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By Maria Yeonhee Ji
Organising the menu is one of the most common causes of wedding planning-related headache. But it shouldn’t have to be. As long as you and your partner are in agreement over what kind of atmosphere you want for the day, all you really need is a comprehensive guide to take you through the important (and important-not-to-skip) decisions. So here it is: our complete guide to planning the perfect wedding menu. It’s a compendium of useful advice and information about planning all things gastronomical, from dietary requirements through to wine matching. Breaking down the process into six easy steps, it’ll not only save you from that headache we mentioned, but also from last-minute stress, guests breaking out in hives, and underestimations of how much alcohol will be needed for your wedding. Pretty handy, if we do say so ourselves.
Image by Proshot Photography. Invitations by Inkberry Calligraphy.
Setting a reasonable RSVP date on your wedding invitations is necessary to avoid last minute planning stress. It should be set earlier than the date the caterers want the final guest headcount so that you can chase up any late responders. It will also give the artist doing the calligraphy and detailing for the on-the-day stationery (such as the seating plan, menus, and place cards) ample time to produce their picture-perfect works. A comfortable RSVP date means you also have time to collect information about your guests’ allergies and dietary requirements, as well as working with your caterer so that these guests will get an equally impressive dining experience. There are two things you can do to ensure this happens. Firstly, communicate clearly about any important, specific details such as the need for food to be prepared in a separate workplace. This might be for religious or cross-contamination reasons e.g. the guest develops an anaphylactic reaction to even trace amounts of the allergen. Secondly, providing caterers with a seating arrangement showing where guests with dietary requirements will be sat will be particularly helpful in making sure any specially prepared meals get promptly served on the day.
Image by Jose Villa
The sit-down meal is the most formal menu style, and a great choice for black tie events or if you have a lot of guests who’ll be making speeches. There are several types of plated meal service to choose from: the no-fuss alternative drop (two options per course served alternately to guests); the degustation menu (an artful series of small courses designed by the chef specifically for sequential consumption); the pre-ordered meals chosen at the time of RSVP; or plated options that are chosen on the night from a menu for a more authentic restaurant feel. If food is an important part of the reception experience, nothing says fine dining like sitting down at an exquisitely set table while being served various courses from a carefully crafted menu. It’s the menu style that’ll take the longest time (about 1.5 hours), but it’ll also give you the opportunity to really unwind after the flurry of the ceremony, photo shoot, and the start of the reception.
Image by Amanda Alessi Photography
Buffet tables offer your guests a lot of choice in a slightly shorter time frame (1 hour) than plated dining, which is particularly ideal if a large proportion of your guests have dietary restrictions or are picky eaters. The variety of foods can be personalised so that the food tells a story – if you and your partner are avid travelers, you could have an exciting assortment of dishes from all the countries you’ve visited together. Make sure to place the buffet tables in a location easy for all the guests to access (guilt-free second helpings are half the appeal of buffet menus), and that guests can get food from both sides of the table so that you minimise the time they spend in the queue. Traditionally, buffet style menus are the least expensive, but this comes with a caveat. Buffets in hotel weddings are often cheaper as any remaining stock can be repurposed, but this may not be the case if you have a lot of options on the table and caterers need to bring the food to your venue, as they’ll need to bring extra stock so that they don’t run out of any dish.
Barbecues are a popular option for summer weddings, allowing guests to relax in the warm outdoors before playing some games and/or making their way to the dance floor. Without the need for ovens or stoves, you can have your reception meal at any location be it beachside, in a forest, or a garden. As well as a pièce de resistance such as a whole roast pig, the best caterers should also be able to provide marinated meats, fresh fish, a variety of organic salads, and a dessert table, so that a remote location doesn’t mean any compromises have to be made in the quality or variety of food.
Image sourced from Artisan Catering
This is a menu style for those who want to maximise the opportunities for their guests to interact with each other, but are looking for nourishment that’s more substantial than the canapés and finger foods usually available on a cocktail menu. Walk and fork dishes reign supreme in the realms of ergonomic eating, as they’re designed to be consumed easily with a fork from all manner of receptacles including bowls, noodle boxes, and/or banana boats. You can have different options served at various food stations scattered around the venue, which can help keep guests excited and moving as they explore everything on offer. One thing to keep in mind is to organise some different seating options (couches, ottomans, bean bags, rugs etc) that allow for guests to get comfortable and chat should they want a breather at some point during the rest of the reception.
The alternative to buffet menus which won't require seating for your guests, the grazing menu is sure to create an atmosphere of abundance. With all manner of breads, cheeses, and other antipasti delights dripping off the overladen tables, your guests can pick and nibble to their hearts’ content and dance the night away. A reception inevitably loses some momentum when the guests sit down for a meal, so a grazing table gives your event the best of both worlds.
Image sourced from Graze Wedding Catering
Having multiple entrées and sides on each table sharing-style is a great way to ensure a lively reception meal. As well as avoiding the fuss of plated meals and the queues and general disorder of buffets, this style of menu is sure to start some conversation as guests pass around delicious foods. It’s the dining style that’ll come the closest to evoking the warmth of a family dinner, and the most time-efficient as each table receives food at more or less the same time – if you want the sit-down dinner but want to move onto the rest of the night’s proceedings promptly, the sharing style is the choice for you.
Image sourced from LittleWolf
Professional caterers will be able to serve a variety of menu styles, however, they’ll definitely have ones with which they’re more experienced. Just like how you would never order gnocchi at a steak house or order the steak at a pasta specialist, you wouldn’t want to order plated gourmet meals from a meat and potatoes caterer. Do your research: look at the photo galleries on their websites to see if their style fits your dream aesthetic; read the reviews from other clients on catering businesses’ social media pages; and finally trust your instincts after talking and/or meeting with the vendors. If you trust their professionalism and their passion for creating delicious foods that speak to your stomach, then they’re likely to be the right caterer for you.
Image by Patterson Brown Photography
Now that you’ve decided on a wedding menu style, you need to choose the menu options. Ask your caterer for a sample menu for a general overview of their catering style, keeping in mind that the specifics of the menu will differ at different times of the year as they incorporate seasonal produce (which is the freshest, tastiest, and being sourced locally most likely to have a smaller carbon footprint). General guidelines to keep in mind include: having a minimum of 2-3 entrées/hors d’oeuvres (the more the merrier); offering a variety of salad dressings; serving condiments on the side; offering at least two dessert options (an indulgent one for those with a sweet tooth, and one healthier option); and making sure that everything still tastes delicious at room temperature. The latter point is pertinent especially for larger weddings with plated and buffet menu styles; it is difficult to serve 100+ guests hot meals and if you’re the 100th in the queue for the buffet, it’s unlikely that your food will be oven-hot. Be sure to have a complete tasting prior to the wedding day, with the meals accompanied by the wines you’re intending to serve, so that if there are any surprises in the gustatory pairings you have time to make changes.
Image by Chromatic Bros
When it comes to quantity, the general principle is to have 2 – 4 glasses of wine for every adult guest in attendance. Standard bottles of wine contain approximately five generous pours, allowing you to calculate a minimum or maximum quantity you’d like to serve. For example, an intimate wedding of 50 guests would require a minimum of 100 glasses (divided by 5 = 20 bottles) and a maximum of 200 glasses (divided by 5 = 40 bottles). From there you can decide on how much you’d like to allocate for wine in your budget. The number of options offered at the majority of weddings is three – one red, one white, and one sparkling wine option (Champagne, Prosecco, etc.). The popular wines for weddings are lighter-bodied (they feel more delicate, or less ‘full’ in your mouth) and complement the foods. If the reception is scheduled during the daytime/summertime, you should generally opt for a more refreshing wine that has a lower percentage of alcohol. Cooler weather warrants richer wines, and these will also fit better into the autumn and winter colour schemes. If you plan ahead, a wine tasting is a fun hens party activity you could use to find some new wines that tickle your palate. But if you’re pressed for time, some examples of great wedding wines include malbec, pinot gris, and prosecco. Malbec is a rich, fruit-driven red that is not too heavy especially when blended with softer merlot, and a good match for red meats, vegetables and cheeses. Pinot Gris is a juicy white wine with a crisp texture that should fair well with seafood, chicken, and canapés. Prosecco is a light and fizzy Italian white that perfect for canapes and toasts, and a great option for welcome drinks at the beginning of the reception.
Image by Amanda Alessi Photography
Irrespective of what dining style you choose for your wedding day, clear signage of foods is really important for guests with food allergies. Perhaps a friend was diagnosed after they RSVP-ed and forgot to update you, or their plus one has an allergy of which they were unaware... having detailed menu cards and/or clearly labeled buffet items will make sure guests can dodge anything that will trigger a reaction (there’s no damper quite as serious as a guest being rushed off to the emergency department on your wedding day). It’s also a pragmatic way of adding some flair to the party aesthetic (think mini black chalk boards and fonts with personality), especially if your reception is being held outdoors.
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