The Cost Of Wedding Catering: Plated Vs. Buffet Vs. Family Style

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Beef and asparagus dinner on white plate

Deciding your wedding catering personality is a difficult task. Of course, you want to provide your guests with a meal that will leave them raving about your wedding food for years to come, but you also can’t break the bank. Your wedding is likely the first time you’ve ever had to think about catering such a large and important affair, and there are a lot of things to know—most importantly, what things cost. Keep in mind that wedding catering might be the most expensive part of the day: the reception is basically just one big dinner party. If you’re sourcing the food, cake, beverages, linens, silverware, and tables all from one caterer, then that could be a hefty price tag. But take a breath. It’s gonna be okay. Get comfortable with this idea now, so you don’t get sticker shock when you start to see numbers.

There are typically three types of dinner service to choose from—plated, family style, and buffet—with plated meals usually being the most expensive and buffet usually being the least expensive. That being said, each style has its own ways of maximizing or draining your wedding budget, which is what we’re talking about today. We spoke with some of the best wedding caterers from around the country, who broke down each option so you can start planning your first meal as husband and wife.

Wedding place setting with white dinner plate with gold trim and printed thank you note

Photo Credit || Lindsey K Photography


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A traditional plated meal is a dining option where wedding guests remain seated at their tables while servers bring out the meals they ordered on their response cards. It is often served in courses and is considered appropriate for more formal weddings. We love plated meals as they are typically the least chaotic (no lines!) and, from the response cards, caterers should know exactly how much food to prepare. Of course, this style does have its drawbacks—namely, price.

Added Costs

With a plated meal comes the added cost of hiring waitstaff to serve the courses. Once you calculate in the number of waitstaff you need per table (1-2 people) and their tips at the end of the night, a plated meal can be an expensive dinner option. But, an important factor to consider when determining the cost of a plated meal is the size of your guest list. While a plated meal does add the extra cost of waitstaff, if you choose to have an intimate wedding with just close friends and family, you may not find that this added cost is a budget-breaker.

A plated meal also means that you will need to send out response cards so a guest can indicate their meal preference, and then you’ll also need to have escort and/or place cards so that guests can find their proper table or seat. The waitstaff will have a copy of the seating chart, so they know which entreés to serve each guest.

Money-Saving Aspects

The money-saving trick with a plated meal is that you have control over portion size and exactly how much food will be served to your guests. Plus, since it’s been pre-ordered, your caterers will know exactly how much food to prepare. With a plated meal, you can limit the amount of proteins you want to serve, which are typically the most expensive aspect of a meal. When brides and grooms opt for buffet-style, they often end up serving a chicken, a fish, and usually a red meat to give guests a variety to choose from, which can get quite costly. Limit your proteins to just two choices and watch your bill shrink.

Wedding dinner table set with white plates, gold linens, and champagne flutes.

Photo Credit || Kate Iverson Photography

Sliced rare tuna Nicoise salad on white plate with silverware on a wood table

Photo Credit || A Muse Photography

Wedding catering artisan cheese and fruit display

Photo Credit || Todd Good Photography


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Buffets contain serving dishes set upon long tables, where guests pass single-file down either side and serve themselves whatever they desire. Alternatively, you can have servers dole out each item from behind the buffet to control portion size. Buffet can get jazzed up with carving blocks or cooking stations, and picky eaters especially love buffets as they’re bound to find something they like. Buffets are known to have a more informal feel, but with that informality comes slower service; you’ll have to be careful in how you set up and dismiss tables to the buffet in order to avoid confusion and long lines.

Added Costs

There are a number of factors built into a buffet meal that may pinch your pocketbook. For starters, when you opt for a buffet style meal you offer up the option for your guests to have seconds or even thirds. Food costs = skyrocket.

Money-Saving Aspects

Opting for a buffet can save some serious cash, which is usually why couples choose this option in the first place. The biggest reason you save with a buffet is by not needing as many waitstaff, which can really add up. Also, as far as the presentation goes, you’re going to pay significantly less for chaffing dishes than you would for platters that would be passed around with a family-style meal.

Rustic wedding table setting with thank you notes tucked in napkins and white hydrangea on the table

Photo Credit || Darcy Ferris Photography

Family Style

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Just like a plated dinner, a family style meal will have your guests seated at a table while waiters bring out the food on large serving platters to be passed around, just like you were having dinner at Mom’s house on a Sunday afternoon. This is a very inviting and interactive approach to your wedding dinner, and allows guests to get a chance to know each other as they dine.

Added Costs

Because you’ll have large platters being passed around the table, you’re going to need extra room to set them down, so you may need to invest in larger tables—unless you skip elaborate centerpieces (which can save you money!). You don’t want your guests crammed at a tiny table clinking plates and dinnerware together trying to pass around dishes. Be wary that larger tables may lead you to shell out more for linens and you may even need to consider a larger venue space to accommodate.

Not only will you have to consider added rental costs, but you’ll need to factor in employing more waitstaff than you would for a buffet dinner (but not as many as a plated meal).

Money-Saving Aspects

Guests won’t need to select an entrée in advance, meaning you won’t need to invest in those response, escort, and place cards. It may seem insignificant, but paper costs can add up fast! As mentioned above, you also probably won’t need—or have room for—elaborate centerpieces, saving you that expense.

Table setting with navy tablecloth, wildflowers, and stacked loaves of bread

Photo Credit || Christina Servin Photography

More Ways To Save On Wedding Catering

  • As with all-things-wedding, limiting your guest list will directly impact your spending: the fewer the guests, the less you’ll need to spend on food, tables, chairs, flowers, etc.
  • Don’t serve extra desserts—let your wedding cake be enough.
  • Skip passed hors d’oeuvres. Set up stations or don’t serve them at all.
  • Instead of an open bar, serve wine and beer and one or two signature drinks.
  • Don’t serve a soup course.
  • Choose less expensive menu items. You do not need to serve filet at your wedding.
  • Consider the time of year—some meats and other items are more expensive at certain times of the year.
  • Skip the champagne toast. Let guests toast with whatever drink is in their hand.

Feature Photo Credit || Dana Pleasant Photography



  1. Pingback: How Much Do Wedding Caterers Cost? - Prince Of Price

  2. I really liked how you explained the family style catering and that it is like the plated form of catering though this is done by passing the large platters around like how it is done at home. My boyfriend said that he wants our wedding reception to be done in such a way as everyone is just one big happy family. We’re going to request this form of catering once we have chosen a restaurant or company to work with.

  3. Pingback: How Much Do Wedding Caterers Cost? - Spend On Wedding

    • Kate Lynn Nemett says

      Hi Roxmarie,

      We don’t offer catering services, as we are just an online wedding registry and planning company—but you can look up caterers in your area by using our Vendor Directory tool within Zola Inspiration. Hope that helps!

  4. I find this article one of the helpful one to the couple to read, this could give them insights on which type of catering should they choose in terms of the cost.

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