DIY Wedding Reception Food: FAQs
I get a lot of wedding reception food questions in my email box each week. Overwhelmed, I asked John and Zuzana at Party Recipes and Ideas to help out with your common wedding food questions. They have 30+ years of experience in catering and food service, and have promised to share some of their "Caterer's Secrets" with us! They also will answer any party food question with a fast and personal email, at Ask-a-Caterer. What an amazing resource!
Do It Yourself Wedding Food FAQs
What are your top suggestions for "no fuss" wedding reception food? Things that don't take much set up the day of?
Do the work days before, then set up and serve at the reception - that's the mantra! Here are some winners that maximize your time at the altar:
Veggie Platters, or Crudités, served with or without fruit and dips are fast, easy and inexpensive. They add color and life to your dining room. Cut the firmer veggies and fruits the day before, store in ziplock plastic bags with all the air squeezed out, and refrigerate. Dips can be made a day or two before, and stored the same way. Then on the day of (or the night before), artfully arrange the fresh veggies, fruits and dips on platters, and serve.
Hot appetizers and entrees can be prepared ahead, re-warmed and set out in food warmers. The Caterer's Secret is to refrigerate or freeze your dish in the same pan you'll use to warm it and serve it. Food Warmers become part of your dining room, ready to serve hot foods the fast and easy way.
The Wedding Cookie Table is just great! (thanks Charise!) Freezing helps to easily serve cookies as an "entrée" or an additional dessert.
Most cookie dough (except liquidy doughs) will freeze well, often for weeks or more. Wrap the dough tightly with film, and allow it to thaw in the fridge for 2-3 days before scooping.
Freezing cookies works too, usually for a few weeks. Wrap them tightly with film and use a vacuum sealer if you have one. Allow them to thaw at room temperature (usually for a couple of hours.) Keep them covered and serve soon after thawing. Set them out on serving platters if you want, but keep the platter covered with film until just before guests arrive. Avoid freezing frosted, drizzled or decorated cookies.
Caterer's Secret: For a smaller number of guests, bake all or some of the cookies just before and (even!) during the reception. Here's why: There's nothing like a fresh baked cookie! The aroma fills your venue with warmth and love - you know what we mean! If you have an oven or two at the venue kitchen, assign one of your helpers to be The Cookie Pro - baking away and putting out a new batch as needed. No ovens there? Bring a couple of larger toaster ovens, they work just fine. Obviously this won't work for a large party, but 50 people or less...can't you taste the warm Toll House now...?
Most all wedding reception food can be made ahead, or at least some of it. For example, dips, spreads, sandwich fillings, sauces, salads and much more can often be made days before and left to refrigerate, then assembled into the recipes (with breads, crackers, etc.) on the day of.
Finished dishes can usually be refrigerated for a day or two. Chicken Divan is a good example of an entrée that doesn't freeze well, but it can be completely assembled in pans the day before, and then baked on the day of, kept warm and easily served. Here are several entrees that work the same way.
Freezing is sometimes ok too, but not always. Use Ask-a-Caterer to check your menu and plans, and find out if freezing is a good idea.
Here are some of our freezer favorites that always work: Appetizers: Crescent Pizza offers lots of possibilities and can be frozen and reheated easily. The dough is rich and freezes well. Bacon Kielbasa will freeze just fine. Make the cheese sauce the day before and warm it up. Look for recipes that have a bit more fat to moisturize the food during the thaw and re-heat.
These Entrees freeze well: Chicken with Apple Stuffing, Stuffed Shrimp, and BBQ Chicken are each baked, frozen and served in the same pan. These casserole-style dishes make things so much easier, and fit directly into food warmers for easy serving.
Caterer's Secret: We prototype. The best way to know if something will freeze well is to freeze it. A few days in the freezer will preview the prognosis of a few weeks ahead. So take your recipe, build it, freeze it, let it thaw, reheat if needed, and give it a taste. Be sure to use the same procedure for your test that you'll use later. By far, this is the best way to know.
Cold is cool. Read the Caterer's Secrets below for some cooling tips.
Salads. They add flavor, color and offer options for vegetarians. Salad Nicoise is one of our favorites. Rice Pilaf is first baked and then served cold. It's a yummy 'salad' of sorts that vegetarians will just love.
Lobster Roll Snacks and many other seafood salads are picnic favs. Keep the seafood mix cold, and build up crackers or bread as needed. Meat salads (chicken, ham, etc., also work nicely.) Seafood Cocktails using whatever kinds of seafood or chilled fish you have available are always a hit.
Deli-Style Meats and Cheeses. Build smaller platters featuring "cold cuts," bringing out a fresh, cold one when needed. When you're really pressed for time, the supermarket deli section often build nice platters for a reasonable cost, which you can easily re-plate and serve.
Olive Bread. Bakery Breads that are ready to dip into yummy spreads go great next to cheeses, dips and crackers.
Caterer's Secret: Place these richer foods near the bar. Fats tend to slow down the absorption of alcohol. 'Nuff said.
Sushi. Consider making it yourself, or buy from your local shop.
Fresh Fruit Displays Make a carved watermelon and build around it. All this fruit, including the melon, can be prepped the day before, stored and refrigerated - then quickly put out when needed. Chocolate Fruit Skewers might compliment your wedding cake. We always serve fruit with cake.
Caterer's Secret, Keeping Cold Foods Cold: Food warmers, or chafing dishes (the kind that hold hot water underneath the pans of food,) can also be used as food coolers. Instead of using water and steno, pack the lower pan with ice. This way, you have a very nice way to serve your colds foods and keep them that way. Use the stainless covers to slow down the sun.
Another "cool" Caterer's Secret for outdoor gigs is to use camping coolers, the big plastic kinds. Keep them under your serving table, or nearby. Use ziplocks to store your extra cold wedding reception food inside the coolers, with lots of ice. So easy.
Consider disposable. Not as green as we all want, but there are several new lines of products made from recycled materials, as well as products that are mostly bio-degradable paper. Clean, sanitary and designed with decorating in mind, you'll probably wind up with extras to use later. And, it's less expensive than renting.
Use this resource for more ideas and estimating. WalMart, shopping clubs, party stores, even larger grocery stores have disposable plates, cups, serving gear, platters, and oodles of other things.
Renting. Thank God for Party Rental Stores. They might be a little pricey, but they've got what you don't. And it's usually nice stuff. Known for being accommodating and flexible, rental shops will usually find a way, such as locating dishes for kosher functions, matching patterns and colors, etc.
Caterer's Secrets on Renting: Shop around, especially for price, because they do vary. Get it delivered - most big rental damage happens on the road. Buy the insurance. It's huge to replace their gear.
Here's a rental alternative you might use: Your local school, church, VFW, fire company, Temple or volunteer organization that has a kitchen, probably has exactly what you need. Doesn't hurt to ask.
For of party of 50, our guide suggests:
Mixers in 2 liter bottles: 2 - Club Soda, 4 - Cola, 4 - Diet Cola, 2 - Cranberry Juice, 2 - Ginger Ale, 3 - Lemon-Lime Soda, 2 - Tomato Juice, 2 - Tonic Water, 1 - Bitter Lemon, 1 - Gallon Orange Juice
And there's more, you'll need Bar Supplies, Glass/plastic, and more. This Bar Planner describes what else you'll need.
How much wine will you need for 50 Guests?
If you're serving liquor and beer too, then you need 6 bottles of white wine, and 3 bottles of red. If it's a cocktail Wine Bar, go with 12 bottles of white, and 6 bottles of red, more if you're serving wine with dinner, or for a longer party.
Caterer's Secret: Try to buy wine from a shop that will allow you to return unopened bottles or cases, especially if you'll service more expensive wines.
If you're serving liquor and wine too, then you need a 1/4 keg, or 3 cases. If not, 1/2 keg or 7 cases.
How much liquor will you need for 50 guests?
12 - 1.75 liter assorted bottles (2/3-vodka, 2-whiskey, 1 each scotch, gin, rum, tequila, baileys, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth) should work. You'll definitely wind up will leftovers, but it's hard to say what, based on your party and what your guests like to drink. More than 50? Add more vodka and whiskey.
You will usually serve beer and wine with liquor, but this doesn't mean that you can reduce the amount of liquor needed by bottle, unless you reduce the size of the liquor bottles. This is where it comes in handy to know your guests and what they like.
In addition to the Bar Supplies, Glass/plastic, and more that you'll need, there are also concerns and issues to do with serving alcohol. This Bar Planner and Guide will answer questions in detail and give ideas you'll want to consider.
Here are lots of inexpensive, but wonderful foods for your reception, from different categories to give you ideas:
Pizza-Appetizers. Use pre-made roll dough and get these made the day (or two) before. No special gear is needed for these to turn out great each time.
Caesar Salad. Colorful, delicious and not pricey, prep ahead and then mix it after most people have arrived. Many salads will keep your costs down, just watch the ingredients.
Barbequed Chicken, boneless, easy to eat party-style. We'd make sure to have a couple different hot sauces around. Substitute the BBQ sauce with orange, tomato, garlic, or so many other possibilities.
Garlic Mashed Potatoes are cheap comfort food with a garlic twist everyone loves. Use them to compliment many entrees.
Chocolate Ice Cream Dips are way good for so little cost. Serve along side your cake. We have also served a "build your own ice cream sundae bar" with good results.
These are just a few examples. Choose recipes that use less expensive, un-complicated ingredients - and, look for simple prep and service. Avoid things like Stuffed Cornish Game Hens, Grilled Salmon, Beef Wellington, etc., which all use pricey components and need lots of time and attention.
Simple elegance. Keep it simple, but keep it elegant too!
Servers, Waiters, Waitresses - For a wedding reception, you might want to have some professional staff to work in the dining room, etc. There are agencies that provide temporary help, although you can expect to pay $20 plus an hour, each. How about your favorite local restaurant? Ask the server you like so much if she/he might be available, and could they bring a few friends? Technical schools and culinary academies require training in table service. Contact them and ask who might be available. Put an ad in your local paper asking what you need and when.
After your prepping work is done, you will want (probably need!)to relax on your wedding day. Consider having a Kitchen Manager run the show, get the food served and solve problems before, during and after the reception. Check your local VFW to see if there's an ex mess hall sergeant available. Who coordinates the fire company's annual picnic? Who's in charge of the church supper? Who did the fundraising spaghetti supper at the school? Locate any of these people and you'll probably find a highly qualified, unique person who knows how to pull it all together.
Caterer's Secret: When we've done pro bono work with volunteer groups, they always come up with some great servers and kitchen help. Somebody worked their way though school as a cook, or someone else waited table in the family business, etc. For a donation, these groups might be willing to offer up some of their own.
For more about how much help to get, what their jobs should be, and how to find helpers, see: Your Kitchen Crew.
Event Insurance is easier and less expensive than you might think. It's certainly worth checking out, for lots of reasons, especially if you're serving alcohol.
First, check your Homeowner's Policy to see if you have any coverage there. Then, consider hiring a bartending service if you're serving alcohol, because they usually arrive already insured.
Caterer's Secret: When it isn't obvious what's in a food (like peanut concentrate in the fruit salsa,) make a small sign to place near the dish with it's name and list of ingredients. Also, when garnishing a dish, use a garnish that hints what's in it, especially if it's something that people tend to react to.
Food Warmers and coolers will keep hot food hot and cold foods cold for hours. We use sterno heated food warmers (chaffers). The sterno fuel will last for several hours, and keeps the food nice and hot. Warmers can also work as coolers to keep cold foods chilled and ready to serve. Set up properly, these can be left on their own for quite a while.
Careful about the "Four Hour Rule" which applies to meats, dairy, poultry, fish, and others that tend to spoil, and says that these "potentially hazardous" foods must be kept above 135^f or below 41^f - not left out at room temperature. We say, 'keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.' (That's where warmers and coolers come in.) Here's more.
More stable foods can be set up on serving platters, covered with film and left out until just before guests arrive.
All this said, it's wise to have a helper stay at the kitchen/reception area and keep an eye on things. There are probably other details that person can do during the ceremony. It's just not wise to leave food unattended.
Caterer's Secret: Set up a table just for a fresh food display. After using a table cloth with sturdy boxes for display, carefully cover the entire table with food film (plastic wrap.) Then cover the film with lettuce leaves, spinach, decorated cabbage, etc. Paint this green "pallet" with the colors of your beautiful foods, as much fresh as possible - it's truly edible art.
We use film like crazy, lots and lots. Wrap what you're freezing very well, press the film right down onto the surface of the foods, and avoid using food storage boxes that allow air to be present with the food, (use bags instead so you can squeeze out the air out before sealing.)
You may want to use a vacuum storage machine, that sucks the air out of a plastic bag or film wrap. ZipLock makes a hand version of a machine, much cheaper and it works.
Make sure your freezer is working well. Place your foods at the lowest, coldest place and keep them there. Freezers operate at 'zero' degrees. Inexpensive thermometers are available, the kind that stay in the freezer, so that you can make sure it's right.
Caterer's Secret for Freezing: Cover, then wrap. "Cover" one food with another food, (or use a liquid,) then freeze. Example: Freeze BBQ chicken by covering the chicken with the sauce. This seals the food with sauce and keeps moisture in. "Wrap" means get film all around the product to prevent freezer burn. Wrap liquids by storing them in bags.
Here are guidelines about how much food to buy and serve. It's based on food that is cleaned, prepared, cooked, and ready to serve:
Appetizers: Plan for 6-8 bites per person, per hour, less after each hour
Dinner: Plan for 1.5 pounds of food per person
Check out Party Food Quantities for more detailed estimating ideas.
Food Safety begins by preventing the spread of germs. Keep everything clean, especially your hands. When preparing and serving food, "Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold," using a food thermometer to check for the correct temperatures. Keep your gear, foods, serving tools, silverware, etc. clean and organized, never letting chemicals stay near your food. And then sanitize, everything - clean, clean, clean.
Here's lots more about Food Safety for your reception.
Thanks SO much for answering our DIY wedding reception food questions, John & Zuzana! Still have more wedding reception food questions? Remember you can always email Ask-a-Caterer for their fast, personal reply to your wedding food concerns.
It's your wedding, do it the way you want!
Return to the Do It Yourself Wedding Food main section for tons more DIY ideas!
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