How to Plan the Best Wedding Reception: Ideas, Songs, & More!

by: Wedding Shoppe Blogger: Hannah Arkelin

Let’s face it: You and spouse will remember your ceremony forever, but your guests will remember the reception.

This fact doesn’t mean they’re insensitive to the commitment you’re making to your one-and-only, they’re just looking for a good time!

Don’t you want to throw the best wedding reception of all time?

I thought so.

How do you go about hosting such a memorable shindig? Well, that’s where I come in.

I’ve attended my fair share of receptions, done my research, and come up with a list of fun tips and ideas to make any post-ceremony affair one to remember.

I’ll cover the timeline, food, alcohol, music (playlist included), and the 2015-16 trends. You ready?

Let’s go.

How to Plan the Best Wedding Reception of All Time:

Before you can start planning the party of all parties, you need to uncover the ambiance you’re looking for.

Ask yourself: What’s my definition of fun?

Do you want to dance until midnight? Whip out your favorite board games? Play yard games with a beer in hand? Or even enjoy some drinking games?

Discuss the options with your fiancé. Think about what you two want first. If you’re stuck between a few choices, it’s time to consider your attendees.

Do you think your list of friends and family would find certain activities more enjoyable than others? Then use those preferences to create your ambiance.

Just remember you can’t please everyone! This is your big day. Do what’ll make you happy.

How many people?

Do you want a huge gathering? Would a small and intimate affair be more your style? Your guest list needs to coincide with the type of night you’re looking for.

If cuts are necessary, then make them! Don’t invite friends or family just because you feel like you have to. I guarantee you’ll regret it.

Figure out your seating chart.

This project affects much more than dinner—it can impact your entire night! You have to be strategic.

Try to seat everyone with people they know. Keep age groups in the same area. Put kids close to their parents, but at a separate table.

Keep singles in one area for potential flirtation.

Tip: If you need to put a few stragglers at one table, place Mad Libs, cards, or board games in the middle. It’s a great way to break the ice and help them get to know one another in a fun way.

Don’t skip a receiving line.

I know this is a common choice—one of my best friends just skipped it. I totally get why people forgo this time-consuming tradition, but here’s why I wouldn’t…

If you get the hellos and hugs out of the way, you can start enjoying your reception that much quicker. Less mingling means more dancing.

Keep your guests comfortable.

I get super crabby when I’m hot, and I know I’m not alone. If you’re having an outdoor wedding, make sure there’s plenty of shade for your guests. Keep them cool and hydrated however you can.

If you’ve chosen to wed outside in a cooler month, make sure everyone stays warm. Rent heaters, provide blankets and shawls, and have coffee and cider available.

Keep the speeches short.

There is nothing worse than a long toast. I used to cater weddings, and I would watch people shift uncomfortably in their seats as they waited for the MOH to stop crying or dad to wrap up his third story.

Give everyone a time-limit. Sometimes the shortest speeches are the sweetest.

Feel free to skip some traditions.

Is the garter toss too up close and personal? Maybe none of your friends want to catch the bouquet?

Don’t’ feel obligated to take on any traditions that don’t fit your style! They just take away dancing time, anyway.

Hire a coordinator.

Whether you hire a professional or simply assign a couple Type-A friends to be personal attendants, this will be a major stress-reliever.

You’re going to be very busy. Let someone else handle the reception agenda and mishaps!

Food and drank:

How will you serve it?

Here are the pros and cons of the most popular serving styles:


Each guest is served an individual plate of food. Prior to the wedding (via the RSVP card), they picked their meal out of three options (usually 2 proteins and 1 vegetarian). They are often served a salad and dessert as well. Often considered the most traditional and formal dinner style.


  • Everyone gets their food at the same time (roughly)
  • Lower food-costs, because the caterer knows exactly how much to prepare
  • You can do activities, such as toasts, in-between courses


  • High staffing costs usually make this serving style the most expensive
  • If someone doesn’t

    like their meal, they’re stuck with it

  • Longer dinner due to multiple courses


Large portions of each dish is placed in the middle of the table and passed by the guests. This style is a happy-medium between formal and casual.


  • Guests get to eat as soon as the food arrives, which makes it more efficient
  • Forces diners to talk and interact with one another
  • People have more control over what they eat and don’t eat


  • There will be a need for larger tables
  • Food costs will be high since caterers can’t predict what people will enjoy the most
  • More staffing required than a buffet (but less than plated)


Buffet dinners are the most casual, and ideal for a fun, laid-back night. An array of dishes are set up in an area. Diners are dismissed one table at a time to visit the buffet and serve themselves.


  • Save lots of money on staffing
  • Everyone gets to create their own meal and eat as much as they want
  • Lots of socializing opportunities


  • Takes longer than the other options
  • You’ll probably have to rent linens, dishes, etc.
  • Lines will form

Make sure you have the right wedding dinner music playing! Here’s the perfect playlist >>

Bring on the booze.

If you’ve been blessed with a large budget, I suggest an open bar. It’s the easiest way to get a party started—and fast.

To save a bit on this expensive addition, exclude top-shelf liquor. I think your friends will survive one night without Patron and Grey Goose.

If an open bar just isn’t doable, the next best option is complimentary wine and beer. Even for just a few hours. Consider craft beer to follow the trend!

Are both of these options out of reach? Then how about kegs and a signature cocktail? Work with your fiancé to curate a creative drink you both love. Give it a punny name, perhaps?

If in the end you can’t offer free booze, don’t fret! This is a costly gift your attendees won’t expect. As long as there’s some alcohol available, you’re on your way to the best reception ever.

How to keep your guests around.

So dinner is over…how many people will leave?

A lot if you don’t entice them to stay!

There are a few easy tricks to keep your guests around and the party going.

Promise them late-night snacks! Many couples are hiring food trucks for a mid-party bite. Or build-your-own bars are super hot right now. Tacos, s’mores, sundaes, waffles, donuts, cookies…I would keep going, but I’m starting to salivate. A cheaper option is pizza—everyone will stay for a slice.

Serve coffee! Give them a boost so their feet can keep moving.

Surprise them with entertainment. Belly dancers, acrobats, a group photo booth, or even a flash mob.

Let them know there’s going to be an incredible send-off. Sparklers, a sick car, floating lanterns, or maybe fireworks?

Keep the kids entertained. If the children are preoccupied with games, coloring, or even a movie room, their moms and dads won’t have to leave as soon.

Let them know where the after-party will be. If your reception ends before bar close, choose a convenient location where your friends can continue celebrating your nuptials.

How to get the dancing started.

Couples are always nervous that their friends and family won’t dance. If you want the best wedding reception ever, it’s sort of essential, right?

So how can you make it happen?

First, strategic seating. Place guests least likely to groove near the dance floor. That way if they hear even onesong that makes them want to bust a move, they’re closer to the action. There’s also a chance they’ll

get pulled in! Just makes sure your grandparents are far away from the speakers.

Hire the right DJ. Take a look at their previously curated playlists to see if they match your taste. And never be afraid to be detailed with your music requests. The more information you give them (even your own playlists), the better they’ll do. Scroll down for 80 songs to get you started!

Don’t forget about live bands! They know how to get a crowd going and encourage audience participation. Just make sure they take their breaks at appropriate times. You don’t want the music to stop when you need it most. And when they do take a break, have back-up tunes ready.

Decide if organized dances (YMCA, Electric Slide, etc…) are going to help or hurt your chances of getting everyone on the dance floor. I tend to see the crowd run away from these group jigs, but that’s your call.

Choose an upbeat first dance. Start off slow and romantic, then transition into something that’ll coax the crowd to tap their feet.

Get your groove on! If you’re out there (avoiding mingling), then your friends and family will want to join you. Makes sure your bridal party partakes in the first few songs as well.

Curate the perfect playlist.