How Long Is A Wedding Dinner?

fall colors wedding dinner
A festive setting for a wedding dinner

After getting ready, walking down the aisle, and cocktail hour photos, you and your guests will be ready for the main meal! When planning your wedding day and what the timeline looks like, the dinner is a crucial part of the day’s success. As usual here at Loud Bride, we’ll give you what’s traditional and how you can mix it up. We get into the details of what kinds of dinners you can plan, how they fit into the wedding timeline and how long wedding dinners last.

Wedding dinners are 30 minutes to 1 hour long, with some dinners stretching to 2-3 hours and spanning the length of the reception. The length of a wedding dinner can change with the format of the meal and number of guests. A multi-course meal with breaks in between courses for toasts and dancing takes up the most time.

What else goes into planning a wedding dinner? Read on for the types of wedding dinners and which one is right for your day.

Where Does Dinner Fit Into the Wedding Timeline?

The Wedding Dinner is traditionally held during the reception, after the couple has exchanged vows. The flow of a typical wedding is Ceremony > Cocktail Hour > Reception > Send Off. Most people in the United States plan to serve their wedding dinner around 5 or 6 pm but having a dinner that starts later in the evening is not uncommon. Depending on the type of dinner you have, the dinner may be just a portion of the reception that happens prior to dancing or it can be the main event and take up the bulk of the reception.

Types of Wedding Dinners

There are four main ways to serve dinner to your wedding guests: a buffet dinner where everyone serves themselves, a plated sit-down dinner where guests are served their individual meals at the table, a family-style dinner where guests are served large platters of food to be shared at the table and a cocktail-style dinner where items are passed on trays as guests mingle. Keep reading for more details on each of these dinners or skip to alternatives to the traditional wedding dinner.

The Buffet Dinner

picture of a cheese and fruit spread buffet
A cheese and fruit buffet

A buffet dinner is an economical way to serve your guests a variety of options in an informal setting.


  • Casual tone
  • Fast service if you have fewer tables
  • Guests can choose to eat as much as they’d like
  • More affordable with less need for staff to wait on tables
  • More variety in options to serve


  • Not great for larger weddings unless you have multiple buffet tables. Lines can form or people are stuck waiting at their tables for a long time
  • Too casual for more formal venues
  • May be more difficult to accommodate allergies / dietary needs unless foods are clearly labeled and care is taken not to cross contaminate
  • While usually more affordable, the costs can creep up if you add too many options

The Plated Sit-Down Dinner

a photo of a plated sit down dinner with eucalyptus runner
A plated sit-down dinner gives traditional wedding vibes

The plated sit-down dinner is the traditional choice at weddings and sets a formal, celebratory tone for the evening. The courses can be served at a fast pace with an appetizer salad and bread to start, the entree served to each person according to their preference, and dessert to finish. The courses can also be staggered with toasts, dancing, and other milestones in between each course. The latter format typically elongates the dinner, making it the main event of the evening.


  • Formal tone
  • Easy to plan how much food to prepare
  • Predictable service timing with a clear beginning, middle and end.


  • More expensive depending on your meal choices
  • Less variety and a smaller menu
  • Many caterers ask for guests’ meal choices ahead of time, requiring more planning

The Family-Style Dinner

a photo of a family-style dinner
Pass the hors d’oeuvres family-style

A popular option when a restaurant is your wedding venue, the family-style meal gives you a nice cross between a buffet and a formal plated dinner.


  • Can be as fancy and celebratory as a plated dinner but lends a relaxed tone
  • More variety of options
  • Guests can eat as much as they’d like
  • Encourages communication among guests


  • Also can be hard to label allergies and dietary restrictions
  • More expensive option because venues prepare more food and need to provide staff to serve tables

The Cocktail-Style Dinner

a photo of fancy appetizers
No “half-off apps” vibes here

Many people are familiar with this style of meal for the cocktail hour, but you can actually plan the entire party around the cocktail-style meal. Make sure you alert your guests that dinner will be served this way so they know not to save room for a seated dinner and can fill up on the passed plates.


  • Interactive and fun alternative to the traditional
  • Can be a more affordable way to feed a crowd
  • Very casual


  • Some guests will can’t stand for the entire reception so make sure to provide a few places to sit
  • Will need lots of variety to keep things interesting and fill guests up

Do I Even Need To Serve Dinner?

Speaking of alternatives to a seated dinner, it’s not necessary to serve your guests dinner at all. If a dinner sounds like a snooze fest or just isn’t in the budget, here are some ways you can skip supper altogether:

  • Have a wedding brunch
    • A daytime wedding can be a nice change from the typical evening affair. Serve breakfast food buffet-style like french toast and muffins or have a staffed omelet station. End with tea, coffee, and cake.
  • Host a wedding happy hour
    • This is great for courthouse or smaller weddings. Take your guests out after for a Happy Hour with some apps and an open bar.
  • Center around the ceremony
    • If you are having a ceremony only, send your guests home with a sweet treat as a wedding favor so they’ll still be fed without having to plan a whole dinner.
  • Bring in food trucks
    • A fun alternative if your venue allows. Pay for a few food trucks to stop by and give out pre-paid food and drink tickets so guests can choose what they’d like to try. If they want to buy additional food, give them the option.
  • Plan an activity-based wedding
    • For the adventurous couple, have your wedding at a theme park or zoo and sprinkle food options throughout the venue instead of having a formal dinner so guests can explore the attractions without going hungry.

Many people consider dinner the main affair at a wedding, after the vows of course, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be traditional or stuffy. You can switch things up to meet your style as a couple and the theme of your day. Keep things casual or take it up a notch in fanciness; have apps for dinner or make it all about the French Toast. It’s your day and it’s up to you.

Looking for more interesting tips? Check out my exclusive, free Facebook group for Bold On A Budget Weddings.


Jaime is the owner of Loud Bride and Coast Designs LLC. She got married in 2017 in Geneseo, NY and designed her own wedding invitations and programs for the occasion. Now, she designs bespoke wedding stationery and affordable templates for other couples. She lives in New York city with her husband and two children.

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