Choosing the right food and drinks for your celebration has never been easier.

By Erica Sloan
December 19, 2019
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MIKE KRAUTTER

Joyous life events go hand-in-hand with wonderful food and drinks. There's no formula for the perfect celebration, however. A seated dinner may feel just right, but so could a breezy clambake, a backyard picnic, or simply passing elegant hors d'oeuvres. Bill Homan, founder of Design Cuisine, in Washington, D.C., answers key questions on all things edible.

How Do I Find a Good Caterer?

Some venues have on-site kitchens or ties with particular caterers, but if yours is flexible, ask around—and trust your instincts. If you know newlyweds who rave about their food, you're in luck, Homan says: "Word of mouth is still your best bet." Otherwise, search for ones in your area with stellar online reviews and images that give a sense of presentation. (No photos is a red flag.) Once you've found two or three with availability on your date, schedule calls. If you have an idea of what you'd like to serve—barbecue, tapas, fresh seafood—run it by each of them to gauge their ability to fulfill your vision.

What Are Some Ways to Make My Meal Unique?

Spotlight local, in-season produce in dishes that pop with freshness, like a shaved-Brussels-sprout salad in the fall, or a watermelon-feta side in summer. And tap your personal story: Serve late-night eats that hint at a key moment in your relationship—say, mini deep-dish pizzas to honor a Chicago haunt—or appetizers that riff on favorite or family recipes, like meatballs modeled off Grandma's or pierogi with unexpected fillings. Interactive displays that let guests play chef can also be fun. One of Homan's greatest hits is a build-your-own-BLT bar with flavored bacons, heirloom tomatoes, and heaps of romaine.

Which Serving Style Is Best?

There are three main service styles—plated, buffet or stations, and family style—and each has pros and cons in terms of budget, menu choices, and the flow of your event. Thanks to precise portions, plated meals can be more affordable than an abundant spread, but it also means fewer options. Plus, folks will be seated with the same people for an hour or so. But if mingling's your thing, choose a buffet- or station-served meal. They offer more variety and easily accommodate dietary restrictions. Include three to four vegan, gluten-free items in a buffet, or one to two at each station.

Last but not least is family-style meal service. Pass-around platters let guests customize their meals, and get table-mates talking. This option often requires sparse centerpieces, however, and often means choosing foods that are tasty at room temperature—grilled steak and roasted vegetables, for example.

Do I Need a Full Bar?

Nope! (Cue a sigh of relief.) An edited selection is totally adequate: Serve two high-quality clear liquors and two brown, along with a couple of beers, one white wine, and one red. Including booze is actually more cost-effective than wine and beer only, since a liter of gin or vodka makes about 25 drinks, whereas a bottle of wine contains just five.

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