free-flowing alcohol = recipe for disaster).

    Turn up the heat at:

  • Dance Floor. Most hotels and clubs will provide a dance floor, but if your reception site doesn’t have one you’ll have to rent one through your party-rental supplier or caterer. When looking at the costs involved, include delivery and set-up charges.

  • Tables & Chairs. You’ll need to provide a chair for every guest if you’re having a sit-down meal. If you’re having a cocktail reception, you’ll only need to hire enough chairs for about 30-50% of the guest list. The most popular chairs for wedding receptions are wooden or plastic and white in color. The most common tables are round and seat eight people. The usual head table arrangement involves a few rectangular tables being pushed together with the bridal party on one side, facing the guests. When looking at the costs involved, include delivery and set-up fees.

  • Tableware & Linen. A sit-down reception where a meal is served to guests usually requires a white cloth (but the color can be coordinated with the wedding if you’d like), a centerpiece and complete place settings. At a more casual reception with a buffet, tables are covered with a cloth but place settings aren’t necessary. The plates and silverware are often next to the food on the buffet table, where guests can help themselves.

Seating Arrangements

You’ll probably agonize over the seating plan at your reception. And that’s OK. It’s important to make sure that everyone has a good time, so seating your teetotal Great Aunt Joyce next to beer monster Duncan would not be a wise choice. And putting exes on the same table is a no-no – unless you want fireworks (not in a good way). Consider the following points when deciding who you’re going to sit where:

  • Mix the bride’s and the groom’s guests so that the two groups can become one – just as your two families are becoming one.
  • Guests with similar interests should be sat together so that they’ll have something to talk about.
  • Don’t have a “couples” table and a “singles” table – intermingle both groups.
  • If you’re having a seated dinner or a buffet, there are two things you could do: Assign people specific seats or just assign people to a certain table and let them choose where to sit.
  • Young children should be seated with their parents. Older children can be assigned to a “kids’ table” (consider coloring books, sketch pads, crayons and games to keep them occupied). Teenagers would probably appreciate their own table too so they don’t have to endure their parents’ embarrassing behavior!
  • Try to have an even number of people on each table as people tend to chat in pairs.
  • Ask your parents for help with seating their friends and relatives that you don’t know so well.
  • Consider the needs of your guests. If someone is hard of hearing, sit them close to the head table so they’ll be able to hear the speeches.
  • Make sure that your centerpieces aren’t at a height that will make conversation across the table difficult.

Make sure everyone is sitting pretty at:


Here’s an outline of the most common wedding traditions – some people include them in their big day, some don’t. The choice, of course, is yours.

Receiving Line

This involves the bride, groom, their parents and certain members of their wedding party (if they wish) lining up and greeting the guests personally as they make their way along the line.


The best man usually makes the first toast and it’s commonplace for it to go down the humorous route – somewhat of a “roast” if you will, as he regales stories about the groom. The father of the bride’s toast will probably be more heartfelt and talk about how proud he is of his daughter. The groom then usually makes a speech about the love he feels towards his new bride and then he’ll thank everyone for coming. Other people are also free to make speeches if they’d like. Some people need a little inspiration when writing a speech.

Click here for common quotes used for wedding toasts:

First Dance

Select a song that’s special to you as a couple. Some people take dance lessons prior to the wedding day, others just go with the flow. For help selecting your first dance song, visit www.ShaneCoWeddingClub/Music. After the first dance, it’s tradition for the groom to dance with the bride’s mom and the bride to dance with her dad. At Jewish and Greek Orthodox receptions, the newlyweds are lifted in chairs while their guests dance around them.

Cake Cutting

The bride and groom both place their hands on the cake knife and cut the cake together, symbolizing their first joint task in married life.

Garter Toss

The groom removes the bride’s garter and tosses it to a group of single men who have gathered. The lucky guy who catches it will be the next to marry.

Bouquet Toss

As the bride is about to leave the reception, she tosses a bouquet behind her to a group of single women. It’s believed that whoever catches it will be the next to marry.

For modern alternatives to the bouquet toss, visit:


As well as showering the couple with rice (or petals or birdseed or bubbles… or whatever) at the end of the ceremony, often this ritual happens as the bride and groom are leaving the reception too.

For more on this, visit: