This week I'm showing you the big wedding reception I catered for friends earlier in the spring, and today I want to share the menu we finally landed on. The reception took place after dinnertime, and so the food was all small bites, with cake to follow. But I knew that a lot of people probably wouldn't eat much dinner beforehand, so I leaned towards the heavy side of appetizers.
Want to see what we served, and how we planned it out?
The Massive Logic Puzzle of Planning an Event Menu
When catering an event as an amateur, without access to walk-in refrigerators, food-service freezers, and piles of Cambro equipment, it takes some extra planning and puzzling to figure out what to serve. Here are the balancing points I mull over:
- Satisfying mix of dishes: From rich and indulgent, to light and refreshing, you want a good mix of options to keep everyone satisfied. Don't forget sweet things; I think that a reception menu liked this benefits from a few dessert bites. Not everyone loves cake, and it often comes at the end of the evening when people are already beginning to leave.
- Dietary restrictions: You usually need a blend of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and in this case I also needed a substantial amount of gluten-free and dairy-free options.
- Budget: Although food is not usually the most expensive part of a big event, certain types of food — especially alcohol, meat, and quality cheese — will quickly rack up.
- Hot and cold: Depending on how much oven and refrigerator space you have available to you at home and at the venue (remember to take both locations into consideration!) it may be prudent to plan on more hot food, or more cold food.
- Make-ahead vs. last-minute: Depending on which is tighter — time or fridge space — it may be wiser to do finish prepping a lot of the food last-minute, in which case you need more helping hands. (An extremely do-ahead menu can be prepped, with enough storage space, by fewer people working over a longer period of time.) Some things, like crostini, are not good prepped ahead of time, or will be more efficient stored separately (like bags of toast bites at room temperature, with the topping stored in the fridge).
- Make vs. buy: Practically speaking, it's best in my opinion to mix in a few store-bought foods. I usually look for things that will save me the maximum amount of work. For instance, I bought the phyllo shells for the mini tarts I served, instead of making them myself. They looked better, tasted better, and saved me scads of work (and weren't too much more expensive).
A Few Rules of Thumb
It's hard to explain exactly how to break down all of these factors and puzzle them into a menu. It is so situation-dependent, but overall my rules are:
- Have a lot of vegetarian (or dietary-restricted) options: An appealing vegetarian option can get quickly snapped up, leaving the vegetarians out with nothing to eat. So I always over-plan for good vegetarian (or, in this case, gluten-free) food.
- Be very careful about planning oven time: Most budget venues, in my experience, like churches, have nearly useless ovens. Don't plan a menu around a church oven, just saying. I tend to be pretty careful about anything that needs to be baked or reheated; I keep those things to a minimum, or have backup plans.
- Do as much ahead as possible. I cram as much as I can into my fridge and try to look for dishes that can be done ahead as much as I can. Even if you're just setting totally finished things out on platters at the venue, everything will take longer than you expect. So I prioritize the make-ahead aspect of the list above more than anything else.
- In fact, do something ahead for every single dish: Even if you have a dish that won't get cooked or assembled until the last minute, work your creativity to the utmost to do something for it ahead. Whether that's slicing tomatoes or whipping cream, having any little chore associated with a dish done ahead is a good idea. Chances are you'll be scrambling in the final hours, so be good to yourself.
An Appetizer Reception Menu for 200
So, here's the final menu! As I mentioned above, even though there was cake, we decided to also serve a couple of sweet bites. And note that this crowd included few, if any, vegetarians or vegans. The primary dietary needs were gluten-free and dairy-free. (Recipes linked where applicable.)
Yesterday I explained how I calculated food quantities; I'll share the total amount of bites for each menu item below.
- Ham Biscuits with Honey Mustard Butter - 400
- Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (store-bought) - 450
- Tomato Mozzarella Caprese Skewers (vegetarian, gluten-free) - 400
- Smoked Salmon & Potato Skewers (gluten-free) - 200
- Crudité & Smoky Hummus Cups (veg, gluten-free, dairy-free) - 200
- Bruschetta with Romesco & Pine Nuts (veg, dairy-free) - 200
- Polenta Toasts with Herbed Ricotta & Bacon (gluten-free) - 200
- Lemon Curd Tarts in Phyllo Cups (tart shells store-bought) - 360
- Pistachio & Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (gluten-free, dairy-free) - 150
- Sea Salt Chocolate Caramels (store-bought) - 300
- Spiced Sugared Nuts - 200 servings
- Strawberry Lemonade - 640 4-ounce servings
- Ginger Lime Sparkler - 240 4-ounce servings
- Water & Coffee - Provided by church, so didn't plan or shop for this.
The Menu: Breaking It Down
This next section may be overkill for many of you, but I want to break down how this menu relates to the factors listed above. How did all of this work out?
My plans for this menu were affected by the fact that I was very busy leading up to the wedding, but on the day itself I had a lot of time because the reception didn't begin until 8pm. So I left more to do on the day itself than usual.
What I Did More Than One Day Ahead
- Made the biscuits for the Ham Biscuits with Honey Mustard Butter. I used this classic Southern recipe from Carrie Morey of Callie’s Charleston Biscuits. I baked and froze them and reheated at the venue.
- Baked the polenta for the Polenta Toasts with Herbed Ricotta & Bacon
- Made the ricotta filling for the Polenta Toasts with Herbed Ricotta & Bacon
- Made the lemon curd for the Lemon Tarts in Phyllo Cups
- Made the Pistachio & Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
- Made lemonade concentrate for the Strawberry Lemonade
- Made the ginger syrup for the Ginger Limeade
What I Made One Day Ahead
- Prepped the Tomato Mozzarella Caprese Skewers
- Made the potato salad for the Smoked Salmon & Potato Skewers
- Made the Spiced Sugared Nuts
- Made the mustard butter for the Ham Biscuits with Honey Mustard Butter.
- Made whipped cream for the lemon tarts
What We Made on the Reception Day (At the Venue)
- Set up the buffet with plates, napkins, cups, trays, and drink dispensers.
- Warmed the biscuits and used store-bought ham to assemble the Ham Biscuits with Honey Mustard Butter
- Warmed the Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (all bought from Costco) and speared on toothpicks.
- Assembled the Smoked Salmon & Potato Skewers
- Assembled the Crudité & Smoky Hummus Cups (hummus was bought from Costco)
- Toasted bread for Bruschetta and topped it with Romesco & Pine Nuts and some chopped herbs.
- Broiled the Polenta Toasts and topped with Herbed Ricotta & Bacon.
- Filled the Lemon Tarts in Phyllo Cups and topped with whipped cream.
- Set out drink dispensers with lemonade and strawberries for Strawberry Lemonade.
- Set out drink dispensers with ginger syrup, soda water, and lime juice for the Ginger Lime Sparkler.
- Set out Water and made pots of Decaf and Coffee.
This menu is a good example of an event where the prep and make-ahead were not that onerous, but on the day itself, there was a lot of work. To be honest, it was tough to get it all done. I paid a helper (my sister!) to help the entire day, and I had a few other helpers, but it was a lot of hands-on work. If I could do it again, I would probably assemble the biscuit sandwiches entirely ahead of time, and just rewarm in the oven as sandwiches. They might have tasted even better this way.
3 More Tips for Dealing with a Big Menu
Like I said, this is a lot of detail, and there are of course a hundred tiny things not on here — like chopping herbs for garnish, juggling pans between fridge and freezer, and the little tasks that take an unexpected chunk of time like cutting bread for bruschetta.
My main tips for handling it all are:
- Write out a menu and break down the recipes into prep to-do items. Organize the whole thing into a schedule. Put this somewhere you can see it and refer to it constantly through the whole process. Make sure every prep to-do item, from toasting bread to making the punch, is scheduled somewhere.
- Be continually running over the menu in your head. Over the days leading up to the event, be looking at and thinking about the menu, peeling off as many things to do ahead as possible.
- Budget serious extra time. I like to leave at least 2 hours completely blank on the schedule of the day itself. They'll get used, believe me.
Next up — I'll show you how the whole thing went!