When it comes to wedding receptions, a sit-down do isn't for everyone - and the reasons are many.

Perhaps you just have too many guests, either to find a suitable venue or to find room in the budget. Perhaps you fancy walking around and mingling with your guests, not to mention getting everyone on the dance floor sooner rather than later. It may be that an intimate gathering is just your style.

Either way, there are a few key points to bear in mind when planning a cocktail party, starting with the invitations. Give your guests an early heads up as to the style of reception you're staging with phrases such as "please join us for cocktails at....." and indicate "cocktail" if you're mentioning dress code to save your friends agonising over the appropriate attire.

In terms of timing, cocktail receptions may be held during the afternoon, particularly if you're marrying in a garden or seaside setting, and more commonly when held indoors during the evening but they're usually limited to no more than around three to 4 hours out of consideration for the fact that most people will be standing throughout - and many in heels.

Of course there's no hard and fast rule here and if you plan on celebrating late into the night, consider providing additional seating. The traditional ratio is to have enough seats for about a third of your guests, made up of bar stools, regular seats and armchairs or couches scattered around (strategically of course).

Many wedding decorators and hire companies have luxury furniture and lavish furnishings available for hire for one off occasions, that can transform small spaces at your reception into a very cool rooms for wedding weary guests to relax and put their feet up.

Just because a wedding reception is cocktail in style doesn't mean it has to forgo the traditional formalities such as speeches, cake cutting and the couple's first dance. Having said that, if you're opting for a cocktail function because you want to avoid the conventional customs, go for it.

However, if you do decide to include them then be sure to include a platform and microphone for your emcee and speakers so that standing guests can all see clearly, think of a visible location to cut the cake and set out an area as a dance floor.

You'll also need to put some thought into the flow of the evening, perhaps planning speeches reasonably early in the evening since the timing need not be structured around a three-course dinner.

Once you've kicked the idea of a sit down meal into touch it can be a touch daunting deciding what to serve, as well as when and how much. The general rule of thumb is to dish up a wide variety of hot and cold canapés - around eight to 10 of each for several hours - more if you plan to party late into the night.

cocktail food ideas

Carlos Walters

Some of the most popular hot hors d'oeuvres served at cocktail parties currently include:

  • Lamb fillet with mushroom duxelle wrapped in pastry
  • Pails of wild mushroom risotto with quail or demboned lamb shanks on creamy mash
  • Fish and chips in cones with tartare sauce
  • Peking duck crepes and all manner of dumplings

On the cold side, popular picks include:

  • Vietnamese-style rice paper rolls
  • Tea-smoked ocean trout on a crisp potato roesti
  • Vegetable tartlets
  • Pails with a myriad of fillings such as  chicken and green tea noodle salad with mint and sweet chilli

We suggest that you ask your Caterer what they recommend and are comfortable creating and serving on the night. Most reputable caterers have a menu from which to make your selections and they should offer a tasting once your have confirmed your booking with them.

Increasingly, couples are choosing to serve canapés during the first 90 minutes of the cocktail reception, followed by a self-serve "dessert bar" or "lolly buffet" which can include a range of sweet treats from tarts and mini ice-cream cones (if you can keep them cold), to chocolate fountains, macaroons and any number of lollies in all sorts of colours and flavours. And as part of the table decoration, why not include your wedding cake as the centrepiece?

A trend borrowed from the UK is to take a break from serving food to allow for plenty of dance floor action, before giving your guests something to munch on at the end of the night such as mini pizzas, bacon rolls or hot dogs. Classy food is usually not a high priority by midnight, but soaking up alcohol may be! For something more substantial make a show of it and set up bars of food or food stations managed by the chef, such as noodle bars, paella or curry bars.

To indicate that the evening is drawing to a close, ask your venue to serve wedding cake and coffee about an hour before you plan to finish and of course you can give your band or DJ the hint to change the tone of the music once you're into the last half hour or so. We've all been to enough weddings, 21st's and work christmas functions to know the songs which signal the night's drawing to a close.

Wedding Tip:

With no chairs to hang jackets consider having a cloakroom where guests can safely keep their jackets while enjoying your cocktail wedding reception.

Vicki Grafton Photography

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