How to Choose Your Wedding Caterer

Food is a wedding highlight for most guests. So, you want it to be good. Quickly narrow down your options (and eat some really good food) with our guide to finding the perfect wedding caterer.

By McCall Minnor

We love every part of weddings—from the planning to the thank you notes—but why lie? We’re extra excited about the food. Whether it’s a passed hors d’oeuvre or a seated dinner, meal time at a wedding is also a bonding time for your guests and you. So, you want to get the food right.

While many wedding venues require that you use a specific catering service, that’s not always the case. And when it isn’t, you’re on your own. But this is food we’re talking about—caterer shopping should be fun. Here’s how to choose your wedding caterer.

What type of meal service do you want?

First and foremost, decide what eating vibe you want to achieve. In other words, how do you want your food served? There are a few standard wedding dinner options. Keep your wedding venue, wedding style, and budget top of mind as you choose your service type.

Formal Sit-Down Reception Dinner

Sit-down wedding dinners are the most traditional choice. In some cases, guests choose between a handful of entrée choices and submit their preference ahead of time—usually via a dinner card included in your invitation suite. Once at the reception, a professional waitstaff serves each course.

Pros

  • This structure can help set a schedule for the reception.
  • Sit-down dinners also provide an opportunity for friends and family to make speeches and toasts.
  • All guests also typically receive their meals at around the same time, too.
  • This dinner style is also usually the most cost-effective option. You have a confirmed number of guests so your caterer can prepare the exact right amount of food.

Cons

  • There are usually limited food options. You and your partner will meet with the caterer ahead of time to choose 3-4 dishes that guests can choose from. Typically, there is a beef, chicken, fish, and vegetarian option.
  • These dinners need more staff—both for serving and also for preparation. This can increase your catering bill.
  • If you have assigned tables but don’t assign seats, it can be challenging to for the staff to make sure everyone receives their selected dish. This also gives guests the opportunity to change their original choice on the spot if they choose, as the staff won’t have names to guide their service.

Buffet-Style Reception Dinner

Wedding buffets include a variety of menu items spread out on long self-serve tables or serving stations at stations. This setup allows your guests to freely approach the foods of their choosing and can make accommodating special diets much simpler. It also lends a laid-back feeling to your reception with more mingling time.

Pros

  • You need to employ fewer servers which can minimize man-power costs. Each station or table will usually have a staff member behind it to dole out the appropriate portions (and also provide any allergy information). It’s a good idea, though, to serve appetizers to the tables before a buffet dinner. So you will still need a handful of servers for this.
  • Picky eaters will find something. As we said, buffet-style dinners are ideal for those guests with special diets. The same goes for people with limited palettes.

Cons

  • Long lines may form. To keep things running smoothly, you may need to work with your caterer to strategize a layout that keeps wait time to a minimum.
  • Guests serve themselves and carry their own food from station to table. After a few drinks at cocktail hour, this might prove less graceful than you hoped.
  • Buffets also require a lot of food. If you don’t have servers at every station, guests are left to their own devices and certain favorite dishes may go faster than others. So, you’ll need to account for popular choices to avoid disappointing guests at the end of the line.

Family-Style Reception Dinner

Family-style dining is exactly what it sounds like—picture eating dinner with your family. Large serving platters of food are brought to the table to be passed around. Guests serve themselves and waitstaff brings and clears plates, as needed.

Pros

  • Guests can fill their plates and eat as much as they prefer.
  • You need less staff as dishes are usually brought out en masse to all tables in one swoop.
  • This is an easy, stress-free option. Guests are seated and serving themselves. They can mingle and you, as a couple, can relax and enjoy your meal.

Cons

  • Consider the size of your centerpieces. Family-style dining requires the room to leave a lot of large plates on the tables.
  • This style can get expensive. Your caterer will have to increase food quantities to make sure nothing runs out.
CarleyKPhotography InlineImage 1080x720 Photo Credit // Carley K Photography

What kind of food do you want to serve?

Now that you know how you want your food to be served, you need to decide what kind of food you want to serve. We are in the camp that says you should serve the food you want to serve at your wedding. However, there are some considerations to think about.

  • Your guests. You and your partner won’t be the only ones dining at your reception so it’s thoughtful to consider your guests. For example, while you guys may be sushi fanatics, the majority of your guests may not feel so passionate about seafood. Be mindful of general food preferences.
  • Your dinner style. Most food types fit with a variety of dining styles. However, it’s smart to think about who will be serving the food—staff or your guests. If you’re having an Italian feast, for example, self-serve stations may be a recipe for sauce-stained disasters.
  • Your theme or the season. If there’s a common thread running through the majority of your wedding—whether it be an actual set theme or a touch of seasonality—incorporate that into your food options. You want flavorful dishes that also complement your celebration.

These considerations should help you narrow down the search for your perfect catering company. Now you can seek out those caterers who specialize in the food and serving style you prefer.

How do I find my wedding caterer?

There are a few different ways to find your ideal caterer. First, ask your wedding venue. They may not require a specific company, but they will likely have plenty of recommendations for you. All the better if it’s a location that’s hosted many weddings. They may even have relationships with catering companies that could end up in a deal for you.

Don’t count out word of mouth either—especially if it’s coming from friends or family. Ask your loved ones about caterers they enjoyed or, if you attended a wedding recently with amazing food, ask the couple who they used.

Of course, the internet is also at your disposal. A few keywords—eg. location, service type, food genre—can connect you with plenty of reputable wedding caterers.

Whichever route you take, read recent reviews or talk to people who have used each service. Some insider intel will help you skip out on any unnecessary meetings.

AndyAndCarriePhotography InlineImage 1080x720 Photo Credit // Andy & Carrie Photography

Meeting With Wedding Caterers

These meetings are sort of like first dates. You’re getting to know each other and figuring out if they fit into your vision. Whether this happens over the phone, through email, or in person, it’s the representative’s chance to get as much information as they can to prepare a proposal. It’s also your chance to see all the caterer has to offer.

Before you meet, gather a bit more info. Make sure you have the following ready ahead of your call or in-person meeting.

  • Wedding date
  • Approximate headcount
  • Budget
  • Venue requirements or policies
  • Food preferences

Questions to Ask Wedding Caterers

To make sure you’re getting the absolute most accurate and helpful information, here are some questions to guide your conversations.

  • Are you available on my wedding date?
  • Are you working any other events that day? (This isn’t a dealbreaker, but is good information to have to make sure your reception is fully handled.)
  • Have you catered events at my venue/location before?
  • Do you offer full service? (Full service means the caterer handles amenities, from table settings to clean up. What’s included varies between caterers and packages.)
  • Do you provide waitstaff? How will they be dressed?
  • Do you serve alcohol? What are your bar packages?
  • Are you licensed? Do you have liquor liability insurance? (If they’re providing alcohol.)
  • What ‘s included in your fees? (Plenty of things may or may not be included in your caterer’s initial fee. Some things to check for: tax, gratuities, service fees, and cake cutting fees.)
  • Do you offer tastings before being hired? How do they take place and what do they cost?
  • Who will oversee the meal on the day of?
  • When do you need finalized menu choices by?

This information will help you align on expectations and get accurate proposals that you can use to compare your top choices. This will also help you avoid spending too much time fielding caterers that simply don’t work with your budget and needs.

Wedding Caterer Tastings

Once you narrow your catering choices down to three or four options, we recommend scheduling tastings. The food, after all, will speak for itself.

Policies differ between companies—not all caterers offer free conventional tastings. Some will actually require you to hire the company before you can taste the food. If you can’t set up a free standard tasting with your caterer options, there are a few ways around this. Check to see if the company takes part in expos or similar events. You’ll be paying an attendance fee, but trust us, it’s worth it. If the caterer has a restaurant, simply go eat there. Call ahead to let management know you’re interested in catering—the chef may send a few recommendations or dishes your way.

On the other hand, many caterers offer tastings for a fee. This charge goes towards the ingredients, preparation, and consultation needed. If you’re willing to pay, you can typically discuss which dishes (and how many) you’d like to try. However, if your tasting is included in the catering service, be prepared to pick from a pre-selected menu at first.

Sign on the dotted line.

You’ve decided on your caterer, gone through tastings, crafted a menu, and outlined all of the fees and services. Now you’re ready to sign a contract! Be aware of any deadlines to adjust or change menu items. From there, simply bon appétit.