Food and beverage expenses are often the largest single item in an event budget. More often than not, this is as true for weddings as it is for other types of events. As you plan your event and finalize your budget, it is especially important to play close attention to your catering decisions, as even small choices you make can have a big impact on the total cost.

Many brides and event hosts often agonize over the relative merits of serving meals to guests while they remain seated at their tables (known as “sit down catering”) versus having guests get up from their tables to serve themselves from one or more food stations (known as “buffet catering”).

Before you start planning your menu, it’s a good idea to make a decision about whether sit-down or buffet catering will work best for your wedding or other type of event. This fundamental decision not only impacts your total budget, it also determines the range of menu choices you’ll be able to make.

The first step, of course, is to reserve a venue. If you haven’t booked a venue yet, that should be the focus of your attention, before you start to research catering options. (See our article on the seven tips for successful event planning for more information.) And if you have already reserved a venue, be sure to speak to your contact before you interview caterers, as some venues have restrictions on which caterers and what kind of service they allow.

If you’ve booked a venue and have already checked in with your contact there, the following table summarizing the pros and cons of sit down versus buffet catering will help make your decision process easier.

Pros Cons
    • Lower cost (typically about 30%-50% cheaper than sit-down)
    • Usually more informal (but buffets can be elegant too)
    • Gives guests a chance to mingle during meal time
    • Guests get to choose what they want to eat
    • Different food stations can serve a wider variety of foods, making the menu more interesting
    • Leaving table to get food can be disruptive
    • Lines can form at the buffet
    • Increased risk of “food accidents”
Sit Down
    • Usually more elegant
    • Gives guests time to talk at their tables
    • Less work for guests since they don’t need to leave their tables
    • Running out of food is less likely since meals are precisely matched to final guest head count
    • Makes managing the flow of the event easier — no risk of guests going to the buffet during a toast or first dance
    • Higher cost
    • Requires sending meal cards in advance to ask guests for food preferences
    • Wait staff become a more important factor for success

As noted elsewhere, it is important to remember that there are no right and wrong choices when it comes to event planning. Sit down catering can work very well for some types of events, while others are better suited to buffet catering. Focus on what you want your special occasion to be like, and then figure out the best choices to create the atmosphere that you are looking for. Have fun, and bon appétit!