5 Tips for Setting Up a Great Buffet

Gatherings from The Kitchn

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If you're throwing a big party or an event, like the wedding reception I've been sharing with you this week (see all the posts here), chances are good that you'll be setting up a buffet.

Ah the buffet — so convenient and yet prone to common shortcomings. A few simple tips, though, will help you avoid pitfalls and take your buffet from good to great. Here are my essential tips for a quality buffet line.

The buffet, complete with food.
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Now, I should preface this by saying that there are lots of tips and good practices for setting up a buffet, and you may very well have other notes to share. Please do! This list, though, addresses more of the common problems I see with buffets and their logistics.

1. Consider the movements of herds and corral accordingly.

When food is involved, people move in packs. They become more like a shoal of fish than human beings. They drift close in waves, then pool in eddies, standing and munching without watching how close they are to the table or how they may be blocking the flow of other grazers.

So consider the movements of herds, packs, and other large dumb groups of living beings when you set up the buffet line. Give it a starting point, an ending point, and make sure there is a lot of extra space at both beginning and end for people to chew the cud. Make a good flow easy and obvious. Consider creating alternate destinations in the room for people to drift towards so others can reach the food.

One trick I like to is to put the drinks at the far end of a large room, opposite or at least some steps away from the food table. This helps people spread more evenly throughout a large space. Speaking of which...

Setting up the drinks table. Notice how much space we gave the drinks?
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2. Put drinks on a separate table from the food.

Getting a drink, especially if there is coffee, with its attendant pourers and packets of sugar, is a different flow. It's a separate station, and you need to make it easy for people to swing by and refill their glass, without pressing through the buffet line. You also want it near the kitchen, as jugs of water and pots of coffee are heavier (usually) than food trays, and more prone to spillage.

Hospitality Tip: Keep the drinks table clean. The drinks table is prone to more spillage and piles of disposables as people leave their empty sugar packets next to the coffee, or dab at spills with paper napkins. Make regular swings by the drinks table to mop up and keep it looking refreshed.

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3. Plates at the front, cutlery at the end.

Back at the food table — here's the cardinal rule. Do not make people pick up their forks, knives, spoons, sporks, or cups at the beginning of the line. All that should be at the beginning of a food line are plates, and maybe napkins. All cutlery and anything else that has to be juggled goes at the end. No exceptions.

Obvious (Yet Mysteriously Overlooked) Tip: For goodness sakes don't forget the trash cans! I've been to too many parties that had nary a trash can in sight, and yet all the food was served on disposable plates. Make sure to have plentiful outlets for discarded food and plates and napkins. If you don't give your guests a place to put trash, they'll find a place, and it's probably not where you want it to be.

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4. Put out multiple stacks of everything.

Again, picture not one person going through the line, but a herd. It's best to create several points of access for everything. Don't put out one stack of napkins; put out three, slightly staggered, so someone can snake in a hand and grab one when their kid spills punch, and yet not hold up the line. For small plate or appetizer setups, I like to put stacks of plates at both the beginning and end of the table, so people can wander up from any direction.

Putting out plenty of cups and plates right away also means less work for you later in the party.

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Tiny Tip: Make the napkins easy to grab. Maybe I am just ultra detail-oriented but I like to stack paper napkins with the seam facing outwards, to make them easier to pick up quickly.

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5. Arrange the food table strategically.

Put most plentiful or cheapest types of food at the beginning; push the scarcest or most expensive to the end. I usually keep an eye on the food and within the first hour switch it up. At the wedding, for instance, I noticed that people were skipping over the veggie and hummus cups (come on, eat your veggies, people!). I had plenty of these, so I swapped them with the meatballs and put them at the very front of the line, which helped equalize things a bit.

Those are some of the major things I think about when setting up a buffet for a decent amount of people. What about you? What would you add?

(Image credits: Faith Durand)