Everything you need to know for the best dining experience.

By Blythe Copeland
March 12, 2019

There's something undeniably special about an evening ceremony and reception: If you're waiting until after the sun goes down to tie the knot, odds are good that you're planning an elegant, romantic celebration. That vibe should be reflected in your food choices, too. An evening reception with a seated three- to five-course dinner may be the most typical choice for an evening celebration, but that doesn't mean it's your only option. Most planners and caterers start putting together a couple's perfect meal by figuring out the overall mood they envision before suggesting a specific service style or menu. "I like to start by getting a feeling for the kind of energy they want to create on their wedding day," says Jessica Lasky of Jessica Lasky Catering. "It depends on what other aspects of the day are important, and using the menu and food to complement, not contradict, those things." Here, expert-approved tips for putting together the ultimate evening reception meal.

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Consider Your Style

While evening receptions traditionally include a plated meal or a buffet, those certainly aren't the only choices: Food stations, which offer a variety of food options scattered around the space, are increasingly popular with couples who want to keep the focus on the dance floor; cocktail-style parties offer a similar vibe and work well in smaller spaces; and family style service is a festive way to serve a traditional meal. "Honestly, there is no wrong way to serve food at a wedding," says Jove Meyer, owner and creative director of Jove Meyer Events. "As long as you have enough of it, guests are happy." Though each has its own potential costs-whether you're renting more platters for family style service or paying increased labor charges for buffet attendants-the overall budgets are often comparable. "We try to create a menu and dining style that keeps guests feeling light, social, engaged," says Lasky.

Be Open to Trends

Planning your reception menu around local, in-season foods offers plenty of possibilities for unique, customized dishes-with tasty results. "The best part about eating with a seasonal focus is that the food is more delicious and fresh," says Meyer. In summer, pair a skirt steak with fresh vegetables or penne with fresh tomato sauce; in winter, offer braised short ribs with potato puree or tortellini with cream sauce. One thing to keep in mind: If you're hoping for seasonal fare, your menu may change as your wedding date gets closer depending on what's available. "When we do proposals for weddings for next year, we already have to be thinking in terms of the seasons ahead and sometimes we have to revise and rework as temperatures change and seasons change," says Lasky. One sample menu: A plated antipasta or salad, followed by self-serve entrées including crispy local halibut, charred ribeye with heirloom peppers, and ricotta ravioli with baby shiitakes, red onion, and pine nuts. "It's decadent, abundant, beautiful," she says, "but hopefully the flavors are still high in acid, light, and clean so guests feel like dancing, partying, and socializing long after dinner is finished."

Or Serve the Classics

Of course, traditional plated menus are classics for a reason: Some meals just never go out of style. "For any bride that wants a classic menu, we will always have items like filet of beef with haricot verts, or a classic Caesar salad," says Lasky. "We might present them on the plate in a more rustic style, but the flavors are and will always be classic." The rest of your event-from the cocktail hour to the midnight snack-has its foolproof options, too: "For cocktail hour, everyone loves a good meat and cheese station," says Meyer. "For late-night snack, always go with carbs like French fries, pizza, and cheese sticks!"

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