How to Set Up a Buffet Table

12 Tips for Setting Up a Buffet

By Jane Doerfer
December 23, 2019
Buffet Table

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.

Reader Comments

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Plates/napkins

I place napkins and flatware at the end of a buffet or on the dining tables so guests don't have to juggle them while they fill their plates. A little function over form.

Buffet ideas and details Plan

Buffet ideas and details
Plan the "flow" of a buffet table to prevent log-jams and plate-juggling. Plates first, main course, sides, bread, condiments, silverware last, etc. I also find it helps keep people moving if I set a separate beverage and/or condiment area near the tables and ensure that any carved food is carved to the point of providing about 4 oz per person. Remember to separate light and dark turkey so folks can quickly get what they want without mauling the bird. If the group is large and I serve an expensive item like shrimp, I enlist one of the older kids or close friend to "serve" one or two to each person, on request, at the table.

Further "layout" tips: If you have small children or physically-challenged guests, avoid chafing dishes and candles; ensure any table cloth is not easily moved; your dishes are not your finest (or put out some of the less-breakable ones)and make sure that everyone knows where to eat and what to do with their empty plates.
Place any dish that is slippery or requires manipulation to get a serving (whole fish, casserole,Jell-O, etc.) toward the front edge, not in the back. Defintely do not put out dessert at the same time as the main course - the people who want sweets will destroy the desserts before the rest have a chance to admire your pie - or even get a slice!
Parents: you are responsible for your child and their eating habits. If the kid will only eat macaroni and cheese, you best feed them before you come as you cannot expect the hostess to make a special meal for one child. If they have a severe allergy, please tell the host in advance. No one wants to make a mad dash for the Epi-pen!
Hosts: Plan for a vegetarian dish (not vegan, just vegetable). People with really strict diets will eat in advance or what they can on the buffet and will, politely, not make a big deal out it.

Alcohol is tricky in groups and can be expensive. Pre-dinner drinks must be accompanied by what my great-aunts used to call "blotting paper" - hand food or snacks to absorb the alcohol. If I don't know the members of the group well, I will request a pre-dinner beverage order, rather than an open bar, or offer a non-alcoholic punch before dinner. If you choose to offer an open bar before the meal, limit the amount of time it is available to no more than 1 hour before food service. Then the hard liquor bar is closed during the meal. If you choose to have beer or wine during the meal, it should be served, not just plunked on the table. Water and soft drinks or punch should outnumber anything with alcohol. Avoid orange soda, cherry juice or other staining drinks with small kids. And there is no requirement to provide any alcohol!

If you get no requests to help clean-up, ask for help. Almost every age can patrol the house for dirty dishes and glasses, scrape plates (without silverware on them) into the garbage, take out the garbage, entertain the little kids for a few minutes, help bring in dishes from the buffet, sweep the dining room, etc.

I hope that you will remember to record the occasion in some way, preferably with sound. Families really open up in these situations and the stories will be your memories for years to come.