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Buffet Table Setting 101

You have done all the cooking, now how do you lay it all out?

It’s no surprise that I love tablescapes. A beautifully set table draws your guests in, and flirts with them. Yes, you read that right. I want someone to approach the table and think, “What? all this is for me? Wow.” It’s a heart-to-heart connection to tell someone they are special; they are worth it.

I have recently received requests for a roadmap or process for setting a buffet table. And surprise, surprise, I don’t have any rules. Well, not written ones, at least! What I have learned is from various hosts I admire, and from trial and error. There’s no official doctrine of hospitality to reference, and what you’re about to read is a matter of opinion, style, preference, and what has worked for me at dozens of at-home events. I imagine, dear reader, that some points will resonate while others not—and perhaps that’s how you’ll discover your own unique style. But in the spirit of that initial request, here are my top ten buffet how to’s.

Buffet Table – Sonia’s How To’s

  1. Cover your table. A tablecloth elevates the look instantly. It’s the backdrop for the look you want to achieve. If you invest in nothing else, a tablecloth will change the look of the whole room. My favorites are linen or cotton. Iron it. For a luxe feel, put a flannel-backed vinyl pad underneath. Budget tip: Roll out a wide piece of brown craft paper or the paper teachers use to cover bulletin boards. Do not even think about buying those flimsy plastic things at the party store. (What are you doing at a party store anyway?)
A buffet table setting also includes the table cover - interesting textures can add extra dimensions.
A paper table cover adds another dimension to your table.
  1. Centerpiece, but not necessarily in the center. With sit-down dinners, you want to avoid centerpieces that block the view across the table. You won’t be seated at a buffet table, so your centerpiece can be quite tall. In fact, the taller, the more dramatic. Fresh flowers are always a great idea, but branches and twigs can be great, too.
When planning for a centerpiece, flowers are great, but there are so many other options. These sticks and paper garland set the tone for a “triangle” party.
  1. Some up, some down. When I was a kid, “some up, some down” was a hairstyle—when you have long hair and pull the top away from your face into a barrette, but leave the rest down your back. It’s also a rule one for a buffet table. Set your platters at varying heights. Use cake stands, mini stools, stacks of books, baskets, etc.
Cake stands are for more than cake.
  1. Fill the space, but leave white space. You want to draw the eye in, but don’t want so much clutter that the eye gets lost. By definition, a buffet is a self-serve space. Leave space to set your plate down while filling it, especially for items like salad that might require two hands for the serving utensils.
Try to avoid crowding your table and ensure there’s room to set down a plate if needed.
  1. Label it. Write the name of the dish and key ingredients—and please let people know if it’s spicy! Make a note if the dish contains nuts, dairy, and gluten. Placecards from Paper Source are my favorites. Buy a big pack of an odd color, and you’ll be able to use them at many an occasion. Non scientific host fact: People eat more when they know what something is.
Label all your dishes, including the main ingredients and any allergy info.
  1. Start / Finish line. Ideally, you’ll want to grab your plate first, fill it with food, then grab a napkin/utensils and a drink. As you set the various dishes down, define a path. If it’s a sandwich menu, bread goes before fillers, etc.
  2. Pre cut / dish out. This is critical if you have a big crowd. Make sure things are cut already in servings. If you’re serving a quiche, for example, slice it and put it on a platter vs. leaving the serving dish with a pie cutter. Non scientific host fact: People eat more when things are easy to grab. Also it’s faster to go around the table when you don’t need to saw, hack, fiddle, pry, or otherwise conduct surgery on the food. Also, that takes two hands. So you to put your plate down, which is annoying. Annoying for you. Annoying for the person next in line. Also fewer crumbs everywhere if guests are not slicing anything.
Just grab a slice and enjoy!

9. Designate a serving utensil. Set your serving pieces, ladles, etc. out. Give them a temporary home so they don’t go diving into the serving dishes. So undignified! Set them on a small plate (tea cup saucer) to save their pride, and your tablecloth. You’ll thank me later.

Serving utensils and resting plates help streamline critical decision-making tasks. Just kidding. Well, kinda.
  1. Decant everything. If your buffet table includes any condiments or anything that came in a package, decant! Put it in a jar with a spoon or a bowl. Pour juice into a carafe or punchbowl, etc. Don’t leave any kind of plastic wrapper/bottle anywhere in sight.
Avoid bottles and plastic. Can you spot the ketchup in this photo?
  1. Hide the crap. I am a big fan of using what you have, and that means grandma’s china and the fancy glasses. But I am married to my dishwasher and need to be a good roommate. As a result, I go with paper for some events (basic white Chinet or, better yet, compostable bamboo and palm plates). But I do try to hide things such as stacks of paper plates or plastic cups. I don’t mean hide them under the table. But set them in a basket or bowl to offset the ugly.

I did it. My top ten. What would you add?