Nail Down a Budget
From the serving style and the number of guests to the appetizers at cocktail hour, every decision you make will impact cost; establishing a budget early on will help you stay on track.
An amazing menu begins with the right caterer, but to get your first pick, you'll have to book them early. How early? Usually around 12 months out, at the same time you're scouting venues. Some places will require you to use their caterer or will have a short list of wedding pros they work with exclusively. Even if you're allowed to bring in your own chef, you may be charged extra, so request a tasting with the in-house one. Look for chefs that are flexible and excited about trying out new dishes and ideas (and want to go beyond basic baked chicken).
Find Your Number
Your guest list and budget will help determine your menu. If serving an impressive spread is your top priority, consider limiting the list. If you can't imagine your wedding without 100 of your closest friends (not to mention every family member -- and that's not even counting your partner's guests), you might want to cut costs in creative ways (for instance, by doing a pasta bar with interesting vegetarian mix-ins instead of a traditional carving station).
Consider Dietary Restrictions and Allergies
Whether you have gluten-free guests, people who don't eat meat or someone with a peanut allergy, talk with your caterer about these challenges well in advance. "If your chef hears about a gluten-free diet or an allergy as they are plating the entrees, it can slow down the whole service," says Peter Callahan of Peter Callahan Catering in New York City.
Settle on a Style
Do you want a delish dinner to be the focus of the night? Then opt for a sit-down meal with multiple courses. Is music the main event? Pick a less formal dining style and menu, like passed appetizers and finger foods, so guests aren't weighed down by a big meal and can grab a bite before hitting the dance floor. Do your best friends and family have a lot to say? Go the sit-down route so you won't have every stiletto-wearing guest silently cursing before the cake is cut.
Go Local and Seasonal
Great cooks plan their menus around whatever's freshest that month or season. Your favorite summer tomato salad, for example, just won't be as juicy in January; pasta with a rich tomato sauce would be a better bet. Ask your caterer what ingredients will be the freshest when you're going to wed, and make your menu around those foods. Also, find the freshest options by going with regionally grown or raised choices. You've got a better shot at finding ocean-fresh lobster in Maine than in Minnesota.
Don't Make Anyone Sick
There's no worse way to make your menu memorable thank getting guests sick. To avoid causing a rampant wave of food poisoning (or third-degree burns), pass on raw meats, flambé, unpasteurized dairy, exotic animal products (bite-size haggis is never a good idea) or anything that's really spicy. Make sure your caterer is familiar with the foods they're preparing as well—sushi, for instance, should be made by an experienced sushi chef.
Add Personal Touches
Share the story of your relationship through your menu by serving dishes inspired by special moments, memories or things you love to do together (think: serving craft beer made in the city where you met, poutine that reminds you of your trip to Montreal or paella because it was the first meal your fiancé tried to cook for you—and burnt, but you ate it anyway).
"Think about what the majority of your guests will enjoy, keeping in mind things like where they are from, age range, food sophistication, time of day and time of year," says Alison Awerbach, a partner at Abigail Kirsch Catering in New York City. Try to hit all the bases with your spread: beef, seafood, poultry and vegetables. Tap into all the major tastes too—serve something slightly salty, something sweet, something bitter and something savory. So if you're having a pasta bar and always order spicy arrabiata sauce, make sure there's also a milder option for your grandma—the one who says green peppers are too hot for her.
Keep Up Appearances
Choose a caterer who cares as much about presentation as they do about taste. Be creative—instead of serving soup in a bowl, have it ladled into a hollowed-out acorn squash. Or serve coconut shrimp inside a coconut and garnish it with a tropical flower. You can also add small touches on your own, like a special signature cocktail or cocktail napkins and coasters in your wedding colors (check out TheKnotShop.com for more ideas).
Don't Skimp on Portions
If you're having a buffet, you may not need to give your caterer an exact head count, but you shouldn't try to scrimp more than he recommends. Not having enough food at the reception is a surefire way to leave an impression on your guests, but not a good one. "While it's true that caterers may bring 10 percent extra food, that doesn't mean you should count on there being extra. The extra food is a buffer for unexpected surprises, and they staff according to your number, so it's always best to be accurate," Callahan says.