How you serve dinner can have a big impact on the meal—and more.

Food: It's necessary for human survival—and for keeping your wedding guests happy.

Making the right choice on food for your wedding reception is no small matter. Consumer financial education resource ValuePenguin reports that brides and grooms can expect to spend an average of $4,200 to feed 140 guests (that's $30 a plate).

So how do you serve up crowd-pleasing food while being mindful of constraints such as budget, venue, timing, guest expectations and the overall feel of the reception? We turned to catering experts for guidance on a variety of service styles.

Plated

For a formal reception, plated service—where waiters deliver individual plates of food to each guest—is the way to go. It ensures that everyone receives their meal at the same time, rather than waiting in long buffet lines, and can ensure that a reception goes more smoothly, allowing for activities such as dancing and toasts to take place between the courses.

Plated meals are a lavish form of service, says Larry Clark, president and CEO of Made from Scratch Catering. “There's a gracious hospitality to it … with servers traditionally treating your guests with a great deal of style and dignity.”

Plated dinners can save food costs, but typically cost more in labor. Another drawback: a plated meal means you'll have gather meal preferences on your RSVP cards (and chase down those who don't respond), plus you'll need place cards for guests and a way for the servers know who ordered which entrée.

Buffet

If you're planning a wedding with a casual vibe, consider a buffet.

“I particularly like buffets,” says Clark. “They give us a chance to show off; we can bring props, décor, florals and things to complement the facility, complement the theme of the wedding. … There's a certain amount of generosity that's implied by providing a buffet, because people are helping themselves to the food. I also think that a buffet allows for more interpersonal interaction.”

A buffet service can benefit picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions because of the variety of foods they offer, although beware the overeaters: With a buffet, they may go for seconds (or thirds), increasing food costs. That said, you can save in labor costs because fewer wait staff are needed.

“Buffet is probably going to be a less expensive option if you are off-site at a venue that doesn't have its own kitchen. It's going to require less staffing and will have more food options,” says Carly Ziemer, Two Caterers' sales manager and catering specialist. That said, when Two Caterers hosts events at its own High Line Car House, “a served dinner is actually less expensive, because we have a full kitchen on-site,” she says.

Other potential drawbacks: Buffets can have long lines, and protracted service can disrupt other elements of the reception.

Family-Style

Family-style meals can provide the best aspects of plated and buffet service styles. As the name implies, guests are seated at a table while servers bring large portions of food on oversized platters to be passed around. Guests won't need to request meals in advance and will have a greater ability to choose their food and portion size à la buffet service, with the added benefit of more personal, efficient attention from wait staff.

Scott Bast, president and executive chef of Catering by Scott, says more than half of his customers opt for family-style service. “People love it because it's a beautiful presentation, it's a quick service—everybody's eating at the same time. You never have guests receiving their food when other guests are finished eating,” he says.

To serve 200 people a plated meal could take 30 to 40 minutes, and a buffet could take just as long, says Bast. By contrast, a family-style service could get the same job done in under 15 minutes.

That said, family-style meals often require larger tables to accommodate the platters of food, so they may not work in a smaller venue. You'll also likely need more wait staff than for a buffet, although fewer than for a plated meal.

Stations

Food stations—a twist on traditional buffets where food is spread out at multiple locations throughout the reception space—are another popular option. Compared to buffets, stations provide less congestion (and shorter lines) and encourage guests to move around the space. They also typically provide guests a greater variety of food options to choose from. Plus, they can be a source of entertainment, with chefs whipping up made-to-order crêpes or carving up prime rib right in front of guests.

Be prepared to offer up plenty of servings, however. Catering by Scott plans food for the stations with the expectation that every guest will want to sample food at every station. “There's nothing worse than running out of food,” Bast says. You may also find yourself paying more for chefs to staff your interactive stations, which can increase your catering bill.

Food Trucks

Food trucks are an increasingly popular choice. They offer a range of options, from tacos to barbecue to ice cream, and are perhaps the most casual option, with guests typically walking up to the trucks to place their orders. Paper plates and plastic utensils are almost expected (or at the very least, not a faux pas).

Two Caterers' sister company Sweet Carrot retired its own food truck after opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Grandview; Ziemer says she remains a fan of hybrid services that incorporate a truck alongside more traditional catering. “I think it's an element of surprise for the guests; it's unexpected, and they get so excited when one pulls up,” she says.

There are logistical challenges, however. You'll want to make sure that your venue has space for a truck or two to park (and for your guests to easily access the food). Your venue also may charge fees to provide trucks with electricity or extra equipment.

Ultimately, your caterer is your greatest resource in determining which service style is best for you, according to Ziemer. “When I talk to the bride and groom, they're always worried about everyone else … but it's really about your day,” she says. “People are here to celebrate you. They're getting food, they're drinking, they're having a good time, and they'll be fine with whatever is served.”