The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Setting Up a Buffet

published Nov 17, 2017
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(Image credit: Kitchn)

When done correctly, a buffet dinner can look lovely and be far easier for a hungry crowd to navigate. Sure, it’s not as formal as a sit-down meal, but it allows guests to get what they want, when they want it, without worrying about offending the host by not eating certain things. Plus, it’s easy for the host to organize and clean up.

Just make sure you don’t make any of these (totally avoidable) mistakes and you’ll wind up throwing the best buffet meal ever.

1. Pushing a table against the wall.

Your first instinct may be to push the buffet table up against the wall to keep it out of the way. Do not! Instead, float the table so that guests can access the dishes from both sides of the table. It will speed up the serving process and help everyone get to the table faster.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

2. Putting plates, utensils, and napkins in the wrong spot.

Plates should be set up at the beginning of the table. Napkins and silverware go at the end. While you think it’s better to put it all together at the beginning, this will make guests juggle too many things while they’re trying to serve themselves. Plus, people might not know at first if they’re going to need a spoon. Then, they take corn pudding and, darn it, they now have to go back and interrupt the flow of the line to get a spoon.

3. Keeping everything on the same level.

Instead of laying out everything flat on the buffet table, vary the height of your dishes. Not only does it add visual interest to the table, but it also helps you fit more into the space. An easy way to cheat it? If you’re placing a tablecloth on your table, a stack of books or a small upside-down bowl placed underneath will create spots to place dishes. Cake plates aren’t just for sweets, either! They work for savory foods too and help vary the heights.

4. Not labeling dishes.

People will definitely recognize the turkey, but be sure to label the harder-to-distinguish side dishes. It makes guests feel much more comfortable knowing what they’re eating. Also, labeling the dishes helps if you have a guest with food allergies or certain preferences, like someone who is gluten-free or a vegetarian.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

5. Forgetting serving utensils for each dish.

Make sure each item on the buffet has the appropriate utensil. You don’t want guests to have to mix between certain foods — especially if a guest has allergies. If a dish doesn’t need sauce, use a slotted spoon; if it does need sauce, make sure you provide a spoon that will help scoop it up. And tongs are always a good idea — even for a simple basket of biscuits.

6. Not having a place for lids or serving spoons.

Those utensils have to go somewhere when they’re not in use. If they can be placed in the serving dish without making a mess, that’s totally fine. If that will be tough, have a small plate or spoon rest nearby. And if you’re serving something in, say, a Dutch oven with a lid, make sure there’s room for the lid to go when guests are digging in. Otherwise, it’s just too much for people to juggle.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

7. Not heating things properly.

We’re not saying you need chafing dishes and Sternos. That’s what slow cookers are for! If something needs to be kept warm, use a slow cooker instead of a serving dish. Just be careful with the cord — you don’t want to create a tripping hazard!

(Image credit: Christine Han)

8. Placing drinks on the same table as the food.

Separate your food and drinks, not only for space but also for organizational reasons. People mixing or pouring drinks can get messy and you won’t want people spilling on the food table. Despite what you might think, a glass of soda on mashed potatoes is not delicious! Encourage people to make it through the food line, put their plates down, and then hit up the drinks station. You can put dessert on a third table for the same reasons.

What other mistakes do people make? Do you have any more buffet tips and tricks to add?