When receptions don't precede a dinner, but are held during standard dinner hours and are intended to take the place of dinner, food should be "heavy." Why? Because some attendees will make it their dinner.
Receptions can be tailored to any budget. Unlike other meal functions, you have more flexibility. There are many opportunities to be extravagant or frugal. For example, you can control the time allocated for the reception; you can offer a seafood bar with a few shrimp and a lot of inexpensive mussels arranged on crushed ice; or you can lead with expensive hors d'oeuvres and back them up with cheese and dry snacks.
Ideally, you should offer a complete balance of food type, color, temperature, preparation methods and so forth, to suit every taste. As this type of reception normally extends for a longer period of time than a pre-dinner reception, people will in effect be consuming the equivalent of dinner, so sufficient back-up food and beverage supplies must be available to prevent running out.
Here is a chart with some general guidelines that will help you estimate the amount of food to order for your group:
For receptions with no dinner following, you should anticipate needing about 10 to 14 pieces per person.
Nobody wants to run out of food. The most important information in deciding how much food to order is the history of the group: Who are they? Why are they here? A pretty good determination can be made based on previous years. If this is a new group, or the history is not available, then consider the demographics of the attendees. If there are more females then males in the group you can trend toward ordering 10 pieces, but if the group composition is the other way around, you should go for 14 pieces. Depending on the group, you should also consider ordering a carving station with beef, turkey, ham, and/or salmon.
To encourage mingling, and to control food costs, you should request the caterer to have servers passing foods in addition to, or instead of, placing food buffet stations throughout the room. Attendees tend to eat less if the foods are passed. (Generally speaking, if the foods are displayed on a buffet table where guests can help themselves, they will eat twice as much as they would if all foods were passed butler-style by servers.) You would want to compare this savings with the extra labor cost, though, before making this decision.
When paying per-person, you pay more, but you don’t run out. With per-person, you pay to avoid running out; you don’t actually purchase a set amount of food or beverage. The middle ground is to ask the caterer to keep the food and beverage coming, and to charge you for actual consumption. While you don’t know up-front what your final cost will be, at least you won’t run out.
If you are on a tight budget, you can save a bit of money by ordering only so much food and beverage, such as one tray of this, two trays of that, one bottle of this, two bottles of that, etc. This is risky because you may run out and leave some attendees disappointed.
However, when you order trays and bottles, you own the products and get to use the leftovers for another event, or send them to a hospitality suite. When you order per-person, the leftovers belong to the caterer because you are not buying a quantity of food or beverage, you are purchasing assurance that every attendee will have something to eat and drink.
Reception menu items should be bite-sized to allow attendees to sample a wide variety of foods without wasting too much of it. It ensures that the foods will be easy to consume. Ease of consumption is very important since attendees may have to balance plates, glassware, handbags, business cards, and cell phones while moving around.
Order finger food. Plates may increase your cost by over one-third. Be particularly certain that the caterer does not use dinner-sized plates for receptions. Plates encourage overeating and excessive waste because an attendee may fill the plate, eat some of the food, set the plate down somewhere, forget it, and then go back for another plate of food. It is not what quantity people eat; it’s how much they put on their plate. Another disadvantage of using plates: attendees with plates full of food will try to find a place to sit down to eat and will not mingle and network very much, if at all.
Foods should not be messy or greasy and they should not leave stains on clothes or teeth. Be careful not to order over-sauced foods, such as barbecued chicken wings, that might drip when guests are eating them. A better choice would be boneless chicken tenders that are lightly coated or served with a stiff sauce on the side.
If you offer butlered foods, you should place only one type of food on a tray, or attendees will take too long to make their selections. If they cannot decide easily what to take, they may take one of each. This will slow down service because the servers will not be able to work the room quickly and efficiently. It also might encourage over-consumption and food waste. Butlered food should always be "finger food" – food that can be consumed without eating utensils. The server should always carry a small stack of cocktail napkins.
With butlered service, your labor charge will be a bit higher. This should be offset with a lower food cost. Attendees will consume less if foods are passed. You also can control the pace of service. You can stagger service by having servers with trays sent out every fifteen minutes instead of taking all the food out at one time. Passed foods lend an air of elegance to the reception that many attendees will appreciate. Be sure servers are assigned areas of the room to cover, or one side of the room may get all of the food.