The amount of time you allot for each course of your wedding meal depends on a range of factors, including how many guests you're serving and how eager you are to get everyone out on the dance floor. And though caterers and planners work from a general timeline that allows guests to enjoy their meal without sacrificing the party, couples can always tweak the schedule to match their wedding vision.
"I always like to determine with the bride and groom what all of their priorities are for the day," says Jessica Lasky of Jessica Lasky Catering. "If they want to linger at the table under the stars with wine pairings, then we choose more courses or pace the courses more slowly and intentionally. If they hired an amazing band and their end goal is to have a rocking dance party but we have to be out by 10 p.m. because of sound ordinances, then I might suggest they keep the courses limited to two with dessert at a buffet for folks to nibble on while dancing—keep the dinner fabulous, bountiful, but more quickly paced."
If you're having a traditional sit-down meal, you can expect to set aside about half an hour per course—more, says Lasky, if you're offering paired wines that require a pour for each guest. "Typically for the servers to drop everything, allow people to eat, bus the tables, and drop another course takes about 25 to 30 minutes," says event planner Vanessa Michelle of Vanessa Michelle Co. But this can change based on the number of guests you have—serving more guests takes longer; how much staff you hire—more servers can clear more efficiently; and how many courses you're having.
Related: How Many Courses Should You Serve During Your Reception Dinner?
If you've added two or three additional courses to help reach your spending minimum (or to please your foodie brother-in-law), you'll probably want to keep those on the shorter side so your party doesn't lose its energy. "If we do a grand entrance, we give guests about 15 to 20 minutes to sit down, then about 5 to 10 minutes for the entrance, and then speeches," says Michelle. "They could be sitting there for 45 minutes before the first course, and if there's a second course, that's another half an hour. Some couples just want to get the party started, so that's why a lot of them will opt for just the first course, the main course, and a dessert course served very casually."
Food stations and buffets might sound faster, since you aren't waiting for servers to clear the tables in between courses, that's not always the case. "You have to leave a little more time," says Michelle, who recommends at least an hour and a half for an average-sized wedding. "It's kind of unpredictable: You never know how fast the lines are going to move, you never know how fast the people are going to eat," she says. And since it's awkward to have the maid of honor, best man, or parents give their speeches while guests are still in the buffet line, you'll need to add in extra time for those formalities, too.
But while you have the final say on how you want the day to run, you shouldn't expect to spend your wedding day timing how fast Uncle Joe is eating his pasta course or whether your cousin's date is still finishing her filet. Leave the day-of timing to your caterer and planner, both of whom will work with the servers to make sure the meal runs smoothly. "Once we establish how things will be," says Lasky, "my goal is for the couple to be oblivious."