Indian wedding reception at Calamigos Ranch

Buffet vs. Plated Meals at Indian Weddings

Updated March 2020

In this article we are going to detail the pros and cons of buffet vs. plated meals at Indian weddings. The majority of Indian weddings have outside catering. The default service style with outside catered meals is buffet vs. plated. This is especially relevant for Indian cuisine as:

  1. Indian food is not conducive to pre-portioned, plated service.
  2. Indian people like being able to select what they want and what they don’t want to eat.
  3. Many people have dietary restrictions making the planning and execution of plated meals at an Indian wedding particularly challenging.
  4. Because of liability issues venues prefer to provide limited services for outside catered events.

{Venue Policies on Serving Meals}

Before we dive into buffet vs. plated meals at Indian weddings, it’s prudent to point out that when most venues’ outside catering packages are based on serving buffet meals. That is not to say that venues do offer a plated meal option, but that is not the pricing found in the outside catering package. Plated meals would be priced higher. How much higher? It depends on several factors: number of guests, number of dishes, types of dishes and more.

There’s cooperation between the venue and the outside caterer. The caterer prepares all the food and transports it to the venue. The venue supplies chafing dishes, sternos, tables to setup the buffet, an area for the caterer to set up their satellite kitchen, servers that replenish empty dishes and serve hors d’oeuvres during cocktail hour, supply the china, flatware, and glassware.

Kitchen Access Not Allowed. We call it a satellite kitchen because it’s generally an outdoor makeshift cooking area that the caterer sets up to prepare naan and other items. At most venues, outside caterers are not allowed to use the venue’s kitchen to cook, stage, nor store anything. Why? Because there are too many liability issues. Additionally, even though outside catering is a generally accepted practice at many venues, they remain wary of it. There is always a risk of things like guests getting sick as a result of the food and naturally venues are concerned about the potential impact on them.

{Pros and Cons of: Buffet, Plated, and Family style meals at Indian weddings}

{Buffet Meals at Indian Wedding Venues}

Buffet Pros:

  • Guests can select items and quantities according to their preferences.
  • Buffets are much better to accommodate the dietary restrictions that South Asians have.
  • Indian cuisine in general is more conducive to a buffet, rather than plated or family style. Why? Because there are a lot of individual items in Indian cuisine and from a logistics standpoint it’s a lot more work (therefore cost).

Indian cuisine is not like a lot of Western cuisines that revolve around a main entree with side dishes. In Indian cuisine the ‘main’ is a sum of equal parts that make it whole: vegetables, lentils, rice, yogurt, bread and sometimes meat and/or fish.

North Indian food on a plate

Another important distinction is that Indian cuisine generally isn’t consumed in multiple courses, the way Western cuisines are.

Buffet Cons:

  • In general, buffets are considered less elegant than plated meals.
  • If not planned well, there can be long lines.

With regards to the elegance (or lack thereof) of buffet meals, the pertinent considerations are
1. do you agree with that sentiment?
2. where do you stand in the elegance-guest experience trade off? Do you put place more value on elegance or guest experience?

You may be wondering, “well why can’t there be an elegant, plated Indian meal?” Below we share a real example from a large (500 guests) Indian wedding at a 5-star resort with a plated meal at the reception, and how that turned out.

Guests getting dinner in the buffet line at an outdoor Indian wedding reception.
Photo: HDE Video Concepts

{Plated Meals at Indian Weddings}

Plated meals are uncommon at Indian weddings. For several reasons:

Labor. Since Indian wedding receptions typically have at least 350 guests, there has to be a lot of servers to make plated meals work well. Otherwise, instead of waiting in a long buffet line, guests are still waiting…but at their tables.

The standard venue outside catering package comes with 1 server per 30 guests. That’s averages to 1 server for every 3 tables. For plated meals to really work, you need 1 server per table. That’s a 3x increase in servers, which will increase your costs significantly.

Whether Buffet or Plated: Guests Wait

How do plated meals work for Indian weddings? First the servers distribute 1 plate per guest with the curries, sabzis, and rice. They distribute that plate to every guest and then distribute naan. So there’s a lag in between them. And as mentioned above, Indian cuisine is a sum of equal parts, so the meal is incomplete without the naan. As a result, guests are waiting to start eating until they have naan.

The naan arrives in the same way as it does when you go out to eat an Indian restaurant. In a basket to be shared and passed around the table.

And during that time, the food is getting cold.

What Happens When the Table Runs Out of Naan?

You have to get the attention of a server to replenish the basket…which could also take a while since that one server is attending to similar requests from 2 other tables and 29 other guests.

Dietary Restrictions, Plated Meals, Coordination. The 2nd logistical issue with plated meals at Indian weddings is managing the many dietary restrictions of guests: food prepared per vegetarian, Jain, Hindu, Swaminarayan, halal and other dietary requirements.

Think about the additional logistics of having a plated meal. Now you have to coordinate amongst the caterer AND the venue WITH your reception seating chart because the servers will need to know what tables those with dietary restrictions are seated. And before you can even embark on that coordination effort, it means that you have to know the dietary restrictions/preferences of each guest. How are you going to collect that info? In your RSVPs? Reaching out to each guest? Or perhaps you already know. You have to organize that information into a spreadsheet and share it with the caterer and the venue.

Or are all the vegetarians or Jains or halal-only people going to sit at the same table(s) at your reception? Because if not, then that means delays in plated meal service as the servers will have to manage which plates they serve table-by-table.

What if a Server Brings Out the Wrong Plate? This will happen at least once. And I can tell you from personal experience as a vegetarian that one of three things are likely to happen: the vegetarian will receive his/her plate after the server has finished with the rest of their tables, leaving that person the lone one, not eating at the table and waiting a lot longer to eat. Or the server will forget about the vegetarian altogether as they’re super busy and have other requests flying at them. Or third, if your event is at a 5-star resort, the server will bring the correct plate in a timely manner.

What If The Plated Meal Is All Vegetarian? This is a great way around most dietary restrictions. And luckily vegetarian Indian cuisine is delicious. But even at Indian weddings where all of the outside catered cuisine was vegetarian, as mentioned above, unless you hire enough staff, the lag between the plated subzi/curries and the naan can be a good 10 minutes which is not a great experience for guests. I would argue that guest appreciation for the elegant plated serving style, is less than their appreciation for the flexibility and timeliness of the buffet.

Plated Meal Pros:

  • Elegant
  • Formal

Plated Meal Cons: 

  • Guests have to wait – at their table, instead of the buffet line
  • Guests don’t get to select dishes nor quantities
  • Not good for dietary restrictions
  • Not all caterers can do plated meals
  • Costs more

Next we’ll talk about family style meals.

Indian wedding samosas single served on cups
Mexican food served an a sangeet for an Indian wedding.
Photo: VEK Photo

{Family Style Meals at Indian Weddings}

Similar to plated meals, family style meals are very uncommon at Indian weddings. They have all of the challenges of plated meals, plus one more aspect that could really crush your decor.

You know when you go out to an Indian or Thai restaurant and they bring each item in those nice metal dishes that are placed at the centre of the table? Well imagine if you’re at a wedding and there are 7-8 items per table. Where would your centerpieces go?

Labor and Logistics. From a labor standpoint, for a family style meal it means that your caterer has to have that many serving dishes and utensils. For an Indian wedding with 350 guests, and 10 guests per table – that’s 35 tables and 280 dishes and 280 serving utensils!

Dietary Restrictions. Similar to plated meals, how do you manage guests with dietary restrictions? Do you seat all the guests with the same dietary restrictions together?

Rationing Portions: As dishes get passed around the table, the last person to receive it, may find there’s hardly any left. And trying to get the attention of a server that’s managing 3 tables with 7-8 dishes per table? Good luck.

Family Style Pros:

  • Indian food is very family-style friendly
  • It’s unique to have at a reception

Family Style Cons:

  • Portions are often too small
  • Getting refills isn’t easy
  • Accommodating dietary restrictions is challenging
  • Conflicts with decor/centerpieces
  • More labor and cost

{Summary and Take Aways}

This article is about weighing the pros and cons of buffet vs. plated meals at Indian weddings. The default for outside catered Indian weddings – which make up the majority, is a buffet. Venue outside catering package pricing also reflects this default position. Above, we detailed why buffets are the most popular vs. plated meals. And, listed the pros and cons of each.

Key Take Away: From a cost, planning, and guest experience perspective, buffets make the most sense for outside catered Indian weddings with Indian cuisine.

Challenges With Plated Meals at Indian Weddings:

  • Labor + Cost
  • Guest Experience
  • Dietary Restrictions
  • Planning Logistics

Challenges With Family Style Meals at Indian Weddings

All of the challenges of plated meals, space occupied on the table.

  • Labor + Cost
  • Guest Experience
  • Dietary Restrictions
  • Planning Logistics
  • Space Occupied on the table

Why Buffets Are Best for Indian Weddings

  • Better guest experience – flexibility to choose items and quantities
  • Easily accommodate dietary restrictions
  • The nature of Indian cuisine – multiple items make up the whole to complete the meal

All of this food talk is making us hungry! Hopefully this information has provided some useful insight as you plan your Indian wedding. Congratulations! 🙂

Cover Image: Lin & Jirsa Photography

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