Food & Drink, Gluten free, Personal, Travel
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5 tips to choose a wedding menu

On October 18, we celebrated my daughter and new son-in-law’s wedding in Purcellville, Virginia. I could go on and on about every detail — the gorgeous setting at Shadow Creek Weddings & Events; the most beautiful wedding flowers I’ve ever seen, thanks to the unflappable Barbara Von Elm of Growing Wild Floral; the well-researched wine and all-Colorado beer selections (my husband’s job); and of course the heartwarming gathering of family and friends to witness God’s hand in uniting two wonderful young people.

But let’s not forget one thing. I’m a food writer and editor.

I wanted to be sure we fed people well. And not just well, but memorably well.

My daughter put me in charge of choosing and working with the catering and event service, which was far and away the biggest budget item for a wedding of this size (about 150 guests). After a lot of research, we settled on A La Carte Catering & Events based in Haymarket, Virginia.

Let me just say up front: Good call. I lost count of the number of people who told me that this was the BEST wedding food they had ever had. And most of it was gluten free!

Here are 5 tips to help you choose a great wedding menu and caterer.

Wedding menu and program

Menu & program designed by Sage Paper Co.

1. Go local and seasonal. As you peruse caterers’ menu options, keep in mind that your selections will be at their best if made with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients rather than out-of-season produce from another hemisphere. Don’t force fresh strawberries into a January wedding menu! ALC partners with local farms and producers, so I knew the building-block ingredients would be great.

2. Think about the crowd. Remember: This meal is a gift to your guests. If possible, arrange for a tasting so you can really get a sense of the flavors (ALC provided a full complimentary tasting lunch in June; these photos are from that event). At that time, talk over with your caterer the type of guests you expect will attend: Do you need reliably gluten-free or dairy-free options, and does your caterer even know what that entails? Will the crowd be predominantly younger or older? (Younger people tend to eat more heartily.)

For our guests and based on the bride’s and groom’s tastes, we wanted a mostly gluten-free menu that said “comfort food” rather than fancy, spicy, or exotic, with food beautifully prepared and presented but above all delicious.

beefpolentaveggiesWe decided on balanced, classic dishes with nearly universal appeal: a beef entree — braised short ribs, left, the crowd favorite — and, for guests who don’t eat red meat, a bone-in roasted chicken entree (pictured below right) because bone-in doesn’t dry out nearly as much as boneless chicken breasts, served with sweet-potato wedges (not pictured). All of the ingredients wchickenere seasonal, gluten-free (most were also dairy-free), and hearty, perfect for a chilly October evening.

3. Play up the veggies. Most caterers will provide a special vegetarian plate for veg guests, but we elected to include a vegetarian entree in the buffet that everyone would love: an amazing Greek mac ‘n’ cheese made with fresh spinach and feta (below left). That way our vegetarian guests would have a solid entree and could also pick and choose from among the other vegetarian options on the buffet, which included a stunningly good rosemary polenta and roasted fall macncheeseveggies (both pictured above with the beef but served separately at the wedding), as well as a gorgeous harvest salad (below right).


saladcloseup4. Pay attention to the staff. You’ll be sending a lot of emails back and forth with whatever caterer you choose, so you’re going to have to like dealing with the people. Chelsea, one of ALC’s perpetually cheerful event coordinators, virtually held my and my daughter’s hand through every emailed question, every decision, every back-and-forth negotiation, and every freakout moment with grace and patience. During the reception itself, she had a look on her face that made it seem like this was the first and best wedding she’d ever been to … even though she probably does this at least three times a week.

5. Don’t skimp on labor. ALC’s budget included more staff than the other bidders — 15 total, including Chelsea, 2 bartenders, 1 chef, 1 sous chef, and 10 servers for an estimated 150 guests. At first we thought this might be overkill. But given the level of setup; cocktail, dinner, and dessert service; and takedown/cleanup, boy was I glad we had that many people. They kept the event moving seamlessly, and they did it cheerfully from start to finish.

Our final menu lineup:

Appetizers: Sweet potato cakes with duck confit; coconut-coriander shrimp (GF); twice-baked mini potatoes with truffle oil (GF) — below


Salad: Roasted butternut squash with fuji apples, fall greens, bleu cheese, and candied walnuts, served with a lemon vinaigrette (GF, V)

Entrees: Barolo-braised beef short ribs with rosemary polenta and harvest vegetables (GF); bone-in, herb-marinated roast chicken with balsamic glaze and lightly curried sweet potatoes (GF); Greek mac ‘n’ cheese with fresh spinach, feta, and a hint of cinnamon (V)

Dessert: This was fun! Along with comfort-food theme, the bride and groom chose a dessert bar with chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and peanut butter cookies; apple, cherry, and pecan mini pies; and farm-fresh milk served in adorable mini milk bottles with straws. For gluten-free eaters, we also ordered chocolate crackle cookies and a small wedding cake from The Happy Tart, a dedicated and awesome gluten-free bakery.

Have you planned or are you planning a wedding or other catered event? What factors were important to you? What made the experience a good (or bad) one? Share your experiences or ask questions in the comments!


  1. I hadn’t thought about making sure you find a company that has people that are great to work with. I have been planning a wedding for the end of the year. I can see how it would be good to choose caterers that are use to working with people. That way I won’t have to worry about doing everything myself.

  2. I like how you mentioned the importance of the staff when choosing a catering company. My fiancee and I are planning the details of our wedding, and she wanted me to figure out the food. I hadn’t really thought about the people behind the food, but maybe it would be a good idea to choose a company with friendly staff that I can work well with.

    • Thanks, Canden — I found it really made for a pleasant experience to have friendly people behind the food. Based on my experience, your initial phone calls with potential caterers will give you a sense of who you’ll enjoy working with. Good luck!

  3. Several venues have their own empanelled caterers and you need to select one from those only. Other venues allow you to bring your own favourite team. Depending on recommendations from your friends and relatives and your own past experience, you can shortlist 1-2 companies.

    • Yes, absolutely true, some venues provide their own list of approved caterers. We were lucky that our venue had a list of local caterers that they recommended but didn’t require, including A La Carte. Thanks for the helpful comment!

  4. Hello,Thanks for sharing such an excellent post. You shared good tip for choosing wedding menu. I like you article. Thanks for it…….

  5. This is some great information, and I appreciate your suggestion to think about the crowd when choosing a catering menu. My fiance and I are trying to get all of the details for our wedding figured out, and our next step is to choose food. We’ll definitely keep in mind the people that will be attending so we can choose something suitable for that crowd. Thanks for the great post!

  6. I like your tip about playing up the veggies. It sounds like a great idea to have an entirely vegetarian entree, because I have a lot of relative who don’t eat meat. I’ve also found that people appreciate having all of the food groups available, so I will keep this in mind. Do you have any tips for finding a really great local catering service? Thank you for all of the helpful information!

    • Thank you Brooke! To find a good catering company, I did a lot of calling around and checking online reviews. I was looking for a company that valued local foods and food producers and had excellent service reviews (not just for the wedding but during all the prep, too). I also recommend stating your budget up front; several caterers told me candidly that they could not provide what we wanted within our budget, and I appreciated their honesty. After that it’s a matter of comparing bids and menus. Hm, I should make this another blog post 🙂

  7. The post is really awesome and entertaining. It kept my eyes glued to it. It has become my favorite pastime reading to your posts. Thanks for the information you have provided in your blog as it proved to be very helpful for me in start writing my own blogs you have provided in this blog as it proved to be very helpful to me..

  8. I definitely agree that it is a good idea to go seasonal and local with wedding food. It narrows down your list, which I think reduces stress by a lot. I also think it makes the wedding more exciting. My cousin got married in December and at their reception they went all out with a hot chocolate bar. It wasn’t overly fancy, but it fit their wedding well and after their outdoor mountain wedding, I was glad it was there.

    • I love the hot chocolate bar idea! And you’re absolutely right, local/seasonal makes choosing easier, and the flavors will be better. Thanks for commenting.

  9. I am planning my wedding and while trying to figure out what to serve for the reception dinner I have had so many suggestions or vetos for what to have at my wedding. Looking through this article I really like the suggestion to think about the crowd. I have never thought of this meal as being a gift to my guests. I will definitely take into consideration the suggestions from my friends and family more.

    • Thanks so much for this feedback, Lillian! And good luck with your planning. You can’t (and won’t) please everyone, but that mentality did help us as a general guideline.

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