Wedding Food: Catering Advice from a Food Writer + Chef
Looking for wedding food ideas? Take it from a food writer and chef–we’re dishing up expert catering advice to ensure your wedding food is delicious, memorable and meaningful. And affordable, too!
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We’re doing something a little different today–something more in keeping with the 80:20 rule (ya know, the “sometimes you gotta enjoy life and just eat delicious food regardless of whether it’s “healthy or not” thing I always preach about).
But this week, Matt and I are celebrating our three year wedding anniversary, so I thought, what better time to share my favorite wedding food ideas?!
Before we get into all the wedding food and catering advice though, here’s a sneak peek: our wedding video
Ok, let’s talk wedding food!
Wedding Food: Catering Advice from a Food Writer + Chef
I wasn’t born a bride. I didn’t spend my youth dressing up in white dresses, envisioning my big day and planning the details before I even met Mr. Right. But after Matt proposed, I immediately knew what kind of wedding I wanted: delicious!
You see, I’m a full-time food writer, as in my job is to write cookbooks, develop recipes and report on food trends, news and happenings around the world for over 125 publications. So I knew that standard wedding food (cue the eye roll as lemon chicken is passed around the table) could have no place at my wedding.
The food had to be spectacular. But after reading the menus of a dozen caterers in Atlanta, I grew discouraged. No one was going to remember crab cakes and bruschetta any more than they’d remember what color napkins we had on the sad plates serving those tired dishes.
And the food at a food writer’s wedding had to be unforgettable.
So I called my friend, Hugh Acheson, for help. You likely recognize his name—Acheson, a judge of Top Chef, is also the James Beard award-winning chef behind the farm-to-table Atlanta restaurant, Empire State South.
Together we crafted a stunning menu that was equal parts unique, impressive, meaningful and yet still universally appealing (we were feeding dozens of people, after all). Did I mention it was also more affordable than using a traditional caterer? Nuptial jackpot!
Years later, our guests are still talking about how delicious our wedding food was. Here’s how you can ensure yours do the same:
Step 1: Hire A Nontraditional Restaurant Caterer
For a truly one-of-a-kind and memorable menu, swap traditional caterers for an out-of-the-box foodservice provider, like your favorite local chef, restaurant or food truck. Not only will you get a menu that’s exclusive to you, as a couple, but you can typically expect better quality food from a source that’s not turning out 300 filets at once.
That’s what we did for our wedding when we hired Empire State South to cater our reception. If you want to do something similar, I recommend approaching spots you have a relationship with already. “Be fair, be smart and seek out spots that have at least a little experience catering—I’d avoid super small restaurants that wouldn’t have the staff,” says Acheson.
Buying out the whole restaurant is a great way to partner with a chef, and you can save a lot of money because all rentals, staff and event space is included in the price.
If that’s not your thing, choose a venue that allows you to bring your own caterer or pick a venue that’s known for their food, like a hotel with an award-winning restaurant that sources locally and makes everything from scratch.
Though some venues won’t allow you to use vendors not on their list for dinner, some do permit bringing in chefs and local restaurants for a portion of their menu, like cocktail hour or a late night snack, or to assist the regular caterer.
Wedding Wire has some great venue resources that allow you to sort by size, location, type (i.e. farm vs banquet hall) and amenities (catering provided or not).
If your venue won’t budge, don’t fret. Most caterers are willing to work with you to create a totally custom menu.
RELATED: Our Honeymoon in Thailand
Regardless of which venue or caterer you choose, whatever you do, don’t just pick from a pre-designed menu that any couple could have.
Meet with your caterer for extensive discussions about how you can create a one-of-a-kind menu. They should ask you questions about who you are, what kind of food you like and the feel of the wedding, from décor to concept and theme. Never feel shy about telling them what you’re looking for—the good caterers can adapt any menu.
And remember, in today’s competitive market, it never hurts to ask. Our venue charged a hefty fee to use a non-preferred caterer, but I was able to cut that fee by 75 percent when I asked. “Whatever you choose, get to the bottom line quickly and do not be afraid to tell them your budget,” says Acheson. “We all want to get business and work together to come a sincere consensus with you.”
To find a caterer near you, check out Wedding Wire’s database, which can be filtered by cuisine type, dietary preferences, availability and bar services.
Step 2: Create a super foodie menu
I don’t mean to hate on crab cakes (if you live in Maryland and can get fresh, lump crab meat, this dish could really shine and give your menu a sense of place!), but there are many overdone wedding food items that should get the boot in favor of more inventive and delicious plates that will really wow your guests.
“A menu should be a narrative of what’s going on in the community and how it relates to you as a couple, your personality and what you love,” avows Acheson, whose team served creative, crowd-pleasing hors d’oeuvres at our wedding, like refreshing spoonfuls of tuna tartare and tartines piled high with pork belly, pickled scallions and mustard seeds. For our vegetarian guests, we also offered a wild mushroom tartine with melted goat cheese.
Related: Our Anniversary Trip to Chiang Mai
Naturally, all the foodies were impressed, but the less exploratory eaters got on board when they heard we were serving bacon on bread. “Don’t worry about whether something is foodie enough or too esoteric, just show people what good food is,” says Acheson.
“The beauty of wedding food is if your guests are hungry, they’re willing to try anything—everyone is usually surprised how much they like it. The reaction you want isn’t ‘I’ve had this before’, it’s ‘wow this is not typical wedding food, and it’s damn good.'”
We had a tasting at ESS a few weeks before our wedding, and were able to tweak a couple of the dishes and get a real sense of what our guests could expect. I definitely recommend asking your chef for a tasting in advance to ensure it’s what you’re looking for.
Need some ideas to get started?
Rather than serving fried foods (which don’t hold up well and get soggy) or overly complex, individually-temperatured beef tenderloin, go for strategic, yet simply prepared dishes, that are realistic for large groups, like stewed meats with grains and veggies, or smoked and cured meat boards and charcuterie.
Salads chockfull of local and seasonal veggies, like the beautiful burrata salad with fresh tomato, corn and basil Acheson served at our wedding, are always a crowd pleaser. Just make sure you don’t serve out-of-season produce that’s been transported across the country.
Likewise, “don’t let the vegetables play second fiddle, they should play a leading role,” says Acheson. Do your research about seasonality in your region and ask your caterer to devise a menu incorporating these ingredients, which will save money and support local business.
For example, at our wedding, we served a local zipper pea gratin–it can be pre-assembled without an extreme amount of precision and then go in the oven at the last minute, bubble with melty cheese and they’re beautiful.
No matter what you serve, the most important thing to keep in mind is your menu should reflect you. Oftentimes couples can lose sight of that if they focus too much on fulfilling some kind of formula. Forget the chicken and fish rules, and just serve what you love.
Just be sure to give you guests an abundance of choice, so everyone, including those with food allergies or dietary restrictions, will have something to eat.
A good rule of thumb: design your menu so you offer at least one meat-free, one nut-free, one dairy-free and one gluten-free option, and ensure your waitstaff can provide clarity about which dishes contain which ingredients.
Related: Our Anniversary Trip to Vietnam
Step 3: Add meaningful touches
Perhaps the best part of crafting your own menu is that the food can reflect aspects of your personalities and history as a couple. My husband studied abroad in Argentina, so one of our main courses was a skirt steak with chimichurri and fresh radishes, an homage to our Southern roots.
Likewise, our favorite restaurant from our time living together in D.C. (Estadio) serves the iconic Spanish dish of gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic and chiles in olive oil), so we knew we wanted to incorporate this dish into our menu for a fun play on surf and turf. Acheson recommended using Georgia shrimp for a local twist, and it did not disappoint.
To make your menu uniquely personal, think about how you can incorporate your favorite dish from your childhood, or some plates inspired by the cuisine of your family’s heritage.
What do you always order at your favorite restaurant? Recreate that dish, or a favorite from a trip you’ve taken together. For us that meant blistered shishito peppers and roasted potatoes with a garlic sauce as our sides.
Or you can go with a theme. Obsessed with brunch? Surprise guests with a breakfast-for-dinner menu. Born and raised in Chicago? Do a taste of the city with stations serving deep dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs and Al’s Beef.
“Your menu can encapsulate the life experiences you’ve shared together in a much more meaningful way than a grooms cake with figurines,” says Acheson. No idea is off limits, as long as it’s meaningful to you. “Good food pulls at the heartstrings and it’s got a beautiful déjà vu for people. Use that.”
Step 4: Wedding Food Wine Pairings
One of the easiest ways to ensure your guests feel like they’re dining at a restaurant instead of eating standard wedding food is to provide unique wine pairings. A good rule of thumb is to offer two reds, two whites and a sparkling wine.
Start with the essentials: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then have fun with the rest. We served a bone-dry Reisling, a full-bodied Garnacha and a Lambrusco, a refreshing, fruit-forward sparkling red wine that our guests are still raving about. Dry Rosé is also a great option for something a bit off the beaten path.
The key to getting guests to try something new: make sure the waitstaff knows what each of the wines tastes like and can describe them to your guests and pour them a taste, suggests Acheson. Bonus points if you add a menu card to the table with descriptions of each wine (see ours above).
Be sure to choose wines that are interesting and lesser-known (nothing puts a bad taste in your guests’ mouths faster than pouring a well-known cheap, grocery-store wine, like Barefoot and Two Buck Chuck), but not too obscure and a great quality for the price.
“There’s a difference between cheap and inexpensive wine, which are great wines that just don’t cost an arm and a leg,” explains Acheson, who notes you’ll get a better value from Spain and South America than California and France.
Once again, don’t be afraid to ask your venue and negotiate prices. Though our venue required we use their bar package (you can save a ton by choosing a venue that lets you bring your own alcohol), they were willing to work with us and allowed us to choose whatever wine we wanted, as long as it was in the same price point of their standard options.
So we met with Steven Grubbs, the wine director at ESS, to chat about what wines we liked, what would work for the largest amount of people, how to save money and find value, and he even paired his suggestions with our menu.
I can’t recommend enough meeting with a sommelier or wine director to get their recommendations once you determine your menu. It could even save you money, as sommeliers always have wines put aside due to over buying and cancellations, and they can get you a great deal on impressive wines.
Step 5: Up The Signature Cocktail Ante
Any restaurant with a great cocktail program has jumped on the barrel-aged bandwagon. Turns out, the vessel is equally perfect for weddings.
Taking signature cocktails one step further, barrel-aged cocktails are not only easy and affordable to make, but they can also be prepared in advance and poured directly by the guests (read: no long lines at the bar and fewer paid bartenders required).
At our wedding, we barrel-aged a Manhattan and Negroni (our favorite cocktails) and even had our last name and wedding date engraved on the barrels for an extra special touch.
To help us with the recipe, we called our friend Jeff Faile, one of the best bartenders in Washington D.C. If you needed one more reason to barrel-age, Jeff promises consistency as one of the best benefits: “The cocktails are all coming from the same batch, so guests never have to worry about getting a drink that tastes completely different when made from different bartenders.”
Here, Faile’s foolproof tips for delicious barrel-aged cocktails:
- Cocktails must be 100 percent spirits, as perishable ingredients like citrus will separate over time and can spoil.
- To up the personalized ante, craft a cocktail in homage to a special family member, like your grandpa’s go-to drink.
- “Whiskey-based drinks need less time due to their contact with wood during production than clear spirits, which need a little extra time to take the harshness away.” One month is usually plenty of time to smooth any cocktail out, though aging isn’t required, as the barrel could simply be a serving vessel.
- Taste your cocktail as it ages to monitor the flavors to ensure it’s drinkable. “Give yourself plenty of lead time to experiment.”
Step 6: Serve Family-Style
Just like at a restaurant, the food at your wedding is only as good as the service. As you saw from above, the first step we took to ensure a seamless meal was to put descriptive menus on each table. And then we hired knowledgeable servers who can explain the dishes and answer any questions our guests had.
“Put yourself in the servers shoes when you’re figuring out labor costs and think about what you’d expect to be paid for a nine-hour shift,” recommends Acheson. “$150 per person might seem like a lot, but there’s a massive difference when you put serious pros on the floor versus kids looking for extra spending money.”
We also chose to serve our wedding dinner family-style, as opposed to a buffet or sit-down dinner. Why? Though sit-down plated meals can be more elegant and formal, it takes longer and people can get antsy as it’s not as interactive and doesn’t offer much socializing.
Likewise, though buffets or stations are more lively, and often allows the party to start sooner, it’s more difficult to execute buffet food well as it sits longer and is not as refined. Plus, self-service can create a line for guests.
But family-style, oh family-style is the perfect happy medium—it’s more casual, but interactive and communal, service is great and it’s often easier for vendors to execute higher-concept dishes.
To ensure your family-style dinner goes off without a hitch, have your servers deliver all of the food to the entire table before moving on to the next table–that way you don’t wind up with one table who has all entrees and no sides.
“It never hurts to have a beautiful spread of pickles, bread and cheese on the table when people sit down to keep everyone sated and happy, especially kids,” says Acheson, who decorated our wedding tables with his signature pimento cheese with bacon marmalade. “Or have the first course already served.”
For help arranging your dining room, check out Wedding Wire’s free Seating Chart Tool, which lets you lay out your floor plan and drag and drop guests from your Guest List.
Step 7: Skip Traditional Wedding Cake
I know. This one is controversial, and admittedly we did have one guest at our wedding who was outraged that we didn’t serve traditional wedding cake. But guess what? Who cares–it’s your wedding, do what you want.
Our philosophy was: sure it’s tradition, but how many guests really remember the cake? Give your guests something to savor long after the party’s ended with a more unique dessert option.
We opted for individually-portioned sweet corn panna cotta with blueberries to showcase the flavors of summer. It was light, seasonal and insanely delicious. “Individual desserts, like panna cotta, just make sense—we can plate 250 in 10 minutes and they look beautiful,” says Acheson.
Bite-sized desserts and dessert bars filled with mini treats, like whoopie pies, donuts and macaroons, are also more memorable. Or consider having a local bakery or sweets shop provide their signature dessert, a great way to bring a sense of place to your wedding.
Wedding Food FAQ
Alright, so there you have it. My best wedding food ideas to ensure a delicious wedding! To finish things up, let’s do a quick rapid fire Q&A all about wedding food. While the size, style and service of your wedding will dictate logistics, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:
Q: How many servers do I need at my wedding? Hire one server for every 15 guests and one bartender for every 50 guests.
Q: How long should dinner last at a wedding? Allow for 30 minutes per course, or 60 to 120 minutes for dinner, and four to six hours of bar service. You can save money by splitting a four-hour open bar package during cocktail hour and dancing, offering passed wine with dinner
Q: How much alcohol do I need for my wedding? Plan for three to four glasses of wine per person. Offer two to three beer choices: one lite beer, a Stella and a local craft beer. Note: You can get better deals if you order directly through local breweries. The larger the wedding, the more liquor people drink.
Q: How much of my wedding budget should be food? Expect to spend at least 50 percent of your overall budget on food, drink, rentals and service. “Good food is just not cheap, but you’ll get a better value when buying locally and in-season,” says Acheson. You can save money by choosing a venue or caterer where rentals and service staff are included. If you handle the rentals yourself, make sure you ask everyone involved what they need and order extras of everything—people drop things.
Remember the golden rule of wedding planning on a budget: it never hurts to ask. Literally every aspect of your big day can be negotiated with every single vendor, but you’ll never find savings if you don’t ask for it. Just be reasonable and respectful and you’ll be amazed at what you can save.
My Wedding Vendors
Wedding Food: Empire State South
Wedding Video: Shark Pig
Wedding Photography: Our Labor of Love
Wedding Florals + Planner: Amy Osaba
Wedding Band: Moxie
Wedding Venue: Summerour Studios
Wedding Dress: LianCarlo Style 5855 (I’m actually selling this now!)
You can find wedding local wedding venues, cakes, dresses, invitations & more in your area, complete with reviews, planning tools and forums on Wedding Wire.
Here’s a few more wedding photos for good measure:
P.S. I wrote a story for BRIDES magazine last year that goes into more detail, which you can read here.
Photo Credit: Our Labor of Love
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I've linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.