9 Steps to an Amazing Reception Dinner

What's the one thing every wedding guest (not so) secretly hopes for? Awesome food. Lucky for you, creating a standout reception dinner is easier than you think. All it takes is a little prep work, some creativity and a stellar caterer.
amy eisinger the knot contributor
Amy Eisinger
amy eisinger the knot contributor
Amy Eisinger
The Knot Contributor
  • Amy Eisinger is SELF Magazine’s Director of Special Projects.
  • Amy is an A.C.E.-certified personal trainer, and PROnatal prenatal and postpartum specialist.
  • Amy worked for The Knot as an Assistant Editor and Associate Editor.

1. Don't Procrastinate

Megan Sorel / The Knot

Begin your caterer search at the same time you're looking at venues (about 12 months before your wedding date). The two decisions really go together since many venues have their own catering team and may require you to use them. Even if that's not the case, they may still have a "preferred list" of vendors they work with exclusively. If you are allowed to bring in an outside caterer, you may be charged a little extra, so request a tasting with the in-house chef or any potential caterers from the preferred list before booking the venue. Also, review menu options with the chef, especially if you have particular dishes in mind—some menus can be difficult to execute, based on kitchen space or equipment. If you're set on using a specific caterer, make sure they're on the venue's list or that you budget for any extra fees if they're not. Just remember: There's a reason venues like to work with certain vendors.

2. Serve 'Em In Style

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Try thinking about the dining experience as a whole. Do you want the meal to be the focus of the night? Then opt for a sit-down dinner with multiple courses. Is music the main event? Pick a less formal dining style and menu, like passed appetizers and finger foods, so guests aren't weighed down by a big meal and can easily grab a bite before hitting the dance floor. The timing (and length) of key reception moments (speeches, spotlight dances, the cake cutting) should help guide the menu and style. Got lots of guests looking to say more than a few words? Go the sit-down route.

3. Introduce New Food Ideas

James Christianson Photographer / The Knot

One of the most exciting parts of planning your menu is that you get to do just that—pick every dish you'll serve. Make an impression with a menu that includes unexpected twists on classic fare, like fruit "sushi" rolls with sticky rice, or savory cupcakes with melted cheese "frosting." You can also play with serving styles, offering guests no-fork-needed appetizers on edible spoons or crispy mini cones stuffed with seafood ceviche.

4. Indulge Your Guests

Kate Mathis / The Knot

Why force your guests to choose between sea bass and steak? Let them have both, and add chicken too. For the main course, offer two or three mini servings of different entrées on a single plate. Or take a cue from the French and go à la carte. Translation: At dinner, have waiters offer selections from large carts that get wheeled from one table to the next. Guests can ask questions about the food and pick from a variety of proteins and sides, so they'll get exactly what they want. Plus, the VIP feel of tableside service is always a nice touch.

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5. Switch Up Your Seating

Kriss Drake Photography / The Knot

Think chiavari chairs and round tables are your only option? Think again. Work with your caterer and planner to develop an innovative seating arrangement that sets the right tone and matches your meal. (Just think about how different it would be to eat barbecue at a fancy restaurant versus your favorite outdoor rib joint.) Rent lounge chairs or low couches to go with passed hors d'oeuvres, or pair picnic tables with food stations for a rustic outdoor wedding. If you're serving food family-style, where guests help themselves, consider seating them at a mix of long and short tables for an intimate and relaxed feel.

6. Tie in a Theme

Diana M. Lott Photography / The Knot

You might love foie gras and cheese grits, but they're not necessarily great together. Picking a theme before you set the menu will help ensure the dishes you choose work together and set the tone for the entire evening. We're not saying you need to break out the maracas and sombreros, but a common idea will tie the menu together. Pay tribute to your heritage with ethnic choices, like Mexican, Italian or Japanese food. Or add a personal touch by creating a menu filled with your childhood favorites, dishes served at your parents' weddings or foods from memorable moments throughout your relationship. When you're interviewing caterers, bring up any themes you're considering so you can pick a chef who specializes in the type of cuisine you want.

7. Go Local and Seasonal

Jen Kroll Photography / The Knot

It's not just about going green anymore (though that's a definite plus!); it's also about giving your guests the most flavorful food made from the highest-quality ingredients. Trust us—it makes a huge difference in how your food will taste. Staying local is also a great way to give a nod to your wedding's location. Just think: fresh grapefruit salad for an early-spring wedding down South, or New England clams for a late-summer wedding in Nantucket. Ask your caterer about the types of food that will be available at the time of your wedding and for ideas to incorporate them into your menu.

8. Don't Forget the Entertainment

Michael & Ann Costa Photographers / The Knot

Sometimes the way your food is served can be just as important as the food itself. Even if you're a whiz at your seating chart, don't just rely on good table chemistry to spark conversation and get your guests through dinner. Serve a meal that also entertains by hiring a sushi chef to create customized rolls or a French pastry chef who can whip up crepes tableside. For dessert, set up a doughnut or cupcake bar. Or, for a guaranteed party starter, set up a tequila bar or a wine bar, complete with a sommelier who can offer tasting tips to guests.

9. Personalize Your Bar

Kern-Photot / The Knot

The finishing touch to any great menu? A signature cocktail, of course. Some ideas we love: naming your favorite drinks after members of the bridal party or after places that have a special meaning to you (like your first-date spot). Include a cocktail menu on the tables or the bar, listing specialty drinks and explaining their significance (for instance, a cosmo becomes "The Uptown Girl" in honor of your fashionable maid of honor, who loves them). And don't forget the presentation: Serve rum punch in oversize crystal punch bowls for a retro feel, or offer signature cocktails that match your wedding colors.

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