Hosting brunch or a party buffet? We tell you everything you need to know to set up a buffet table and decorate it as a focal point in the party room.
First: Buffet Food Safety
You’ve created the best party ever. Review these buffet food safety tips to prevent foodborne illness that could ruin your epic party. Only takes a minute, and keeps the tweets about your party happy ones.
Will you have one buffet table, or set up stations?
A “station” is just a smaller buffet table.
- If you have a large group, setting up stations is the best way to control traffic flow.
- If you have a food server for some food, set up a station just for this food.
- Separate foods by type such as starters, desserts, meats, or ethnic cuisine.
- A table for hot food can be set up near electrical outlets if required.
- With food stations you can encourage smaller portions & taste-testing many different dishes, serving them more like appetizers than all-you-can-eat buffet style.
- It promotes socialization as guests wander from one station to another. Make sure there is enough space for conversation so it doesn’t create a traffic jam.
Circular Tables: best for areas guests quickly “orbit” to grab and go.
Rectangular or L-shaped Tables: best for the main buffet or if there’s just one table.
Serving Both Sides of Table: if you have a large group, allow guests to line up on either side with identical food choices on both sides and large serving platters for both sides in center.
Always serve beverages at at separate station.
Whether your group is big or small, you should always serve beverages separately
- Put the beverage station at the opposite end of the room from the main buffet to keep traffic separated. People visit this area the most.
- It should have glasses/mugs and spoons/stir sticks as required beside the beverage.
- Include plain cocktail napkins for spills or to put under cups on saucers.
- Check this station often to refill water jugs & other beverages or clean spills.
- Have containers of crushed ice to put soft drinks and bottled drinks in to keep cold.
- Include stir sticks and/or straws. Be creative – make them match the party theme.
- Leave lots of room around the table for conversation. This is where it happens the most.
- Don’t put a table cloth on this station – there are always spills.
- Put the additions such as sugar packets, cream and stirrers for coffee right beside the beverage itself.
- Put toppings and garnishes beside the beverage such as marshmallows for hot chocolate and citrus slices or fruit for cocktails.
- Beverage station should have bottled water or jugs of water and glasses.
- It should always include both hot and cold beverage choices in all seasons – people enjoy coffee & tea anytime.
- Have a trash can with a swing lid beside the table for stir sticks, sugar packets and dirty napkins from spills.
It’s a good idea to have the dessert table as a separate station.
- Keep it close to the main service buffet so people can visit it on their one-and-only trip to the buffet table.
- Most people visit the dessert table after they’ve finish eating, so a separate area allows them to do so without having to wait in line at the main table.
- Many help themselves to a dessert more than once, so plan on two 7″ plates per person.
- If the dessert is not a finger food, serve it in a shot glass, on a canape spoon or in a mini dessert dish that they can put on the plate for easier carrying. Have a vase or glass holding the correct utensils right beside it – or better still put utensil inside it.
You can also have a separate table for salads and starters.
- Not everyone will want a salad – some people don’t like salad or want to “just dig in”.
- This is a great way to separate the crowd right away and have a shorter line at the main table.
- Plan on one 7″ plate and one bowl per person.
- Have prepared salads & coleslaw and/or a build-your-own salad bar.
- Use one-handed utensils. Guests are already holding a plate, so fork & spoon salad serving is out – use salad tongs.
- Have garnishes such as croutons and bacon bits available as well as salad dressings labelled with separate serving ladles.
- With a separate salad table, vegans and vegetarians can start there and see what their friends found at the main table of interest to them for later.
It’s also a great idea to have a separate table for vegetarian & vegan dishes.
- This way they don’t have to line up with everyone else so it controls traffic flow.
- They don’t have to see food that they don’t like.
- It’s easier for them to know the food is on their diet.
Define the beginning of the table.
The best signal is to pile the plates at the beginning.
Most buffet tables flow from left to right, so place plates at the first spot on the left access of a rectangular table. On a round or square table, place plates to the left of the side facing the seating area.
How many plates will I need for buffet service?
For a dessert buffet use two 7″ plates per person. For a salad & starters table use one bowl and one 7″ plate per person. For a stand-alone appetizer buffet you will need two 9″ plates per person. For a breakfast or dinner buffet plan on two or three 12″ plates per person.
Consider using a rental service for your plates, utensils and glasses. It’s easier to acquire as many as you need & no washing dishes. It’s win/win.
Arrange the main & side dishes.
- Arrange the food in order of serving at a sit-down dinner: salads & starters, main dishes, sides and bread/buns.
- Serving the main dish first ensures that they have space for it on their plates.
- If the main dish is sliced meat, have large buns, bread and butter beside it in case guests want to make a sandwich.
- Put food with a smaller quanity or more expensive food (such as caviar) at the end of the buffet, right before the utensils. Plates will be full, so guests will take less and it will last longer.
- Have the correct serving utensil for the food item (fork or spoon?) and have more than one to keep the line moving. It should be a utensil that can be used with one hand so they don’t have to put their plate down.
- Put messy food at the front edge of the table, such as salad with leaves that might drop, sauces & gravy, crumbly food. This way it won’t fall into other food.
Label the dishes.
- Don’t make guests guess what it is. If it’s not apparent at a glance – such as turkey – label it.
- Add “contains peanuts” or whatever ingredient that some may be allergic to under the name of the dish.
- Make up names for your dishes that match your party theme such as Skeleton Canyon Chicken Burgers for a cowboy party – it tells them what it is in a fun way.
- Be creative – make the food sign part of the party decoration. Stand signs on sticks in vases. Put them in the center of food display rather than off to the side. Style them according to the party theme.
- You don’t have to make tent labels. Keep it simple with a chalkboard runner or a paper runner for a casual dinner and write it there. (You can buy the end of the rolls from the local newspaper for next to nothing.)
Make your buffet table picture perfect.
Make your buffet table the focal point of the room.
You can add floral arrangements, signs and props to your buffet table, on the wall behind it and the space around it.
People love sharing food photos on Facebook and Instagram. Step back and take a look at the appearance as a whole.
Make the table backdrop match your theme.
- drape cloth or strings of twinkle lights in theme color
- put theme-colored square paper plates edge-to-edge across the wall behind the table for a 3D look
- put a sign with a fun saying, birthday or anniversary number or guest of honor’s name
- create a simple mural in the theme such as a silhouette of a city with the bat signal light for a superhero party
- hang paper flowers or lanterns
- paper chains, garland or streamers
- balloons of every shape or size
Vary the height of food for eye-pleasing presentation.
Create taller presentation by using tiered serving dishes.
(See huge selection on Amazon.)
Elevate serving platters by putting something under them.
Put books under a tablecloth and the serving platter on top.
Put a decorative item that matches the party theme under the platter (such as a vintage suitcase for a bon voyage party.)
If your buffet table is against the wall, place the highest items at the back of the table.
You can wrap sturdy boxes with gift wrap for a festive stand under serving dishes.
If your buffet table is circular or allows people to walk on both sides, place tallest items in the center. Put tall floral arrangement or decorative cake in the very center where guests can’t reach.
Rule: put anthing messy (with a sauce, crumbly or drippy) at table level and small two-bite finger foods at highest level.
Put utensils & napkins last.
- Don’t make guests try to hold them and serve food to their plates.
- Have utensils rolled in napkins for easy carrying to the table.
- Put separate napkins/utensils at each station. Can use different colors or sizes for each table – great way to use up your napkin collection.
- Set napkins in a spiral, or fold-first so they are easier to grab.
- Have salt & pepper and other seasonings available here for a quick sprinkle, unless they are in the seating area.
What to put on the dining tables instead of the buffet table.
If you have enough serving dishes for the dining tables, these items should go there instead of on the buffet table:
- salt & pepper shakers
- condiments that go with the menu
- butter dish
- pickle dish & olives
- bread basket
- cheese board
- jug of water & glasses at each place setting
- wine & wine glasses
- napkins & utensils
How to set the table in the seating area:
- Placemats are set first, then a charger plate for them to set their buffet plate on if using.
- Dinner plates should always be at the buffet table and food stations so guests don’t have to carry them across the room & then stand holding them in conversation if caught mid-way.
- Napkins to the left of the fork (but not under it.) If you have a decorative napkin holder, the napkin goes on the charger.
- Have a spiral display of napkins on the table in case of spills or requiring more than one. (Could be around a vase or a sign with the table number or seating information.)
- Have a water glass (and wine glass if using) in the top right corner of the placemat. Water glass goes above the tip of the knife, with wine glass to it’s right.
- Bread plates are to the left of the place setting, with a small butter knife across it if the butter is placed on the table.
Have a drop off area for dirty dishes.
- Most guests appreciate the opportunity to get rid of dirty dishes between visits to the buffet table.
- It makes cleanup faster & easier when guests help out, especially if there is a speaker or dancing after the meal.
- Make it easily accessible on the return trip to the buffet.
- Have a table for piling dishes and a trash can for napkins & food scraps. You may want a recycling bin for plastics and if beverages are served in cans.
- Make it fun with signs above trash cans such as one labelled “naughty” and another “nice” at a Christmas party. Or ask guests to “vote” by labelling bins – be sure to let them know the results!
More buffet tips.
- Stage your buffet table with empty serving dishes when you first set it up so you can see if there’s anything missing (such as a serving utensil for a dish) or empty areas that need to be filled with decorations, and choose the angle of the dishes.
- Put more expensive food such as the meat at the end of the buffet for the same reason.
- Serve expensive food such as caviar on canape spoons that control the portion.
- Serve 80% cold food and 20% hot food. It’s more difficult to serve hot food, keep it safe from foodborne illness & add to platters.
- Make sure each dish has its own serving utensil with it – and a spoon rest for when it’s not in use. This includes tongs for buns or muffins so guests don’t use their hands for health safety.
- If you’re using an expensive piece of furniture for your buffet, don’t forget to use a trivet under the hot dishes when you set them out.
- Make sure you have enough serving dishes for the event as you plan the menu so you don’t have to beg, borrow or steal from friends and neighbors at the last minute.
Want more? See how to make punch the centerpiece of your party table.
If you want to host an unforgettable party, make punch the centerpiece. It can make a memorable impression on your guests, especially with a signature punch that matches the theme. We give tips on how to make punch and how to serve it in a unique way.
Want more? See our new punch recipes & buffet party ideas.
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