How to set a buffet

Info Guru, Catalogs.com

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chef at buffet
Advice from pros to help you create a stunning buffet
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Knowing how to set a buffet beautifully is about more than the food

We've all been to them. That awful buffet, where the food trays were unattractive, the table looked sad and everyone had to reach over everyone else to get to the platters. And hopefully, you've all also been to a stunning buffet, where the food looked almost too good to eat, the access was smooth, and the table was a work of art. 

So what's the difference? One meal was arranged by someone who didn't know how to set a buffet, and the other was created by some who understood that the food is only a part of a successful buffet.

If you need to design and arrange a buffet table, you need to know the tricks professional caterers use to make arrangements look magical.


One of the basic elements of a buffet meal is the flow of guests to, along and possibly around the table. Caterers start with the number of guests. On average, it takes each guest 2 to 6 minutes to go from beginning to end of a 20 foot serving table. The difference in time is a factor of the number of foods, the arrangement of bowls, platters and warming pans, and the number of people at the event. 

Ideally, you want to shoot for about 3-4 minutes from start to finish. This can be accomplished by serving food at different heights so people can reach multiple items from each spot along the table instead of falling into the serve-step-serve pattern. You can also increase flow speed by allowing service from both sides of the table, or by dividing tables into courses (appetizer, salads, desserts, etc.)

You can estimate the flow by walking along the table and stopping as though filling a plate every foot or so. Add in delays for people talking, taking more than one serving, etc. For sandwiches or bagels and toppings, add in additional time for assembly. If it's over 3 minutes, it's time to look at changes.


Placing serving pieces and trays of food at different heights along the tables not only allows you to display more food in the same length of table, it also increases the attractiveness of the table. Use stable boxes to create levels, then drape them with attractive fabric or multiple tablecloths, allowing it to fall into gentle creases. Just make sure all surfaces are stable, and that food is within reach of all guests.


Be sure that related foods are placed together on your buffet. If you're serving pastas, place the sauces and cheese in the same area. With sandwiches, place breads, meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments together so guests don't have to start and stop to build one sandwich.

If assembly or saucing is needed, be sure to build in space to safely set plates down for the process. Otherwise poorly balanced plates will end up on the ground, and guests will be embarrassed and frustrated.

Decoration and lighting

The details take the buffet from blah to beautiful, so pay attention to the finishing touches. Lighting nestled under tulle or netting or among folds in sheer fabric can add sparkle and magic to the display. Flowers, table lamps, vases filled with decorative fruits and vegetables and theme items are all easy ways to make your table something special.

Do be careful about decorations that could fall into the food. A lovely plant with toxic leaves or flowers could spell tragedy on a buffet table, so make your decorative choices with safety in mind, too.


And speaking of safety, check all elements of your table for safety. Make sure draping isn't a tripping risk and all cords are either under the table or taped down. Check trays and chafing dishes for stability and placement so they cannot be accidentally knocked off with an elbow or sleeve. 

If you use candles, make sure they are placed within secure glass holders or hurricanes. A bit of museum paste on the base will prevent them from falling over onto tables or guests.

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