How to Set Up a Buffet Table

For more practical –– and visually striking –– food service, arrange your dishes and utensils on a beautiful buffet table.

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Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

Photo By: JessicaAttie

A Stunning Smorgasbord

While a seated meal might seem the most-formal format for an elegant affair, buffets are equally (if not more) appropriate for big holiday gatherings. Having guests serve themselves is much easier than passing platters up and down a table, and it will allow them to swiftly fill their plates with just the food they want. But there's more to building a buffet than tossing a bunch of dishes on a counter. Read on for guidelines that will help you create a buffet table that's both beautiful and smart –– the visual presentation is as important as practical arrangement to facilitate smooth flow.

Layer Your Linens

To build a visually striking buffet table, start by layering two or three linens of varying widths over your table. Combine a textured fabric like linen or burlap with a patterned or printed one.

Create Levels

Using boxes, crates or stands to add height to your tablescape is probably the best trick in the book when it comes to creating a full, beautiful buffet. If you skip this step, your buffet will inevitably look “flat.”

... And More Levels

Don't be afraid to put cake stands on top of crates and boxes to create even more height at the back of the table. This makes it easier for your guests to access the dishes at the back of the buffet — and will keep their sleeves out of the food.

Add Texture

Add texture to your table with flowers, garlands or even cut branches. Hydrangeas make a great full-volume arrangement that won’t break the bank. For a more romantic or feminine gathering, display garden roses with a few petals scattered down the tabletop, or try simple olive branches in water –– they work with just about any color scheme.

Friendly Fire

Never underestimate the power of good lighting. Transform your room into an intimate and festive environment with low overhead lighting and a few flickering candles. Make sure the candles are lit before your guests arrive for an instantly welcoming vibe.

To Each Their Own

Offer two different plate sizes. The smaller ones are great for guests who want to snack on a few appetizers or start with a plate of vegetable dishes before moving onto heavier meats and mains.

A Table That Reads

As you lay out utensils and dishes, plan for your guests to move from the left side of the table toward the right (like reading a book). The plates should be placed on the far left, and the food items should be thoughtfully arranged in the way guests will likely want to add the food to their plates (e.g., the gravy should be placed all the way to the right).

Happy Endings

It’s hard for guests to prepare their plates when they’re juggling silverware and napkins. Place flatware and linens at the far right side of the buffet for easy pickup at the end of the line.

On the Menu

Guests always appreciate knowing what they’re being served. Create a simple chalkboard sign listing all of your buffet items, or use a few simple menu cards to label each dish. These were made with precut white tabletop cards and a red pen.

Dish It Out

Make sure that your guests have the proper utensils they’ll need to serve each dish on your buffet. If you don't have enough serving spoons, tongs and other larger utensils, ask some of your guests to bring them for you to borrow for the night.

Raise the Bar

Keep the beverage station separate from where the buffet line will form. This keeps the flow of the party moving and prevents guests from struggling with drinks while they're trying to serve themselves food. It also makes for a nice "cocktail hour" focal point and allows guests to serve themselves drinks just as easily.

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