How to Set Up a Buffet Table in 5 Minutes

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

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Setting up a buffet table like the one for our Cozy Holiday Potluck might not seem like a part of the gathering that needs a lot of attention. Cover a table with a tablecloth and let guests drop off dishes as they arrive, right?! Even so, I think putting just five minutes of thought into the buffet table will make your life easier and help the whole evening go off without a hitch.

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1. Use Post-Its to Save Spots

Make things easy on yourself and on your guests: have a post-it note with their name or the name of their dish already on the buffet table. This way, no one has to finagle for space between the macaroni salad and the dinner rolls, or wonder if the host wants their dish in a particular spot on the table.

2. Arrange Main Dishes First, Then Sides

As long as you’re saving spots on the table, it's helpful to think through how you want guests to move through the buffet line. It usually makes the most sense to have the main dish (or dishes) set out at the start of the table, followed by sides that go with each main dish. I like to put salad and rolls at the end where they're easy to grab.

This arrangement helps give some organization to the buffet table and also ensures that guests don’t get to the end of the line and realize they didn’t save space on their plate for the main dish. It also encourages guests to move down the table in a line rather than swarming all at once.

For our holiday potluck, we set the bigos stew first in line with the spaetzle and potato pancakes, which were intended to go with the stew, placed alongside. Last was a big bowl of salad and a basket of sliced bread.

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3. Place a Serving Spoon at Each Spot

You can also save yourself some last-minute scrambling by digging out all your serving utensils before guests arrive. If you know what each guest is bringing, it’s easy to match the kind of serving utensil with the dish. If not, just make sure you have enough utensils to go around and then place them with each dish as it arrives.

4. Silverware On the Table

I’ve never understood why so many buffet tables place the silverware first, forcing you to juggle a handful of utensils while also trying to fill your plate. Instead, I think it makes much more sense to place piles of napkins and communal containers of forks, knives, and spoons right on the table where people will eat; guests can fill their plates and find a seat without ever having to worry about the silverware.

If your dining tables are too crowded or it doesn’t make sense to have the silverware on the table for some reason, I recommend placing the silverware at the end of the buffet table so that guests can scoop up their utensils right before they sit down.

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5. Separate Drink and Dessert Stations

Potluck buffets often come down to a matter of crowd control, especially if you’re feeding a big crowd. If drinks and desserts are a part of the buffet table, you often end up with a logjam as people wait their turn to fill their cups or peruse the dessert options. Giving drinks and desserts their own separate stations relocates the activity around the room rather than concentrating it all on the buffet table. I also often put pitchers of water on the table as well as at a beverage station so that it's handy and people don't have to get up as often for refills.

All this should really only take a few minutes to set up! A little forethought in the quiet time before guests arrive and the chaos at the beginning of the party gets reduced to a minimum.

Any other buffet tips to share?

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More posts in this series

A Cozy Holiday Potluck with Friends

(Image credits: Danielle Tsi)

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