(Image above courtesy of artist Jill Winterbottom via Band of Artists)
I love having friends and family for dinner, and it’s important for me to enjoy the occasion and the company. For me, the easiest way to treat my guests well, and have a good time myself, is to serve a buffet-style dinner.
There are so many advantages to this style of entertaining, not the least of which is the way it allows the host to be a part of all the social interaction, instead of spending time with service minutiae.
In my social circle, folks like choosing their own food and quantities, and I’m free to enjoy food and conversation without worrying about everyone’s needs. I’m also a particularly slow eater, and trips back and forth to the kitchen would slow me down even further (…still working on my main, when everyone is ready for dessert!).
Buffet-style dinners can be either casual or fancy (or anything in-between), depending on your décor and serve ware, and you can serve just about any kind of food this way.
Read on for a detailed guide and tips for a successful buffet meal, plus my recommendations for serving pieces which are both beautiful and efficient.
Let’s get started!
Advance Preparation For Your Buffet
It may seem like a daunting task, but hosting your own buffet party can really be an easy affair, even if you’re planning on having a lot of people over.
When preparing a buffet, you’ll want to do as much as possible ahead of time, before the big day.
Use your freezer as the ultimate tool to store your food. Prepare puff appetizers, sweet and savory pies, and even fruit/vegetable plates that you can peel and freeze. You can prep components of salads several hours ahead, before assembling everything at the last minute.
Buffet Menu Tips
The golden rule of buffet menu planning:
Plan a menu that is easily eaten with a fork only (or a toothpick or fingers), as guests may have to balance plates on their laps.
Diners at a buffet have to juggle a lot: a drink, their food, and sparkling conversation with everyone else present. Don’t make it harder for them with multiple bowls, plates, and flatware.
A fork is the only utensil your guests should need. Remember that your guests may not all find a flat surface for their plates, so using a knife could prove tricky.
For inspiration, go to AllRecipes, where you can search for main dishes, sides and deserts. Look for dishes that your guests can eat with a fork, spoon, or as finger food (unless all the guests will be seated at a table).
And nothing should be so saucy or runny that it dribbles off plates!
Consider an Electric Food Warmer
For your hot food, use an electric food warmer. That way, the food will be at optimum temperature throughout the meal, including when everyone returns for second helpings.
Buffet Quantities and Proportions
What is often complicated when prepping a buffet is knowing how much food you’ll need.
Fortunately, there are a number of general principles you can follow when planning your menu and recipes.
Begin by following these tips and write down your initial thoughts.
Then look at the big picture several times over a period of a few days to make adjustments to your plan.
- Always round up your estimates, don’t round them down.
- Anticipate which food selections will be most popular and serve more of them than the general portion guidelines suggest. For example, shellfish appetizers are always popular, so serve as much as your budget allows.
- The more choices you offer, the smaller your calculation of individual portion size should be.
- That said, you can assume your guests will taste everything on a buffet, but the tastes will be small. However, overall consumption per individual will be greater than if there were fewer choices.
Portion Size Per Person
- 6 bites when preceding a meal.
- 4 – 6 bites per hour when hors-d’oeuvres are the meal.
- The longer your party and the larger your guest list, the greater the number of selections you should offer.
The Main Meal
- Poultry, meat or fish – 6 ounces when you have one main dish, 8 ounces when you offer two or more main courses.
- Rice, grains – 1.5 ounces as a side dish, 2 ounces in a main dish such as risotto.
- Potatoes – 5 ounces
- Vegetables – 4 ounces
- Beans – 2 ounces as a side dish
- Pasta – 2 ounces for a side dish, 3 ounces for a first course, 4 ounces for a main dish
- Green Salad – 1-ounce undressed weight
- 1 slice cake, tart or pastry
- 4 ounces creamy desserts such as pudding or mousse
- 5 ounces ice cream
- When serving two of the above, reduce each by a little less than half.
A Few Other Menu Planning Tips
- Don’t repeat the main ingredient. For example, don’t serve a shrimp appetizer and shrimp the main dish.
- Consider the colors of the food that will be served together and make sure there is variety.
- Offer both hot and cold foods on a buffet.
- Mix textures such as a crisp potato galette served with a soft vegetable puree as side dishes.
For a really simple formula, the common rule of thumb for a buffet is to do one dish for six people, and multiply that by the number of guests.
Here are some examples:
- 12-15 people buffet: 3 entrees, 2 main dishes, 3 desserts, 1 15-piece appetizer, 2 salads, and side dishes.
- 25-30 people buffet: 4 entrees, 4 main dishes, 4 desserts, 3 30-piece appetizers, 5 salads, and side dishes.
This may seem like a lot of food, but it’s estimated that the amount of food eaten with a buffet is at least 20% higher than that consumed during traditional meals.
Setting Up Your Buffet Table
Any flat surface is appropriate for a buffet meal: a desk, a coffee table, a piano top, a card table, a kitchen counter, or a patio table, to name a few. However, to accommodate the tableware and serveware, a minimum of 5 feet is needed.
When the required space is unavailable, three or four smaller tables can be used: one for tableware, another to hold the main course, a third to present the dessert and dessert plates, and a fourth for beverages, such as water, wine, coffee, or tea.
The placement of the buffet table is determined by the dimensions of the room.
In a spacious room, the buffet table is positioned in the center. This placement accommodates service from both sides or both ends of the table, accelerates service, and reduces congestion in the room.
In a small room, to allow space for the flow of traffic, a buffet table is placed against the wall.
To expedite traffic around the serving area, dining chairs are positioned against the wall. Dinner plates and the main dish are placed nearest the entrance to the dining area, a location that allows the guests to circle around the table and exit the serving area without doubling back.
Don’t Crowd Your Buffet Table
Allow enough room beside each dish for guests to rest their dinner plate while they help themselves to food that requires two utensils to serve, for example, a tossed salad. In other words, don’t crowd your buffet table with items that are too close together; it makes serving awkward, and can lead to accidents.
Use a second, or even third serving area if you find items are sitting too close together. I’ve also recommended some terrific serve ware below, which use vertical space and smart styling to create more room on your buffet table.
You’ll also want to provide space to lay the serving utensils by the serve ware they are meant to accompany, along with the lids of covered serving bowls.
Multi-Tiered Serve Ware
An easy way to save space (and avoid crowding) on your buffet table is to use multi-tiered serving pieces; they make your buffet look enticing, and easily double or triple your serving space.
Buffet Arrangement Order
- Arrange the flow of the tableware and the serving dishes in logical order, a sequence that proceeds from left to right.
- Stack dinner plates in groups of eight. A stack of plates higher than eight resembles a cafeteria or the service station in a restaurant.
- Arrange food in groups of related temperatures, such as hot foods together.
- Place salads near a cheese board (if one is provided).
- Set sauces and condiments next to the dishes they accompany.
- Place a basket of pre-buttered rolls or sliced bread near the salt and pepper shakers.
- Because a pepper mill requires both hands to manipulate, it is not placed on a buffet table.
- At the exit end of the table, lay the flatware in a row on the table, if space permits. When flatware is placed in a stacked position, the top utensil is difficult to remove.
- Place napkins last. To conserve space, present napkins overlapped, beneath each plate, wrapped around the flatware, or on each tray.
- Station a side table to hold beverages and glassware. To avoid trying to balance a plate while lifting a heavy water pitcher, lighten the load and partially fill several pitchers or carafes with water.
- Place coffee and dessert on a side table, along with the cups, saucers, dessert plates, and flatware.
I like to use mini teaspoons (demitasse espresso spoons) for tea and coffee service: they’re less bulky and clumsy than regular teaspoons, and a little more sophisticated!
Make Self-Service Easy
Foods that are too small for tongs, but not quite right for fingers should have cocktail toothpicks. They make self-serve easier, and dress up the food, too! I prefer the disposable option (the stainless steel picks are fussy to wash, and are easily misplaced).
The Guest Procession
- Guests serve themselves entirely and sit or stand to eat.
- The guests help themselves at the buffet.
- Glasses for water and wine are placed on a sideboard or a side table near the buffet.
- Dessert and coffee are served from the buffet table or from a separate side table.
Buffet Guest Seating
Guests serve themselves in the order in which they arrive at the buffet, and eat seated wherever they are comfortable: on chairs, floor, or stairs.
Once guests have served themselves, they simply take their plates and sit wherever the hosts have designated guests to sit. Ideally, there should be enough room for every guest to be able to sit down, hold a plate, or set a glass down on the nearest table.
When possible, supply a small folding table for each chair (especially if they’re not within easy reach of a coffee or side table). To make room for used dinner plates, clear end tables of unneeded accessories and protect the furniture and flooring with strategically placed coasters.
At some buffets, guests may be seated at the dining table and/or at small tables set up for the occasion. In that case, guests won’t need to carry their cutlery, napkins, or glasses with them (so you’ll save space on the buffet table).
Guests serve themselves as at all buffets, going for second helpings, and removing their own empty plates (unless you’ll be doing that).
If small tables have been placed around the room, they are removed after the meal to provide space for conversational groups or any planned activities. This arrangement is, of course, dependent on your having enough space so that tables are neither crowded nor in the way.
Clearing the Dishes
- A friend or two can help by placing used dishes on a convenient table or sideboard.
- From there, the used dishes can be placed on trays, and carried to the kitchen unobtrusively.
- At an informal buffet, guests can simply carry their empty plates to the kitchen.
Setting Up Buffet Drinks
Place beverages and glasses on a separate sideboard or nearby table, if possible. If you are having a seated buffet, place water glasses on the tables and fill them before the guests sit down.
Wineglasses should also be at the guests’ places, but should never be filled in advance. The host passes the wine when everyone is seated, or an opened bottle of wine can be placed on each table, to be poured by the person nearest to it.
I recommend using stemless wine glasses at your buffet; they’re much less likely to be knocked over, plus they’re easier to wash.
If coffee is on the sideboard, guests may serve themselves at any time. Or the host or hostess can take a tray set with cups, a coffeepot, cream, and sugar into the living room to serve after dinner.
Coasters should be provided so that glasses are not put directly on tabletops. When there are no individual stands or tables and guests must put their glasses beside them on the floor, it is wise to use drinking glasses with a heavy base, because they’re steadier than goblets.
I find buffet-style service is the best way to ensure that everyone has a good time at your dinner party. It allows your guests to choose their favorite foods in the amounts they wish, and the host can relax and participate fully in the gathering.
Much of the preparation and set-up can be done in advance, and with the right serve ware and labeling, your evening runs pretty much on autopilot!
P.S. What are your tips for serving a fun and efficient buffet meal? Share your secrets below!
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