If you’re hosting a party and don’t want to serve a sit-down dinner, a buffet may be the way to go. In which case, these tips for how to set up a buffet will help make sure your spread goes smoothly.
For my parties, I almost always have a buffet rather than a sit-down dinner.
Most of the time, I want to invite way more people than I have dining table seats…so a buffet lets me accommodate everyone.
It’s also much easier to organize if you don’t have set start times for your party (or you have friends that don’t show up on time).
So I’ve learned a lot over the years on how to set up a buffet that works.
And with many people hosting Super Bowl parties shortly, I thought I’d share my tips.
1 | Decide Where The Buffet Will Be
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The first step to setting up a buffet is to decide where you want it to be.
The location should be somewhere that is easy to get to, but not where it’s going to interrupt the flow of the rest of your party.
And make sure that there’s enough room for everyone to walk down the buffet line without bumping into others.
I usually set mine up in the den that’s across the hall from my kitchen. It’s close enough to my living room / dining room area to be convenient for people to get their food. But it doesn’t cause congestion in the main party area while people are getting their food.
Of course, if you have a larger area for your party, you could have the buffet table in the same room.
2 | Figure Out The Table Layout
Next you need to figure out how you’re going to lay out the tables.
If you’re using a small room for your buffet (like I do), position them in a U shape around the edges of the room.
If you have a larger area, a long rectangle shape works well, too.
3 | Determine The Buffet Traffic Flow
Determine where the start and end of the buffet will be, keeping in mind the traffic flow.
For U-shaped tables, people should start at one end of the U and finish at the other end. Make sure there’s enough room for people to be walking on all sides of the U at the same time.
With rectangle shapes, you can either have people go up one side of the table and down the other.
For this you would have different dishes on each side of the table (and may need to have 2 tables side by side).
Or you can have a line that starts at one end of the table and ends at the other.
If you are using this last configuration and have enough space to pull the table away from the walls, consider having two lines.
You’ll need 2 sets of serving utensils so people can get food from both sides, but this is the fastest way to serve a large number of people.
4 | Set Up The Buffet Tables
Now you need to set up the tables. I like to do this a couple of days ahead of time so that I don’t have to worry about it at the last minute.
If you have an area rug in the vicinity of the food tables, you might want to take it up…there will be spills.
If you don’t have banquet tables, try to find other tables that are all about the same height. As you can see from my set up above, I have all different ones!
Cover mismatched tables with the same tablecloths to make them look the same. For my Super Bowl party, I use football field ones to go with the party theme.
5 | Define Your Starting Point
Plates and napkins should be at the beginning of the line.
This helps to make it obvious where the start of your buffet line is.
Make sure you have more plates and napkins than you have guests. Some people will come back for seconds and take another plate.
Also, keep a refill stack of plates, napkins and cutlery close by so that you can re-stock them easily if necessary.
6 | Lay Out The Food
I like to set up all of the serving dishes I’m going to use ahead of time so I know that I have enough space.
The food should be laid out in an order that makes sense. Group similar foods together (all salads, all vegetables, all main dishes, etc.)
Make sure you leave some open spaces if your guests will be bringing additional food.
Also, all of the food should be easy to reach. If people have to reach too far over the table, things tend to get spilled and knocked over.
Cold Dishes First
Start with the cold dishes like salads, dips and veggie trays.
Some people will get these first, and come back for the hot dishes later.
So putting them close to the front of the buffet line lets those people get out of the buffet congestion faster.
Hot Dishes Next
Then lay out the hot dishes.
Warming trays, crock pots and chafing dishes are great for keeping hot food warm.
If you’re using hot plates and slow cookers, you’ll need to have enough convenient outlets for them to be plugged into. I usually use a power strip for this.
Since chafing dishes are heated by fire, they should be kept far enough away from the wall to prevent any accidents. Also, placing them on a heat-proof surface is a good idea.
Fill the bottom of the chafing dishes to the water line ahead of time.
This can be done a couple of days ahead of time. As long as you put the top on, the water won’t evaporate.
Make sure you have enough chafing dish burner cans to last for the length of your meal serving time. (They usually last for 2 to 3 hours, so if it’s a long party you may need to have some backup burner supplies).
Use crock pot liners* in crock pots and chafing dishes to make clean up easier.
Or line the dish with foil if the liners won’t fit.
If you’re planning on leaving the lids on your serving dishes, make sure there’s somewhere for people to put them while they’re helping themselves to some food.
Put condiments close to the dish that will use them so that people can find them easily.
Many people will come back at a later time to get desserts, so they may or may not be part of your main buffet table.
If you want your desserts on the buffet table, they should go at the end.
However, they can also be set up in a different location. Or even put out on the original buffet tables later in the party (once the main meal is finished).
My Favorite Serving Dishes
To keep food cold:
- Cold Tray* – put it in the refrigerator for a few hours and it will keep food cold on your buffet table for 2 to 3 hours
To keep food warm:
- Warming tray* – can be used as a flat tray, but also comes with 3 serving dishes if you need to divide it up
- Chafing dish* – comes with a built-in lid holder so people always have somewhere to put it
For easy clean up:
- Crock pot liners* – make clean up so much easier!
7 | Add Signs
Make it easy for people to tell what is in each of the dishes by putting up signs.
If you are serving dishes that meet dietary restrictions (such as gluten-free or vegetarian), you may want to include that on your labels. As well as the type of meat used if it’s not obvious.
8 | Put Cutlery At The End
Cutlery should be placed at the end of the buffet line so people don’t have to juggle the knife and fork while they’re serving themselves food.
Make sure it is easy for people to grab a knife and fork without spilling them everywhere.
I like to use cutlery trays for this, even if I’m using plastic utensils.
You might also want to set up a cutlery station that is not on the buffet table, so that people who forget to take their knife and fork can get one without interrupting the food line.
9 | Don’t Forget Serving Utensils
Make sure you have enough serving utensils for every dish. I usually put these out early, too, so I don’t forget to do it later.
Putting small plates in front of every dish provides a convenient place to put the serving utensils down.
I always keep a few extra on hand in case someone brings an unexpected dish.
10 | Have a Separate Location For Drinks
Because drinks involve holding a separate glass, it’s easier for people to get them separately from their food (otherwise, they’re trying to juggle too many things).
To minimize congestion on the buffet line, I always put the drink station in a totally different location.
Other Party Ideas You Might Like
- How To Plan A Party (and a Party Planning Checklist)
- The Ultimate Guide To Party Invitations
- 10 Easy Tips for Hosting A Brunch (Stress-Free)
Have comments or questions on how to set up a buffet? Tell us in the section below.
This post was originally published on January 18, 2020 but was updated with new content on February 19, 2024.