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The hunger games: which catering style works for you?

Wedding Reception Catering
Thanks to cooking shows like Masterchef and the #foodspiration hashtag, the wedding catering game has totally changed. 
It's no longer a matter of choosing between a couple of stock-standard main courses and a dry fruitcake. Wedding catering has become an art form, made up of cooked-to-order pasta stations, seven-course degustation dinners and celebrity chef-approved canapés. The good news is that your tastebuds and tummy will be in seventh heaven; the not-so-good news is that you first need to choose which catering style you want to go with. There are pros and cons to each, but a handy place to start is deciding what type of reception you'd like. Do you want a laidback feast or a swanky soiree? You also need to nut out how important supplying top-notch fare is (maybe you want to splash out on a luxe honeymoon instead) and what's within your budget. To help you make your decision, we've lined up the three most popular catering styles - buffet, canapés and a seated meal - and have pitted them against each other in a five-round Bride Battle. Let the games begin!

Round one: variety

Wedding Reception Catering
Buffet
Platters groaning with slow-roasted meats, plates of vegetables and side dishes, jugs of every sauce you could ever hope for, more salads than you’d find backstage at a Victoria's Secret runway show... and don’t even get us started on dessert. Was that your stomach we heard growling? A buffet definitely gives you a certain amount of freedom when it comes to the menu. You can be super creative with contemporary raw bars, interactive food stations, or put on an international spread with dishes from different cultures. You’ll likely still be restricted to your venue or caterer’s offerings, but you won’t be forced to pick just two main courses from a list where every option makes your mouth water. 

Canapés
If you’ve ever organised a cocktail event before, you’ll know just how tricky it is narrowing down your final list as canapé menus typically have a larger range of options than buffet or sit-down menus. Depending on your catering package, you’ll have the opportunity to pick a handful of items - usually between five and 10 - that take your fancy. This also means you’ll be able to have a mix of hot and cold and sweet and savoury pieces, as well as items that cater to dietary requirements. 

Sit-down
A seated dinner is traditionally done by alternate drop (every second guest receives a different meal) or giving guests the chance to pick from a set menu. Your venue or caterer will provide you with a list of different options and then design your menu around your choices. Most caterers and venues are flexible when it comes to tailoring options to your tastes and dietary requirements, and some may even have an à la carte menu. And with receptions becoming increasingly food-oriented, you won't just be limited to dry chicken or overcooked fish. You can expect Michelin-star techniques, fresh local produce and dishes worthy of a glossy food mag. 

THIS ROUND GOES TO: Too close to call - it's a tie.
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Which one is best? We find out.

Round two: cost

Wedding Reception Catering
Buffet
While many buffets can do away with waitstaff altogether, if you're thinking of having cooked-to-order or interactive options at your buffet, you'll need a couple of servers to man the stations. Whichever you choose, it's an effective way of cutting staffing costs and could be significantly cheaper than servers waiting individual tables. However, you may have to rent dishes, extra linens and tables, bain-maries and any swanky serving equipment like carving knives, ice for sashimi bars or chocolate fountains. It’s also tricky to predict how much your guests will eat, and the larger the spread, the higher the costs. In this case it’s better to over-cater (unless you want to run out of grub and face the wrath of hungry guests) but the downside is that you could end up with a lot of wasted food. Those who want to cater on a smaller budget could ask friends and family to provide a plate for the buffet or dessert table. 

Canapés
Smaller pieces of food = lower prices. Right? Having canapés can certainly keep costs down, but it all depends on whether you’re charged per piece or per person. Opting for a package on a per-person basis is ideal for couples having an intimate wedding, while a per-piece menu could work for an afternoon wedding where your guests aren’t expecting a full meal. Because your guests aren’t seated, however, they could drink more, so your bar tab or alcohol costs might go up. The price of your canapés can also change depending on what it actually is. Dishing up bite-sized morsels with fancy ingredients – premium cuts of meat, some seafood, luxe extras like gold leaf – will make your final invoice higher. 

Sit-down
Providing your guests with a plated dinner requires a lot of legwork - both from the kitchen staff and servers on the floor - and covering the costs of the extra manpower doesn't always come cheap. On the flip side, there’ll be tighter portion control because it's managed by the kitchen, rather than your guests' hungry tummies, and your caterer will know exactly how much food to purchase thanks to your pre-selected menu. You’ll also cut down on food wastage. Like the canapé option though, the final catering bill will fluctuate depending on how many courses you're serving and what ingredients are on the plate. 

THIS ROUND GOES TO: Depending how you do each option, the cost is neck and neck - another tie.

Round three: satisfaction factor

Wedding Reception Catering
Buffet
Is there anything worse than leaving a wedding hungry and having to swing past Maccas on the way home? Good news: the chance of that happening at a buffet reception is slim. Your guests won’t be restricted to a portion controlled by the venue, so they can pile their plates high or go back for seconds and thirds. Plus, those with smaller appetites won’t feel guilty about leaving leftovers on their plate. 

Canapés
Catering a cocktail reception is usually done on a number of pieces per person basis. This means that depending on the food package you opt for, your guests will be allocated a certain number of canapés, typically one of each item chosen from the menu. Here’s the thing though: there’s no guarantee that every guest will receive each of those pieces. The canapés might be snapped up by those (clever) guests lingering by the kitchen, the server may not circulate around to everyone, or guests with a case of sticky fingers might take more than their share. 

Sit-down
A plated dinner means you can rest easy knowing that none of your guests will miss out on the food. In fact, if you’ve budgeted for a lavish multi-course meal, you’re almost guaranteed that nobody will go home hungry. Those with bigger appetites might even be able to pinch a mouthful or two from the plate of their dining neighbour. The food options are limited to what you chose in your tasting though, so if you have fussy eaters attending (who didn’t fill in the dietary requirements section of their RSVP) there’s a chance they may not be up for eating everything they're served. 

THIS ROUND GOES TO: Buffet

Round four: timing

Wedding Reception Catering
Buffet
There’s a trick to mastering the art of a buffet reception, and it starts with taking a cue from your old school camps. Buffet receptions tend to work best when certain tables are called up at different times. Do this and you’ll avoid having a stampede on your hands. It should also prevent long lines. If you're thinking about opening the buffet for a couple of hours, look into your venue or caterer's options for keeping the food hot or cold.

Canapés
A cocktail reception is flexible in that you’re not super limited to when the canapés are served or for how long. The plates can be circulated all at once, spread out over a couple of hours or stopped when it's time for speeches. However by its very nature, roaming canapés mean that your guests probably won’t all get to eat at the same time. A cocktail celebration is also typically shorter than a seated reception, so it may not be ideal if you’re looking to kick up your heels and party into the wee hours. 

Sit-down
Everyone will get their meal at the same time (give or take a few minutes). Your guests won’t have to contend with waiting in line – a plus for older guests – or balancing a plate laden with food. You can choose to have your meal staggered, too. The courses don't have to be served back-to-back, so the meal can be broken up with speeches, toasts and your first dance.

THIS ROUND GOES TO: Sit-down

Round five: logistics

Wedding Reception Catering
Buffet
Your guests will be up and down as they wander to and from the food stations, which is fine if you have a venue with plenty of room – but not so great if you’re working with a smaller space. A buffet is also considered to be a more casual catering method, and the sight of your guests carrying plates back to their tables may not be a good fit if you’re hoping for an elegant affair. 

Canapés
With no need for a formal table-and-chairs set-up, a cocktail reception is perfect for a venue of any size. It also works for both outdoor and indoor celebrations and, unless the canapés are being prepared on site, your venue may not even need to have a full commercial kitchen to pull it off. Because your guests will be using their hands to balance champagne flutes and canapés, make sure to provide plenty of bar tables, napkins and small plates. This style of reception will also make sure your guests mingle, so it’ll be easy for you to mosey between groups of people.

Sit-down
How are your crowd-wrangling skills? They’ll need to be in tip-top shape to make sure your guests are all seated in time for dinner. It’s also important that you make time to do the rounds of the tables and say hello to each of your guests (because, manners). 

THIS ROUND GOES TO: Canapés

And the winner is...

Oh, would you look at that. It's a draw! 
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