A couple things to think about when choosing a serving style:
What time will your reception start?
If your reception will begin before 4 PM, dinner may not be necessary. In this case, you might decide to serve brunch or heavy hors d'oeuvres instead. On the flip side, if your reception will begin after 4 PM your guests will be expecting dinner which doesn't necessarily have to be a five course meal, but definitely more than just appetizers.
How formal is your event?
If you envision your guests dressed in white tie attire and listening to a full orchestra then a plated meal will be the way to go. If you have sundresses and cocktails in mind, then a less formal buffet would suffice.
What are your guests like?
If you are catering to an older crowd, they may feel more comfortable with a plated meal, while a younger crowd will likely grow tired and restless from sitting in one place for too long.
Serving Style Options
The Plated Meal
All tables have a seating arrangement and guests will remain seated and served by waitstaff. This is the most formal option. Costs are mostly dependent on what you choose to serve. Save money by decreasing the number of courses and food choices.
Guests will select their food from a buffet table or you can get creative and have stations that that are strategically placed around the room. There will be less waitstaff with this style, but the total cost may not necessarily be less. Guests will be free to return to the buffet as they wish, and will likely consume more food. And of course, costs will still depend on what dishes you choose to serve. If you have a large guest list, consider either several buffets being served at once or a different serving style as buffet lines may back up. This can result in a problem with hungry and impatient guests.
The Family Style
Food is served from large bowls and platters placed in the center of guest tables for guests to pass around and serve themselves. This is a great way to allow guests the freedom to choose their meal while also controlling the quantity of food served. One word of caution, If you offer too many platters, things might get a little chaotic, so keep it simple. Family style is a budget-friendly option. Less servers are needed here than with the plated meal and you can limit the number of times your caterer will refill each bowl/platter.
The Cocktail Reception
Waiters circulate the room with passed hors d’oeuvres on trays and offer them to standing guests. This option is suitable for a reception scheduled to start before 4 or 5 PM and that will likely last 2-3 hours. Make sure to choose appetizers that are easily picked up with fingers or toothpicks. Foods that are overly messy will be an inconvenience to your guests. This style is typically most wallet friendly and least stressful.
When it is all over said and done, it’s your wedding. There really are no rules! So, if you want to go with a particular serving style or if you have a really great idea on how you can mix and match – go for it!