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Setting Up a Buffet Table for the Holidays | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Set Up a Buffet Table

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12 Tips for Setting Up a Buffet

Jane Doerfer
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For stress-free holiday entertaining, set up a buffet table. Guests can mingle instead of being stuck in their seat, the host doesn’t have to hop up and down to wait on them, and everyone has freedom to eat what and when they wish! Here are 12 tips for setting up a buffet table.

Many of us enjoy the formal dining table for an intimate family dinner, but if you are having a lot of guests over, a buffet table is the way to go. Then, your guests aren’t stuck sitting next to one or two people all night—plus, many folks actually prefer to serve themselves at their own pace.

For the host, a buffet table is also a more relaxed and easy way to entertain many guests instead of hopping up and down from the table to serve and wait on them.  We don’t always think about the host or hostess who has planned the meal and is feeding everyone; in modern times, we’re a little more aware.

I like to borrow from the Swedish tradition of the Julbord buffet, which most restaurants in Sweden offer throughout the month of December in place of their traditional menus. For the Christmas holidays, I drape all my tables with red tablecloths and use white candles of varying heights to set off the food. Using groupings of candles, as is customary in Sweden, is an attractive way to decorate the table. (It gives you the option of featuring the flowers if your guests bring a bouquet.)

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Image: Julbord or Christmas table at a Swedish Inn. 

If you have a lot of guests, consider a tablecloth that goes to the floor. That way you can hide back-up items underneath the table instead of going to the kitchen constantly.

Also, be sure to move the chairs away from the table. 

12 Tips for Buffet Table

When you set up a buffet table, there are some tricks that make it easier for guests. 

  1. Ideally, place serving platters at different heights so they’re not all on the same plane knocking into each other. If you don’t have a riser or stand, DIY! You could wrap a few boxes in wrapping paper. Or, simply stack books or upside down baskets and cover with tablecloth. Even cake plates can be used in creative way for vegetables or sandwiches.
  2. After covering the table with your tablecloth or runners, place the candles (and any flowers) at the back of the table if it’s against the wall or at the center of the table if folks have room to walk around the table.
  3. In terms of plates, consider salad-size plates make servings look more generous than dinner-size plates. Stack the plates with napkins next to them in the corner of the table so they don’t distract from the food. I like to stack plates at both the beginning and end of the table so that people are less likely to huddle on one end of the table.
  4. Most of my buffet menu consists of self-contained food that doesn’t need utensils. For the few dishes that do—and for guests who prefer a utensil—put the silverware in the corner of the table. The general rule is: Do not make people pick up their forks, knives, spoons, sporks, or cups at the beginning of the line. Put the silverware at the end.
  5. Reserve the most prominent spot for the smoked fish and/or pork and the vegetables. Arrange food around the periphery. Leave a little space here and there for people to put down their plates while serving themselves. 
  6. Put the taller items behind the shorter items so guests don’t knock anything over.
  7. Remember that if you are serving expensive items, such as smoked salmon or shrimp, your guests will station themselves near these foods and eat them up first; replace them at intervals throughout the party so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy them.
  8. Group all the vegetable choices together, next to the fish.
  9. Line baskets with linen napkins and fill with an assortment of dark and white breads. This makes cleanup easier. Slice them at the last minute (or freeze them sliced and arrange while still frozen) so they don’t dry out. I shop at discount stores for attractive baskets.
  10. Place the breads alongside the meats, but place towards the outside of the table with butter and condiments to keep guests from reaching over taller items.
  11. If you have room for two additional, smaller tables, segregate the desserts and the beverages. By putting drinks far away from the food, it helps prevent “huddling” around the buffet table. Ideally, drinks are nearer the kitchen as the pitchers or urns can get heavy.
  12. Set up a place where your guests can put their plates when they’re finished eating. (Or, if you can enlist some help, institute a constant patrol for dirty plates and glasses and have them whisked off to the kitchen.) Nothing makes a party table look more tired than plates filled with food scraps intermingled with the serving dishes. Also, consider a couple of trash cans so guests can help clean up, too.

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