How to Set a Buffet Table

by Tana on March 20, 2016

A buffet table makes serving easy and helps create convenient traffic flow at family dinners, backyard barbecues and patio parties. A little imagination can present a stunning picture as guests enter the room and become a focus for conversation. Good organization not only keeps the traffic moving, but provides easier clean up as well. 

Set up to serve from both sides. 

If space allows, the line will move much faster if access is from both sides of the table. Be sure to have multiple serving spoons or tongs so no one has to wait to use them.

Decorate for the theme.

The theme for a buffet party can be determined by the occasion, season or holiday. For instance, a Fourth of July celebration would call for red white and blue. An informal wedding reception would reflect the colors of the bridesmaids dresses. A table skirt that drapes to the ground adds elegance and can hide storage boxes or extra bags of chips.

Use different heights for drama.

Lay a base cloth over the table, such as white or other solid color. Place various sized boxes in the middle and cover them with a contrasting colored cloth. These can hold dishes for access from both sides or flower arrangements. Use your imagination. For a Mexican theme, large vibrantly colored tissue paper flowers might explode from terracotta pots. A setting of champagne flutes with silver stars spilling out of them might provide interest for a New Year’s Eve get together.

Put out serving trays early.

This helps mark where various courses are to go and establishes space between them. Place frames for heated trays with Sterno cups or shallow containers for ice to keep cold items fresh. 

Set plates at the entry.

Both salad and entree dishes can be placed at the beginning of the table. Leave cutlery and napkins at the end so that guests don’t have to balance them all through the serving line. If serving soup, it is a good idea to place bowls at the soup tureens so those that do not choose soup can move on.

Position courses as they will be consumed.

Salads and breads can be placed as the first course. It is recommended to have the salad already dressed to save both time, as people add it, and mess as they tend to spill and leave messy spoons on the table. Follow with side dishes and main courses. Remember to keep multiple serving spoons on both sides of the table. It will help clean up to put a saucer on an extra napkin next to large dishes for use as a spoon holder.

Place condiments as they will be needed.

Butter can be placed along with the bread. Ketchup, mayonnaise and other add ons can be placed near cold cuts, or burgers. If using bowls of sauces be sure to check regularly for spoons or knives that have accidentally hitched a ride on a guest’s plate and replace them. Place salt and pepper either at the end, or have a couple of sets along the table.

Keep desserts and drinks on a separate table. 

This keeps things moving at the main table and minimizes line jumpers. Those who are avoiding desserts can do so more easily. Remember to place dessert plates, napkins, forks and spoons on the same table.

Have a cleanup plan.

Devoted friends, or teenagers looking for a little extra spending money, can be great resources. Two can remove empty dishes, while another sweeps crumbs and wipes spills from the table top. Then this group can meet in the kitchen to rinse and wash serving bowls, pots and pans. This will keep your guests from spending the rest of their time gazing at left over carnage and minimize the chances of food sitting for too long and spoiling.

Encourage second helpings, but have plenty of clean plates available. Remember there are no rules carved in stone for how to set up a buffet. If it works for your layout and your guests, it’s perfectly fine. Organize your buffet and you will find time to sit and enjoy the food, the occasion and, especially, the camaraderie. 

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