From comfort food to easy-on-your-guests serving options, catering today is all about keeping it simple.

For Matt and Kaylea Annen, the food served to their wedding guests wasn't an afterthought. The self-described food lovers like variety, and they struggled to decide on just one menu. Instead of the traditional beef-or-chicken buffet, they opted for a trend that's been gaining attention in the wedding-catering world: food stations.

"It was the best way to please everybody," Kaylea says. "Everyone could find something they liked."

A la carte Italian and Asian-fusion stations (catered by Sodexo) offered an assortment of entree combinations for meat eaters and vegetarians alike, and a junk-food station provided classics like cheeseburger sliders and fried mac-and-cheese bites.

While food stations have been popping up at receptions for a few years, they've officially reached "trend" status more recently.

Many caterers still offer their traditional menu items in these individual service stations, reformatted to fit their standard build-your-own style. Berwick Manor Banquet Center & Catering specializes in authentic Italian food and serves classic dishes in plated dinners, buffets and now from food stations.

Couples "want something more fun and playful," says Stephanie Susi-Ochoa of Berwick Manor. "It's less formal [than plated dinners and buffets], and guests can interact more, circulate throughout the room."

They offer stations with customizable pasta dishes, pizzas and calzones, as well as salads, whipped potatoes and sliders. Of those, couples can select the ones they want and even request specific options tailored to their tastes.

Food stations also help meet the needs of guests with dietary restrictions. Unlike plated dinners or buffets that require couples to choose specific vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free menu items to
serve, stations enable guests to decide exactly what goes on their plates. Vegetarians can opt out of adding meat to their pasta entree, and those who avoid gluten can stick to the salad station.

These self-serve stations can also help alleviate space concerns.

The Annens were married in a ceremony at North Bank Park where, immediately after, they hosted their reception, too. The question of how to feed 200 guests in the half-indoor, half-outdoor space had them worried. The park doesn't have an on-site kitchen, which ruled out a plated dinner, and the indoor facility only fits about 100 people, which doesn't leave much room for a buffet line.

"That was part of the challenge," Kaylea says. "You have to be creative with how you're going to set up things."

So the couple and their caterer scattered stations throughout the venue, allowing guests to easily navigate the tent outside and the room inside.

Stations might be trending, but the classic plated dinners and sit-down buffets are still popular. Deciding between the two can be a daunting task.

Budget, naturally, is the first thing to consider.

The cost per plate for a sit-down dinner is generally higher than that of a dinner served buffet style. But if the caterer has access to an on-site kitchen, they are better able to deliver freshly prepared food to the buffet line immediately, ensuring it is restaurant quality when it hits guests' plates, says Steven Sims of Steven's Catering.

"It will save a lot of the kitchen labor time and save the labor dollar," allowing couples to be on budget without sacrificing quality, Sims says.

A compromise between the elegance of plated dinners and budget-friendly buffets is found within a trend wedding planner Nora McCoy says is gaining popularity. Family-style dinners are fairly new on the wedding scene and are less expensive than traditional plated dinners. Because large portions of food are brought to each table so guests can serve themselves-as with a typical family dinner-rather than pre-plated and switched out for multiple courses, labor costs are lower.

Next up is size.

"Size will really determine whether you should have a sit-down, [plated] dinner or a buffet," says McCoy, owner of Party Planners Plus. When the number of guests exceeds 150, she suggests adding serving lines to the buffet to maintain quick service.

Once couples have settled on how their guests will be served, next they must decide what to serve them.

To get a feel for the menu, Melissa Johnson, director of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, asks couples about their style, taste and dining-out preferences-sometimes asking them to name their favorite Cameron Mitchell restaurant. She says it helps them determine if they want to serve something upscale and formal or something more casual, in both style and taste.

For a classic buffet, she recommends an upscale chicken dish or short rib. For plated dinners, she suggests filet of beef tenderloin and sea bass. To give a buffet a more formal touch, Johnson likes adding crab cake or shrimp. When it comes to picking sides, think about the seasons. Peas and asparagus in light sauces are a good choice for the spring and summer, while hearty root vegetables work better in the fall and winter.

Sims can create a menu for any budget. While sometimes he works with couples who want braised grouper with fennel and a tomato and olive oil risotto, chicken parmesan is requested more often. But he says it's the quality of the food that's important, not how big the budget is.

"You can still do chicken Marsala with a nice thyme aromatic rice and a baby green salad with balsamic vinaigrette," Sims says. "It might not be prime rib or ahi tuna, but [guests] still feel like they have a nice menu."

With barn weddings and rustic themes still trending, comfort foods remain menu staples. Short ribs, pulled pork, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese tend to replace traditional menu items at outdoor weddings and some indoor weddings, McCoy says.

Comfort food is taking over food stations, too, Susi-Ochoa adds. At Berwick Manor, they offer an American barbeque station with pulled pork sliders and brisket.

"Comfort food fits the theme" of rustic chic, McCoy says, a trend that welcomes Mason jars, organic decor and DIY table toppers.

Johnson says while this theme is still very trendy, couples are starting to add a little more formality to it.

"Rustic chic has been popular, but now it's more of a polished organic-woodland style," she says. Couples are adding elegant touches and bits of glamour to the woodsy theme not only through their food menu, she says, but also through what's being served behind the bar.

Boutique wines, craft beers and specialty cocktails are being served with lots of flavor and experimentation.

"Personalized cocktails are a big trend for us," Johnson says. All Cameron Mitchell cocktails are chef-designed and handcrafted with fresh ingredients-no bottled syrups or juices.

Johnson also says couples like to offer craft drinks in non-alcoholic ways-for example, flavored loose-leaf teas, coffee or house-made sodas.

Another trend is the disappearance of the traditional cake, which has been replaced by cupcakes in recent years.

"Cupcakes are still very fun, but that craze is running down a little bit," Johnson says.

Now these towers of flavorful single-serving treats are being edged out by atypical desserts like macaroons, doughnuts and crepes.

"[We're seeing] gourmet and eclectic combinations," she says. "So not just raspberry [macaroons], but peanut butter and jelly or honey-lavender."

The Annens offered guests cupcakes in addition to a wedding cake. They also brought in ice cream, scooped fresh from a Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams cart.

"Everybody loved it," Kaylea says of the variety and the ice-cream surprise. As for their decision to serve from stations rather than from a buffet line: "I think it worked for us, for our venue and for our guests and friends and family. It was right for us."