25 Best Buffet Setups the Pros Use

The linens, the flowers, the tiered serving trays: before anyone ever sits down to a meal, their senses are captured first by these sights and smells. While the taste of the food is most important, when at a banquet, wedding or catered event, the looks of the displays are almost even more so.

Of course, depending on the theme of the event, there are endless décor options. A classy corporate brunch might call for cheerful but elegant decorations while a wedding would require thoughtful, romantic touches. These 25 buffet setups, favored by the pros, are ones to emulate.


Stacks Make Small Bites Look Big

Just because your client asked for cake balls instead of a traditional cake or cupcakes doesn’t mean the presentation for these small desserts has to be boring. Corporate resource Meetings Imagined suggests stacking them and adding “elegant and memorable décor touches” such as candles, flowers and other centerpieces.


Elevated Platforms Let Guests Know Which Dish Is the Star of the Show

From casual to more upscale events, elevated platforms have a home in almost any buffet setup. The bloggers at Divine Dinner Party suggest using a plastic bucket or wooden box in a pinch, but don’t leave these exposed. Those with more time can design their own platforms as part of their buffet table. Guests will know just which foods to move towards.


Jars Let Candy/Dessert Do the Talking

For kids’ parties, weddings and other fun events, candy and small desserts will always put smiles on faces. Wendy, the Sweet Buffet Lady, is a big fan of using translucent jars of varying sizes for displaying candy and desserts. Arrange these by color or mix and match for a rainbow of sugary sweetness.


Leave Room for Toppings at a Bagel Bar

Doing a bagel table for brunch? Entertaining guru Camille Styles says to include plenty of toppings. Remember, what one guest likes another might not. For the above-mentioned bagel table, she suggests sea salt, herbs, smoked salmon, vegetables and lots of cheese.


Clear Labels Reduce Confusion

At a buffet, the goal is to keep everyone moving in a timely manner to prevent clogging up the line. However, unlabeled food can do just that. Megan at The Homes I Have Made created big, visible labels for her candy buffet, but feel free to borrow this trick when serving brunches, dinners and everything in between. With food allergies and intolerances more common, it pays to let people know what they’re eating.

A photo by Toronto Eaters. unsplash.com/photos/i_xVfNtQjwI


Some Foods Can Keep Others Warm

Catering and food guru Stephanie Lynn decided to host a pasta-centric buffet. She prepared the pasta earlier in the day and while it wasn’t steaming hot by the time guests showed up, the sauce was, which kept the pasta from getting too cold. This approach can free up table space, since the caterer doesn’t have to bother with warming trays.

That said, Lynn reminds caterers that “perishable food should not be left out for more than two hours at room temperature…when in doubt, throw it out.”


Food That Doubles as Savory and Sweet Saves Space

If table space is limited, why not serve a meal that can be savory or sweet depending on the toppings and fillings? Hannah Agran at Midwest Living Magazine suggests crepes. Fill these with cheese, vegetables and deli meats for a savory breakfast or light lunch. Load them up with jams, chocolate and fresh fruit for brunch or dessert.


Let Décor Distract from the Presence of a Line

Unless you’re serving school kids, don’t make guests feel like they’re back in high school waiting for their lunch. “There should be flow and balance [to table décor], so that guests don’t feel like they’re in a cafeteria line,” Etiquette for Dummies author Sue Fox told Real Simple. She says there’s no limit to what a caterer can do in terms of decor, so let that creativity shine!


Reinvented Desserts Keep Hands Mess-Free

Who says messy desserts have no place at a buffet? Just keep these contained, suggests the wedding blog Ruffled. Her ideas? Make s’mores cupcakes, chocolate chip cookie shooters with milk filling and little pie balls to avoid sticky, stained hands.


Tortilla Shells Are Super Versatile

Throwing a Mexican-themed party for Cinco de Mayo, a birthday or any other occasion? Monica Matheny at The Yummy Life recommends using tortilla shells for a DIY feast. To save time, these shells can often be bought ahead premade. Just add meat, shredded cheese, vegetables, beans and sauces and the party is ready.


Think about Table Setup Ahead of Time

Don’t wait until party time to think about ways to set up the table. Choose a configuration early. This way, you can just push a few tables together and cover these in a tablecloth for some instant pizzazz.

The tables “…can improve access to food, make replenishing unobtrusive and efficient, control the flow of traffic by speeding or slowing it, and maintain the appearance of a bountiful, varied display throughout the meal,” says staff at the Culinary Institute of America, speaking to Chef’s Blade.


Mix up Various Elements

You may think when decorating for a catering event that everything has to match perfectly. That’s not so, says caterer Dennis Dean, who spoke to the Ballard Designs’ blog, How To Decorate. In fact, he says themes can be overdone and recommends varying “height, texture and color for best presentation.”


Serving Spoons and Scoops Are a Must

For reasons of both hygiene and convenience, make sure to have serving spoons and scoops handy, especially for a dessert or candy buffet, says Australian home and garden magazine Homelife. Make enough of these available so no guest is left out. This too keeps the line from getting congested.


End with the Priciest Foods

For low-budget events, there may only be scarce quantities of pricy main portion items. These portions don’t need to be big, nor do guests need to go home hungry.

Better Cater marketer Manilyn Moreno chatted with Dustin Riechmann at Engaged Marriage about her philosophy: save the pricy items for the end. With appetizers and other bites leading the way to these main courses, a guest’s plate (and later, stomach) will be full long before they get to the main dish.


Popcorn Appeals to Kids and Adults Alike

For an afternoon event or a kids’ birthday party, a popcorn appetizer (or dessert) is certainly unique. Sarah Crowder at SheKnows says to use jars or tall glasses for the popcorn. She also suggests making fun and flavorful mix-ins for a sweet or savory treat, like caramel, coconut flakes, chocolate candies, mini marshmallows, nuts and pretzels.



Display Fruits with Flowers

Krissa Rossbund at Traditional Home spoke with event planner Rachel Hollis, who has an interesting idea for her informal gatherings. While flowers are a typical centerpiece, she likes to liven hers up by adding whole fresh fruits.

“Fruits and flowers—oranges and kumquats, orchids and roses—are combined in an impressive and towering arrangement that explodes with vibrant colors and fills a tall vase in lush profusion,” says Rossbund.


Pizza Stations Are a Yummy Choice for Rustic-Themed Events

Compared to most wedding food, pizza is pretty cheap, especially if it’s premade or homemade. Jen at Green Wedding Shoes attended a friend’s wedding, which was in a barn and was very rustic. A flatbread and pizza station blended in very well with the décor. If replicating this for a catered event, offer a variety of pizzas.


A Mini Pie Bar Keeps Dessert Manageable

Most guests don’t want to skip dessert, but they may not necessarily want huge portion sizes either. The best middle ground? Mini pies.

Britni at Play Party Plan keeps this dessert station simple and affordable with premade mini pie crusts (homemade is also impressive), plain bowls labeled with pie toppings (like graham crackers, cereal or chocolate candies), pudding that acts as the pie filling and whipped cream. Guests can feel free to help themselves, and may just go back for seconds!


Mimosa Bars Brighten up Brunch

For adult brunches, mimosas are expected among coffee, tea, orange juice and other beverages. “Setting up a mimosa bar is simple,” says Smarty Had a Party, an event planning blog. “Start with champagne in an ice bucket, then add carafes of juice, and bowls of fresh fruit.”

Many fruits will work, so don’t let seasonal availability be a deterrent. The blogger recommends mangos, oranges, cranberries, grapefruits and pineapples.


A Bloody Mary Bar Works for Later Events

Has brunch come and gone? For luncheons, informal dinners and even weddings, a bloody Mary bar has a quick and easy setup, says Wendy at With a Southern Twist. Guests can prepare this alcoholic beverage their way, so give them lots of options. Wendy suggests a variety of mixes (spicy and sweet) and alcohols, meats and vegetables (pepperoni, bacon, carrots and tomatoes) and spices and seasonings (bacon salt, celery salt and pepper).



Colors Get People in the Mood to Party

Deanna at DIY and food blog Honey & Lime wrote about candy displays, but this applies to almost any buffet spread: the colors determine the mood. All white is typically reserved for weddings, while a rainbow of colors or bright hues like orange and blue are more appealing to kids. Pastels are also wedding-appropriate, while muted colors are good for formal or corporate events.


Mobile Drink Stations Move with the Guests

If a space is feeling cramped, move the food and drinks away. Mobile drink stations can travel from room to room so the crowd can follow, says Wine Folly. This is ideal for venues where space is limited.


Burger Bars Spruce up Luncheons

A burger bar often goes over well at indoor and outdoor luncheons, especially during the warmer months. Annalise at Completely Delicious pre-cooks the patties and then leaves the rest of the ingredients out, including the cheese, buns and toppings. This way, no matter a guest’s burger preferences, they can have food the way they want.


A Baked Potato Bar Is Sure to Surprise (in a Good Way)

Potatoes are a food staple, yet who would think to devote a whole bar to the humble potato? Jennifer Schmidt at Balancing Beauty and Bedlam did. Her baked potato bar features the spud in many forms: mashed, whole, slivered and of course, cut into fries. With her “‘zones’ of varying toppings,” her guests “could enjoy a traditional, loaded, veggie, Mexican or all of the above kind of feast.”


Waffle Stations for Breakfast or Dessert

For brunch buffets, weddings and more, waffles are a good food to have at the buffet table. Don’t just leave them plain, though. The Food Network Blog suggests letting guests know what to do at the waffle station by handwriting a list of toppings and sauces. This is no-frills, but it works.

Images by:
©rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo, Toronto Eaters, Niklas Rhose, Sasha Zvereva, Roman Kraft

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