One of the most daunting tasks about planning a wedding is hiring a caterer. There’s a lot of money involved, and caterers have their own language, which can be difficult to understand. Here, then, is a glossary of the wedding industry language used by caterers, and how to use it to get the wedding you want.

Off-premise – The caterer travels to your location – home, wedding venue, wherever – with all that they need to set up, prepare, and execute your event. They generally bring staff, kitchen equipment, food, and beverages. In Maryland, they need a special license if they are bringing and serving alcoholic beverages.

Full-service – The caterer and their staff supply, prepare, and serve the food; supply, prepare, and serve the beverages; set up (and sometimes provide) the tables and chairs; supply and set up the table settings; staff the bar; cut and serve your wedding cake or other dessert; bus the tables and keep the space tidy during the wedding; break everything down at the end of the wedding; clean up the space; and coordinate with all of the other wedding professionals to see that the wedding runs smoothly and on time.

Hors d’oeuvres – Not to be confused with appetizers, the latter being a prelude or, if you will, a warm-up to a meal. Hors d’oeuvres are stand-alone food, in the sense of a snack. In the context of a wedding they are either served as stationary or passed, with the latter being one- or two-bite-sized servings. 

Hors d’oeuvres sometimes allow you to include an item on the menu that is too expensive to serve as an entrée – crab, for instance – where crab dip takes the place of steamed crabs (and is much neater to serve!).

Stationary hors d’oeuvres – Hors d’oeuvres that are displayed on a table, accompanied by plates, napkins, and silverware, as needed. Guests serve themselves. Common stationary hors d’oeuvres include dips with crackers or bread, cheeses, crudités (veggies, usually raw), and charcuterie (meats, often with cheese and bread). 

Passed or butlered hors d’oeuvres – Hors d’oeuvres that are carried and served to guests by a member of the catering wait staff. The staff member typically approaches guests individually, and often describes the hors d’oeuvres as they are offered.

Cocktail hour – The hour or so after the wedding ceremony and before meal service during which beverages and hors d’oeuvres are served. 

Buffet – A meal style in which guests go to a table or a group of tables clustered together, where food is presented as either self-service or staff-served, or a combination of both. In all cases, the guests move along the table(s) from item to item to fill their plates. 

Seated and served – In this meal style, guests remain at their seats while the wait staff delivers and presents a plate of food to each individual guest. 

Stations – Similar to buffet, in that guests go to the food rather than have it brought to them, stations are multiple buffets, each in a separate part of the room. Stations are often themed. There might be a salad station in one part of the room, a pasta station in another, and a meat-carving station in another. It’s common to have three or more stations. Stations are often used at cocktail-style weddings.

Cocktail-style – An excellent service style for mingling, a cocktail-style reception includes a full meal, with the food served at stations and in such a way that guests don’t need a knife. That gives guests the freedom to move about, “dock” at a cocktail-height table (of which there are usually many), and mingle while eating – just like during the cocktail hour. Seating in this style of service is limited in most instances to up to a third of the guest count.

Family-style – A less common form of meal service, large platters or bowls of food are set at each guest table, and guests help themselves from these common containers. Food waste tends to be high with family-style, with commensurate costs.

Full seating – Every guest has a seat at a table for meal service. Seats might be assigned or unassigned. The meal service style is either buffet or seated and served, or rarely, family-style.

More next time!

Author Profile

David Egan
David Egan
David L. Egan is the proprietor and steward of Chase Court, a wedding and event venue in downtown Baltimore. Visit, and follow ChaseCourtWeddingVenue on Instagram and Facebook.