It's time to eat! What are you serving, how are you serving it, and what does your venue have to say about the matter?
Cocktail hour typically occupies guests immediately before and/or after the formal wedding ceremony. There may or may not be alcohol available, but there is most certainly food. It keeps the crowd satisfied as the couple spends a few precious moments together and takes photos before rejoining the fray. It isn't always carefully planned, but a little consideration will save big headaches.
What Are You Offering?
Figure out what your dinner plans are before you break out the snacks. If you have a three-course meal arranged during the reception, light finger foods are appropriate for cocktail hour. If the reception will only feature cake and some heavier finger foods, make sure guests don't go in particularly hungry. Crackers and dip may not be enough; adding some rolls and lunchmeat with a cheese plate may be perfect, though.
How Are You Serving?
Your venue may determine serving methods. Hotels will probably want you to use their staff when possible to serve drinks and appetizers during the cocktail hour. It sets a formal atmosphere and also prevents a lot of crowding around the buffet. That said, a buffet is an elegant solution in many unique spaces, it draws your guests where you want them to be, and you have more control over what's available.
Catering vs. DIY
Even if you cater your reception dinner, it's fairly easy to handle the cocktail hour snacks on your own. Couples with big families have an advantage because there's always an aunt, uncle, or cousin who is willing to bring out a few trays and a stack of plates for grazing guests. The advantage of catering, of course, is freedom for the entire family and a professional service handling any guest complaints or demands.
What's for Dinner?
Dinner is usually the reception's main event. It can also be the most expensive. A full catered dinner isn't your only option, though. Ask yourself what you want out of this time, and then budget accordingly. You may not need to spend as much as you thought.
Finger food can be surprisingly filling, and if you host a particularly active reception, it may suit guests better than a formal meal. Who has time to sit down and eat when there's a park, arcade, or historic building to explore? Your venue may also limit space, and finger food allows more people to eat on their feet.
Would you like the chicken or the steak? The pre-ordered and plated dinner is a classic reception meal, and it makes life easier for caterers. If you have a particularly long guest list, plan to host a lot of out-of-town attendees, or simply prefer to have a very organized reception, this may be the best option for you. It's extremely tricky to pull this off with just elbow grease and your aunties, though, so you should hire a catering service.
A buffet sits between the two extremes of finger food and a plated dinner. You can have the food catered in and handled by professionals, but you'll be able to cut down on waitstaff expenses. This also gives guests more freedom and lets everyone eat according to their preferences and appetites. You can also get just about anything on a buffet, so the options are endless.
Team Family vs. Team Pro
Catering is expensive, but it may be worth the cost if you want to keep your family involved in the fun. It's also the best solution for plated meals. That said, you can do a lot with DIY buffets and finger foods. If your venue has a kitchen, you can easily keep trays of food from your favorite restaurant warm until meal time. Once you set it out on the buffet, your work is finished until cleanup time rolls around. Ultimately, it's all about budgeting and social preferences, so don't guilt yourself over spending a little more on catering or asking your family to set out a few trays. Either works perfectly well!