Your Guide to Planning a Rehearsal Dinner (Without the Stress)

We completely sympathize with you — the last thing you probably want to do is plan a wedding rehearsal dinner on top of the stress and expenses of your big day itself. This event, though completely optional, marks the beginning of your wedding celebration with your closest family and friends, and there are a number of things you can do to ensure that you avoid any speed bumps. 

Why Do Rehearsal Dinners Cause Stress?

Let’s answer this question first. What’s the real cause of rehearsal dinner stress? Despite being generally smaller in scale, this pre-wedding event still tends to stress out couples, and here’s why. 

Many are often consumed with planning the wedding that the rehearsal dinner can easily be left until the last minute. Katherine Healy Brown of Clover Events says, “Couples these days are planning their own rehearsal dinners (on top of planning the wedding), whereas in the past it was traditionally hosted by the groom’s parents. It can be hard to know where to start with the venue, level of formality, and invite list, as it should really be different than the wedding day.”

You may also feel pressure from family and friends to entertain them and welcome them with a grand gesture, Heather Jones, Catering Sales Director of Wente Vineyards, adds. “The rehearsal is usually the first time the two families are meeting. Don’t try to over-do everything the day of the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner!”

The stress can also stem from the fact that it’s simply another event for you to plan, regardless of how intimate you expect your dinner to be. Kristen Gosselin, Owner of KG Events & Design notes, “It still requires design elements, floor plans, invites, meal selections, transportation, and payment due dates that are added to the grand scheme of the wedding weekend.” 

By the time you finally approach the organization of a dinner, you’re likely to be a little burnt out on making big decisions. Kimberly Allen of Something Fab has a simple question to ask if you want to curb the extra anxiety. “What is the primary purpose of this dinner for you? If you are gathering your wedding party and immediate family, practicing down the aisle with your family, and then looking to relax a little before the big day — that evening may look much different from a bonfire and brews night at a beach destination with guests who have traveled to attend your weekend celebration. Be clear with your intentions and expectations.”

Rehearsal Planning Do’s and Don’ts

Carving out some time to map out your rehearsal dinner is something you should consider incorporating into your overall wedding timeline. Booking a venue and catering is often the part couples dread on top of everything else already booked, but it’s a great idea to try and bundle these as much as possible to remove any unnecessary complications of finding separate vendors for each event.

First and foremost, outline your vision for the pre-wedding festivities. According to Tracie Domino, Owner of Tracie Domino Events, go with your initial instinct on whether you’re looking for a private dinner vibe or more of a welcome party. “A rehearsal dinner is typically for the family and wedding party while a welcome party is for more guests. This will help with the invitation list as well. Make strict rules for both families on what criteria would be needed for an invite. If the budget doesn’t allow for a large party and full dinner for everyone, you can have a cocktails and desserts party starting later in the evening so guests can eat first on their own.”

If you’re the type that worries about the speech portion of your wedding (whether you have an embarrassing uncle or a friend that can’t keep it short and sweet), the rehearsal dinner can come to your rescue. “We see a trend where couples are moving the toasts/speeches to the rehearsal dinner, and only having the VIPs (wedding party, parents of couple) speak at the wedding reception. It’s a great way to keep the reception party on time, and honor the extended family by inviting them to give a toast at the dinner the night before,” says Mary Angelini of Key Moment Films.

One thing you definitely want to avoid? Being too vague about the formality of your dinner celebration. Keith Phillips of Classic Photographers recommends laying everything out on the table to avoid confusion. “Be clear on how casual or formal the rehearsal will be, and if appetizers will be served or if there’s a full sit-down meal.” Otherwise, you may run the risk of over-consumption of alcohol if the event is lean on food. Don’t let your guests go hungry!

Again, easier said than done, but don’t put so much pressure on yourself to pull off a dinner that mirrors your wedding. Not only will that inevitably cause financial worry, but you don’t want to outshine your big day. José Rolón, Owner of José Rolón Events advises, “Worry a little less about the design and more about the experience. Remember that people are there to celebrate. Try and keep your headcount to a minimum, but should you be having a destination wedding and you want to include all your guests, in order to keep your costs in line you can do a more formal intimate dinner with just close family and friends and then invite all guests to a welcome cocktail hour.”

Invitation Guidelines

Aside from the coordination of the rehearsal dinner itself, you’re probably also unsure about how to communicate all of these details with your guests, or even when you should start inviting people. Invitation guidelines can be hard to come by as no two weddings are alike, but there are some tried-and-true tips to stick to.

Concerning the timeline of extending invites, Ashley Greer of Atelier Ashley Flowers says, “Generally, you can wait until one month prior to the rehearsal dinner to send out an invitation. As long as you have sent the save-the-dates and wedding invitations and the guests are local, there is no real rush. If, however, you have guests traveling from abroad or across the country, you might want to give them a heads up that they should be expecting an invitation at some point so they can make their travel plans accordingly.”

It’s crucial that you take traveling guests into account when outlining your rehearsal dinner guest list, but even more so if you aren’t necessarily planning to invite them. Jen Avey of Destination Weddings Travel Group notes that this is especially true in the case of a destination wedding. “Luckily, guests who are not invited to the actual rehearsal will have plenty to do! They’ll be so excited to have arrived in paradise, you won’t need to worry about entertaining them right away.”

And to calm your fears about hurting anyone’s feelings, Shannon Tarrant of Wedding Venue Map adds that you shouldn’t feel obligated to host everyone for dinner. “It can get costly and almost feel like a second wedding. Keep the dinner itself small, including immediate family and the wedding party.”

In the event that you’re stumped on invitations and decide to invite everyone, Kevin Dennis of Fantasy Sound Event Services suggests going all out with a welcome reception, rather than a private dinner. “This is a great way to include everybody in a casual, happy hour type situation.”

Planning your rehearsal dinner (or attending one) doesn’t have to be a point of contention with your family, future spouse, or guests. Most understand that this event is generally lowkey as-is, so don’t set standards for yourself that are higher than those that are attending. Consider this to be the opener to a weekend full of love and celebration!


MEGHAN ELY

Meghan Ely is the owner of wedding PR and wedding marketing firm OFD Consulting. Ely is a sought-after speaker, adjunct professor in the field of public relations, and a self-professed royal wedding enthusiast.