You’re getting married, but that doesn’t mean you should feel pressure to follow the status quo at your own wedding—especially when it comes to the grub. Besides, who says you have to ‘break bread’ the traditional way with a server and a three-course sit-down meal?
No matter the route you take, food—and the sharing of it—helps us viscerally connect with one another, establish new relationships, and solidify old and everlasting bonds. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Whether you’re planning to have a casual shindig, fancy rendezvous, or something in-between, don’t be afraid to go bold and crank up the food—and presentation—thermometer, so long as the temperature stays true to you, the glowing couple.
Here are 10 catering ideas that go beyond the traditional reception ‘meal,’ commencing with cocktail hour to the wee hours of the after-party, that will make your wedding a charming, memorable, and deliciously-satisfying one for your special someones.
The Cocktail Hour
1. Manageable hors-d’oeuvres
There’s nothing quite like the mingling that happens at cocktail hour. The atmosphere is relaxed but oddly jittery, and there’s a kind of hunger in the air as guests await the ceremony or—depending on the order of events—you, the newlyweds, post-ceremony.
Regardless of where you place cocktail hour, you want your guests to feel sophisticated—and remain clean. That means avoiding hors-d’oeuvres that require bare hands to consume or ones that could easily ooze or smear on a dress or suit.
That said, that doesn’t mean you have to risk boring guests with limited or unappetizing food options. In fact, presentation could make all the difference. “For example, instead of serving mac ’n cheese in ramekins, you could deep-fry a bite-size portion and serve it on a lollipop stick,” Brides.com suggests.
Not only is this presentation—whether the food is on a stick, toothpick, or skewer—unfussy and incredibly manageable for guests, it’ll also delight them and keep their outfits pristine. Win-win.
2. A pretty apértif bar
When guests are only just beginning to ease into the evening’s main attraction you—the happy couple, of course—don’t necessarily want them to feel too intoxicated too early. After all, the day is still young, which is why an apértif bar makes for an excellent choice.
According to Elephants Delicatessen, a Portland-based speciality food deli and caterer, “apéritifs are usually a mix of wine, spirits, herbs, and spices. Lighter than cocktails and easy to pair with food, they have the added value of stoking the appetite and, like digestifs (their after dinner counterparts), aiding digestion.”
They also tend to be quite colorful, splashy, and festive which makes for a complimentary—yet classy—addition to hors-d’oeuvres during cocktail hour.
3. For a Summer Wedding: A refreshing beverage station
Why not keep the refreshments chugging, especially if your wedding is outside and during one of the warm months? While the ceremony might not be the first setting that comes to mind when you think of ‘wedding catering,’ it’s definitely a thoughtful addition that’ll leave your guests pleasantly surprised—and hydrated.
According to Inside Weddings, a leading online wedding resource, “Attention to detail is important for every aspect of your wedding, and the way you offer drinks to your guests is no exception—even the soft ones. Cans of soda? No. Clunky bottles? Absolutely not. Self-serve drink stations offering sweet tea, lemonade, juices, and infused waters from glass and cut-crystal dispensers are far more sophisticated and allow your guests to help themselves to whatever and as much as they want.”
And the options don’t have to be generic. To make them special, you could tailor your beverages to your culture, hometown, or childhood favorites, but aim for light and refreshing because the day is only just beginning and you don’t want guests feeling too satisfied yet.
Even though wedding ceremonies last 20-30 minutes on average, which isn’t very long, offering onsite refreshments—whatever kind—is a polite gesture, especially if guests are forced to sit under the sun.
4. For a Winter Wedding: Comfy drinks to beat the chill
If you’re having a winter wedding and holding your ceremony outdoors, you might consider incorporating a hot beverage station that guests can help themselves to. After all, who doesn’t love some chest-warming comforts when it’s chilly out?
Martha Stewart Weddings offers some festive ideas, suggesting that “homemade hot cocoa, spiked or served with your favorite fixings, is the perfect treat. Hot toddies, mulled wine, tea, and coffee are other offerings that work for nearly any time of the year.”
This way, you can rest assured that guests will feel extra warm and fuzzy as they watch you exchange vows—and cry into their mugs.
5. An effortless cocktail-style dinner
A cocktail-style wedding dinner is a great option because it’s as customizable and varied as you want it to be. It can also be more budget-friendly because there’s no particular need for dinner tables and chairs for each guest. Plus it’s more relaxed, allowing people to mix and mingle as they please instead of being limited to conversations at their assigned tables. It’ll make your celebration feel effortless and freeing—and stand out from the crowd.
But if you opt for this, it’s important to “let your guests know what to expect—wording on the invitation suite, wedding website low-down, or even a weekend itinerary upon check-in,” and that you arrange enough hors-d’oeuvres to satisfy everyone.
Plan on 12 to 14 hors d’oeuvres for each guest because we don’t want anyone to remain hungry at your wedding now, do we?
6. Food trucks galore
If there’s one sight guests don’t expect at a wedding, it’s probably a food truck. While the trend has grown increasingly popular in recent years, food trucks still push the envelope and give your wedding a unique spin.
The nice part about them is they can be budget-friendly and “customized and integrated into the wedding theme. From serving the bride and groom’s favorite foods, to adding a customized menu board with fun names, to getting the truck wrapped in the color scheme, the options to personalize your big day are endless,” writes catering company Roaming Hunger.
It also adds an oomph of playfulness to an otherwise formal event and it’s a conversation starter, encouraging guests to interact in new ways and simply come and go as hunger strikes.
7. Artsy grazing boards or tables
While the name might conjure up a pastoral scene of farm animals chowing down in a field, it’s nothing of the sort.
Grazing tables are ideal if you’re looking for buffet-style vibes without the stuffiness or, as Good Housekeeping defines it, “a more decadent alternative to a buffet, using high-quality ingredients and stunning styling to create a showstopping dining experience for guests.”
If you appreciate design, this is a great catering route because you can mix, match, and customize the tables to your heart’s content. Think platters of meats, veggies, fruits, crackers, and fermented foods—a hot 2019 trend—arranged in a spontaneous yet thoughtful way.
8. A breezy BBQ cookout
If the weather is looking good, an outdoor BBQ could prove to be a memorable experience for your guests.
Most people love the smell and taste of BBQ (think laid-back summertime vibes), there’s an opportunity to put on a show with fire and smoke, and it’s unexpected. Just because your wedding is a more formal affair doesn’t mean a little fun can’t be had food-wise.
As Food Network describes, “An outdoor setting is perfect for a more casual vibe like this — but because a grilled dish is unexpected (and perhaps a bit more elevated than burgers and hot dogs), guests will still be wowed. If grilling isn’t your thing, ask your caterer about other laid-back menu ideas, like a pig roast for a Hawaiian-style wedding or freshly fried chicken for a Southern-themed reception.”
Just be sure that you have enough vegetarian options for guests who doesn’t consume meat. Grilled veggie skewers? Check.
9. Playful grab-and-go dessert stations
Who says dessert has to end at the wedding cake? The great thing about grab-and-go dessert tables is that you can make them as elaborate, creative, and artistic as you like (because who wants boring dessert?).
Remember, it’s all about the presentation. Imagine donut walls, cupcake towers, and macaron trees alongside your wedding cake, if you choose to have one, or as an alternative to the cake.
You could also tailor your dessert selection to your culture or heritage for an extra special spin, so there’s more intentionality with your choice. Think of it as an interactive experience, another—sweeter—conversation starter as guests settle into the evening.
10. Late-night soul food
It’s the early hours of the following morning, guests have been socializing and dancing all day and night, and the beer, cocktails, and wine have long passed made their appearance.
Chances are, as is usually the case after drinking, guests could probably go for some comfort food to cap off the night. In fact, there’s science to support it. A study published in Nature Communications found that alcohol induces the brain into starvation mode, dubbed the ‘aperitif effect.’
This is probably the last thing you want your guests to feel at your wedding—even if it’s nearing the end. So why not treat their starvation woes with some bite-sized sweet and salty snacks?
Think grilled cheese, pizza, or—for a boost of elegance—fried risotto balls. Also, be sure to consider your venue and leverage what it offers. For example, if it has fire pits, you could provide ingredients for self-serve s’mores for those with a late-night sweet tooth.
The Morning After
We know your guests are an important part of your big day, but at the end of the day, you should be overjoyed by your wedding—and that includes your food choices. Because if you’re not, it will show on your guests’ faces and in their memory of the event.
At the same time, you don’t need to incorporate all of these ideas to make your celebration a satisfying one.
Determine whether a traditional wedding, traditional-with-a-spin wedding, or an all-out unique extravaganza reflects you as a couple, then experiment with the food and don’t be afraid to have some fun.
Amanda Hanna is a writer for Joy. Her work has appeared in HomeLight, Crain’s Chicago Business, LitCity312, and Prevail N Prosper and been featured at the DePaul University English Spring Conference and the Slag Glass City Write ON Chicago/Here Is Where event. She received her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing and master’s degree in Writing and Publishing, both from DePaul University. A flâneuse who has lived in 4 cities in the US and visited 9 internationally, Amanda lives in Chicago where she is working on her first poetry collection. Follow her at @theamandahanna.