Home Wedding Planning Real Etiquette: Appetizer Reception Wording

Anonymous writes in with this question about the evening meal:

We’re trying to figure out what to serve our guests (170 ppl) at a 4pm reception. Our budget is $1000 for the food. We don’t want our guests to be hungry but we don’t have a lot of money to feed everyone. We’re thinking appetizers-only. How would this be worded on the invitation so our guests would know?

Hors d’oeuvre receptions are a lot of fun if they’re done well. Hang on here – I’m going on a slight tangent.

My concern here is not the wording but that you’re expecting to feed 170 guests on less than 6 bucks per head. Anonymous, that’s unreasonable even if you do only appetizers & non-alcoholic drinks or go 100% DIY.

Let’s do some math here. 4 pm is close to meal time so your guests through the course of a 4-hour reception will get pretty hungry.

  • You’ll need about 6 – 8 appetizers per person per hour. A 4 hour event x 6 appetizers x 170 people = 4080 appetizers.
  • You can count on about 5 drinks per person during that time; 850 beverages, minimum. (5 drinks x 170 people.)

You have $1000. So, if you can work in appetizers at an unheard of cost of $0.20 per appetizer, for example, you’ll spend $816.00, which leaves $184 for beverages, about $0.21 per drink. None of this includes plates, napkins, cups, etc. This is just food & non-alcohol bev.

Please, please, please revisit your plans and budget. I know you’re on a tight budget but that’s no excuse not to treat your guests well. Perhaps a pot-luck dinner would be a better option for you? Or cut the guest list dramatically so that you can spend a more realistic amount on food and drinks.

I’m not saying this to bring you down, I’m looking out for you and your guests here.

As for wording, on the reception card or at the end of your invite wording: “Cocktail reception and dancing to follow at….” would be fine.

23 replies to this post
  1. I just wanted to add my thoughts on having cocktail canapes, Hors d’oeuvre, etc., I think this is a great idea – we did this at our wedding reception and no one went hungry (which is great, as sometimes even at a sit-down dinner you still find yourself planning to hit the McDonalds drive through on the way home!)

    We catered at home (where the ceremony + reception was), had about 100 guests, and our budget for the food was about $1500-2000 (sorry, I can’t remember the exact final figure). Our parents also contributed to this food fund to splurge on a few luxury food things like fresh seafood (nothing over the top like lobster though but we could afford to splurge on a few things as my Mum cooked it all!)

    If anything, I just wanted to say that I think this is a great idea and I whole-heartedly recommend it, but you do need to be realistic – you will most probably be replacing a proper meal with little pastries, etc., so people will be grazing and trying to fill their bellies and you may find your food doesn’t last as long as you thought. One idea as mentioned is to have a non-alcoholic reception which could save costs as well, or shorten your reception time and perhaps encourage any guests to join you at an ‘after-party’ where they could also purchase food – a restaurant, bar, etc.

    Or, if you wanted to, forgo the reception, serve your cake and coffee at your place of ceremony, and keep it short and simple!

    But as mentioned, it’s important to be a good host. Better to down-scale your ideas to make the most of your budget, or perhaps see if something else can be reduced in favour of increasing your allowance for food. Best of luck!

  2. I just wanted to add my thoughts on having cocktail canapes, Hors d’oeuvre, etc., I think this is a great idea – we did this at our wedding reception and no one went hungry (which is great, as sometimes even at a sit-down dinner you still find yourself planning to hit the McDonalds drive through on the way home!)

    We catered at home (where the ceremony + reception was), had about 100 guests, and our budget for the food was about $1500-2000 (sorry, I can’t remember the exact final figure). Our parents also contributed to this food fund to splurge on a few luxury food things like fresh seafood (nothing over the top like lobster though but we could afford to splurge on a few things as my Mum cooked it all!)

    If anything, I just wanted to say that I think this is a great idea and I whole-heartedly recommend it, but you do need to be realistic – you will most probably be replacing a proper meal with little pastries, etc., so people will be grazing and trying to fill their bellies and you may find your food doesn’t last as long as you thought. One idea as mentioned is to have a non-alcoholic reception which could save costs as well, or shorten your reception time and perhaps encourage any guests to join you at an ‘after-party’ where they could also purchase food – a restaurant, bar, etc.

    Or, if you wanted to, forgo the reception, serve your cake and coffee at your place of ceremony, and keep it short and simple!

    But as mentioned, it’s important to be a good host. Better to down-scale your ideas to make the most of your budget, or perhaps see if something else can be reduced in favour of increasing your allowance for food. Best of luck!

  3. Anonymous would need to cut the guest list by more than half to make this work nicely. If they want to host all their friends, perhaps the couple should offer cake, punch and finger sandwiches at the church. They could be announced, have a first dance, mingle with their guests for an hour or two, cut the cake, and then toss the bouquet on their way out. Guests would still be home in time for a late dinner.

  4. Anonymous would need to cut the guest list by more than half to make this work nicely. If they want to host all their friends, perhaps the couple should offer cake, punch and finger sandwiches at the church. They could be announced, have a first dance, mingle with their guests for an hour or two, cut the cake, and then toss the bouquet on their way out. Guests would still be home in time for a late dinner.

  5. While I agree that she needs to treat her guests well, and that doing so includes feeding them an adequate amount, I disagree that her budget needs to be reworked. However, I think she is discovering what many other brides before her have discovered — appetizer receptions are actually just as expensive, if not more, than feeding a meal.

    While it may be difficult to find a caterer to do it, it is entirely possible to serve a meal for $6/head. Serve a nice salad, a pasta with marinara sauce, a side of green beans, and dinner rolls. This is even the type of thing someone in your family could do. However, if you find a small caterer and explain your situation, they may be willing to work with you.

    It will take a lot of work, but you can definitely do it. Good luck!

  6. While I agree that she needs to treat her guests well, and that doing so includes feeding them an adequate amount, I disagree that her budget needs to be reworked. However, I think she is discovering what many other brides before her have discovered — appetizer receptions are actually just as expensive, if not more, than feeding a meal.

    While it may be difficult to find a caterer to do it, it is entirely possible to serve a meal for $6/head. Serve a nice salad, a pasta with marinara sauce, a side of green beans, and dinner rolls. This is even the type of thing someone in your family could do. However, if you find a small caterer and explain your situation, they may be willing to work with you.

    It will take a lot of work, but you can definitely do it. Good luck!

  7. You said that very well. On average, 40-50% of a wedding budget is spent on the reception. You can opt for a wedding cake and non alcoholic punch mini reception at the same location where you’re holding the ceremony, thank everyone for coming and your guests leave after that. Brides that have opted for this usually do it in the lobby of their church immediately following the ceremony.

  8. You said that very well. On average, 40-50% of a wedding budget is spent on the reception. You can opt for a wedding cake and non alcoholic punch mini reception at the same location where you’re holding the ceremony, thank everyone for coming and your guests leave after that. Brides that have opted for this usually do it in the lobby of their church immediately following the ceremony.

  9. My question is, why is “cocktail reception” appropriate etiquette wording for a dry reception, as you have suggested?

  10. My question is, why is “cocktail reception” appropriate etiquette wording for a dry reception, as you have suggested?

  11. I really love the advise and suggestions you all provided. I have my wedding in 2 years so I’m soaking up all these great advise as much as I can.

  12. I really love the advise and suggestions you all provided. I have my wedding in 2 years so I’m soaking up all these great advise as much as I can.

  13. I’m on a very strict budget also, and found a Mexican restaurant that also does catering. I will be having a taco bar and paying $520.00 to feed 80 people. This includes as many different meats as I would like, 2 large containers of “agua frescas” (which are drinks) and tortilla chips with salsa. Of course, I will be purchasing MORE drinks and fruit/veggie trays from Sam’s Club also. So yes, it is very possible.
    I would check with “mom and pop” or “hole-in-the-wall” type of places and ask if they cater. Mexican is usually very inexpensive. I found my guy on Craigslist.
    BTW, I’m in California. It might be cheaper here?

  14. I’m on a very strict budget also, and found a Mexican restaurant that also does catering. I will be having a taco bar and paying $520.00 to feed 80 people. This includes as many different meats as I would like, 2 large containers of “agua frescas” (which are drinks) and tortilla chips with salsa. Of course, I will be purchasing MORE drinks and fruit/veggie trays from Sam’s Club also. So yes, it is very possible.
    I would check with “mom and pop” or “hole-in-the-wall” type of places and ask if they cater. Mexican is usually very inexpensive. I found my guy on Craigslist.
    BTW, I’m in California. It might be cheaper here?

  15. My daughter is getting married the middle of December and we are having it on a Friday night, because of scheduling at the church. We are planning an appetizer or hors d’oeruve reception because in order for most people to attend on a weeknight we are having the wedding at 6:30. I don’t think we should feel obligated to give them a meal if the wedding is later and the food probably won’t be served until 8:00. Is this incorrect?

  16. My daughter is getting married the middle of December and we are having it on a Friday night, because of scheduling at the church. We are planning an appetizer or hors d’oeruve reception because in order for most people to attend on a weeknight we are having the wedding at 6:30. I don’t think we should feel obligated to give them a meal if the wedding is later and the food probably won’t be served until 8:00. Is this incorrect?

  17. Cheryl,

    No, I don’t think you are obligated to serve a full meal, however, the guests will expect to be fed something unless you state it on the invitation. Most guests will not eat dinner before attending on a Friday night. If the budget is tight, maybe a smaller crowd would work. I do agree that appetizers aren’t always cheaper because people try to fill up on them since there is nothing else. I am on my third daughter’s wedding (in July) and it is always a “treat” trying to make the guests feel welcome and cared for and not to “break the bank”! Enjoy the planning and fun!

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