Buffet-style meals are an easy way to feed a crowd, and as the weather warms up and parties start moving outdoors, a build-your-own salad bar is a fun alternative to the usual taco or sandwich bar. For the Grown-Up Baby Shower I hosted earlier this spring, I created a spread of healthy yet hearty options for guests to create the salad of their dreams — and it ended up being a huge hit. ("I wish I could eat this for lunch every day!" seemed to be the common sentiment.)
Here are a few tips for setting up crowd-pleasing salad bars at your own parties this spring and summer.
This is what I served at the baby shower:
Salad Bar Menu for a Spring Lunch
For 22 people
- Chopped Romaine Lettuce
- Mustard-Glazed Salmon
- Poached Chicken Breast
- French Lentil Salad (no bacon, to make it vegan)
- Hard-Boiled Eggs
- Herb Garden Potatoes (I skipped the spinach)
- Roasted Heirloom Carrots
- Roasted Asparagus
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Shelled Pistachios
- Dijon Vinaigrette
- Quick Ranch Dressing
- Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
Tip #1: Make it satisfying.
A salad bar shouldn't leave your guests starving an hour later. In order to turn salad into a satisfying meal, you'll need to include some stick-to-your-ribs proteins, like cooked meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or legumes. For my own party, I didn't know if anyone had any dietary restrictions, so I offered a variety of proteins suitable for carnivores, vegetarians and vegan eaters.
Nuts, cheese and avocado also help to keep a salad filling. And cooked grains — such as quinoa, farro, or rice — or starchy vegetables like boiled or roasted potatoes will help keep even the hungriest guests satisfied.
Tip #2: Choose recipes you can make ahead and serve cold.
My menu included a lot of components because I was feeding a fairly large crowd. I purposely chose recipes that could be made a few days ahead of time and would taste good cold or at room temperature, so I didn't have to worry about reheating dishes before the party or keeping them warm on the buffet table. Although I ended up not being able to stick to my own schedule for various reasons, this was my original plan:
My Make Ahead Salad Bar Schedule
3 Days Before
- Make vinaigrettes
2 Days Before
- Hard boil eggs
- Cook quinoa
- Make lentil salad
- Roast carrots and asparagus
1 Day Before
- Make potato salad
- Make ranch dressing
- Poach chicken
- Cook salmon
- Peel eggs
- Wash, dry and chop romaine lettuce
Tip #3: Fill out the spread with a few store-bought items.
For my own menu, I included shelled nuts, jarred olives and cherry tomatoes — colorful, flavorful ingredients that didn't require much additional work beyond transferring them from a container to a bowl. Here are a few ideas for store-bought items that will add flavor to your salad bar without a lot of extra work:
- Shelled nuts and/or seeds
- Roasted red peppers
- Pickled pepperoncini
- Cured meats
- Cherry tomatoes
- Dried fruits
Tip #4: Make it easy to serve one-handed.
My personal buffet pet peeve is serving utensils that require two hands to use, such as a wooden salad spoon and fork set. Your plate is already in one hand, so you either have to find an empty spot on the table to set down your plate, or a kind neighbor who will hold your plate while you scoop food onto it.
So when planning your salad bar spread, think about how guests will transfer the food from the serving dishes to their plates. Tongs are always useful, and make sure serving spoons are the right size for getting a good helping. (Don't make people frantically scoop up bean salad with a tea spoon, for example.)
Also think about the easiest way to serve dressings. For well-emulsified dressings like ranch, a small pitcher will work well, but it's a good idea to use a small ladle or soup spoon to serve vinaigrettes that may separate, so guests don't end up pouring a big glug of oil over their plates.