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Congratulations – you’re engaged!  You’ve no doubt been dreaming about this for years, and your moment is finally here.  So, now what? Planning the biggest party you will ever throw can feel pretty overwhelming, and with so many decisions to make, it’s best to start early and focus on one step at a time.  

We’ve designed this insider guide specifically to help you plan your buffet style reception.  As wedding caterers, we can tell you that this reception style is super popular right now, despite some of the horror stories that you may hear.  They offer lots of variety, with a bit less formal atmosphere.  

But, despite how popular they are, there aren’t many comprehensive guides devoted to planning an elegant, orderly and sophisticated buffet reception.  So, feel free to bookmark this page and reference it from time to time, because there is a lot of info here.

What is a Buffet Style Wedding Reception?

Here are some additional blog posts to help you determine if a buffet wedding is the right choice for you:

Figure out Your Budget

Evaluating your budget is one of the very first discussions that you and your fiance will need to have with your wedding planner (see below), since it affects all of your choices from thereon out.  

The good news is that typically, a buffet wedding reception will be less expensive than either plated or family-style receptions, with similar menus and decor.  You always need to factor in three main elements when comparing catering price options: menu costs, staffing costs, and equipment/decor costs. These can all greatly affect the overall cost of your wedding catering.

Choose a Venue

Before you even choose a date or a caterer, you need to secure a venue.  They can book up far in advance, especially for prime dates, and some have either in-house caterers, or a preferred list.  For help deciding on venues in the DC area, check out our top recommendations:

Assemble Your Team

Wedding Planner

They will help you keep track of all of the big and little details, providing you the mental space to enjoy the process (and your wedding day!).  It can be hard to know where to start when looking into hiring a wedding planner, so we have compiled a list of our own preferred planners here:

  • Preferred Planners List


We may be biased, but we believe that this is one of the most important choices that you will make.  Set up an initial consultation and ask LOTS of questions:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Do you have a list of references I can check?
  • Can we view linen and china before the event?
  • Will I be able to create a custom menu?
  • Can I make changes to my proposal?  If so, until when?
  • Are you familiar with my venue? Florist? Photographer?
  • How do your servers dress at events?  What kind of experience level do they have?
  • Who will be the contact on-site during my event?
  • What all is included in your pricing?

It’s almost like a first date – do you feel like they “get” you, and the vision that you want to create?  Or, does something just feel off?  

They only have one chance to get it right at your reception, so make sure they demonstrate to you that they can accomplish everything they promise, and that they have clearly defined systems in place to get there.  Tasting their food is incredibly important, but also ask to see photos, meet with other staff, etc. At Caribbean Caterers, for example, we have Open Houses where you can sample our menu, meet our staff and see our menu presentations all at once.  

Other Vendors

Hiring a stationery designer isn’t essential, but highly recommended if you want to create a uniform feel between all of your paper and digital designs (i.e. Save-the-Dates, invitations, wedding website, escort cards, etc.).  They are experts at combining colors, fonts, paper choices, illustrations and more to represent the “look” you are going for.

Once you have your wedding colors and paper elements squared away, you have a great foundation to work with once you start to look for florists, photographers, videographers, DJs, etc.

Design Your Custom Wedding Menu

One of our favorite things about buffets is variety.  Variety also means more choices!  For more on planning your perfect menu:

Customize Your Beverage Service

You’ll also need to decide what type of beverage service you want to provide.  Check with your caterer and venue to go over all of your options. Oftentimes, you can choose between bar service, table service or a combination of the two.  They are all great options, and really come down to the type of experience you are going for.

Create an Experience

It’s all of the little personal touches that make your wedding uniquely yours.  They’re what make your friends and family laugh, cry and remember the day for years to come.  

Personalizing Your Wedding Reception

There has been a big shift over the past decade or so and couples are really embracing individuality and breaking from tradition.  There are hundreds of opportunities to personalize your wedding reception:

  • Themes (both vague and super-specific)
  • Branding (i.e. logos, social media hashtags, patterns and color schemes)
  • Stationery Design that extends into the reception (via menu cards, escort cards, table numbers, menu descriptions, seating chart displays, welcome signs, etc.)
  • Props (rented, found on Etsy or antique trips, borrowed from Grandma)
  • Bold Colors (for linen, florals, lighting, and even the wedding party clothing)
  • Food & Beverage (custom dishes, specialty cocktails, welcome beverages, fun appetizers, out-of-the-box desserts, after dinner snacks)

For more tips on personalizing your buffet reception, check out our blog post here:

Helpful Wedding Sites and Apps

  • Pinterest – a great place to find and store inspiration in the form of “boards,” and you can download the app or sign in on a web browser.
  • Wedding Wire – search from a huge network of vendors (with reviews), browse articles, and find wedding website templates and registry info.
  • Wedding Planner by The Knot – this is an excellent app for overall planning
  • Brides – this site has a lot of informative articles about everything wedding related.
  • Pantone Studio – an app to help you with your color coordination
  • Evernote – this is a great app for taking notes, and storing them all in one place

Keep Your Buffet Organized and Elegant

We like to think of this as redefining a classic.  Your buffet reception should be elegant, orderly, sophisticated, and never stuffy!  For more on how to avoid a tacky, or disorganized buffet nightmare, check out these blogs:

Seating Chart

In order to have an orderly, well-orchestrated buffet you will need to create a seating chart.  While this requires some extra preparation (yet another reason to work with an experienced wedding planner!), it allows you a great deal of control. 

We have provided detailed instructions as to how planning a seating chart should work in our full article on plated dinner wedding service, but briefly, you will need to:

  • Decide whether to have table assignments or seat assignments for your guests, and then figure out who is going to sit where
  • Create a seating chart display to direct your guests to their tables (this is often done either on an easel, or by displaying name cards alphabetically on a table, but there are lots of ways to do this)
  • Make name cards for your guests to either be pre-set (for seat assignments) or else used as escort cards.

Planning Your Buffet into Your Timeline

We ask for an hour time slot on the wedding timeline for service of the buffet, so that if anything in your program is running late, we can help make up the time by running the buffet quickly.  

Strictly speaking, Caribbean Caterers can typically serve up a buffet in 35 minutes, assuming there are no major hiccups.  If you’re on schedule, this just means you will have extra time for other activities like speeches, toasts and dancing, so it’s a win, win!

After the Reception

Leftover Food

Read this blog article about how to plan for any left over food if you don’t want it to go to waste:

Tipping Vendors

This usually includes musicians, DJs, bartenders, waitstaff, wedding transportation companies, venue workers – but double check your contracts to make sure you don’t double tip (unless you want to!).  Many vendors will have this already included in the total – just be sure you aren’t confusing the administraive fee with a tip, as they are both represented as a percentage.  

Tipping certain vendors, such as photographers and videographers, is considered optional but you may want to prepare for it.

Show appreciation

Sending thank you cards is just good etiquette.  The sooner you write them the better because, well, life happens!  


We know it’s a lot!  We have helped guide hundreds of couples through this process over the past two decades, and would love to hear what you have in mind.  Contact us now to schedule your free 10 minute phone consultation with one of our expert event coordinators.  

For more detailed information on buffets and other reception styles, you can also check out these articles:

Schedule your free 10 minute consultation.

The fastest way to get answers, no obligations, no strings attached.

Get started