Design Matters: 17 Thoughtful Tips for Creating a Great Buffet

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At the end of an event, what about the buffet will guests remember most? The display, where all décor is carefully and thoughtfully selected to match the theme? The variety of cookware? The selection of food, including small bites, main courses and desserts?

As an F&B manager, chef or caterer, you have goals for your buffet. Whether you want to improve upon the décor, the cookware or the food, check out these 17 tips for making a good buffet great.


Be Aware of Different Plate Sizes (and When to Use Them)

Even if you’re not serving a bustling corporate crowd, you know your guests may be on their feet for a good portion of the event, socializing with others. Accommodate them by not weighing them down with bulky dishware, says Carla McDonald at party resource The Salonniere.

“For sit-down buffet meals, use nine or ten-inch plates. Six-inch plates are best if your guests will be standing up while they eat,” McDonald writes. “Also, offer multiple stacks of plates on the buffet and make them easy to grab. People feel most comfortable waiting when they have a plate in their hands.”


And Don’t Forget the White Dishes

Whether adhering to a client’s color scheme or going with your own, that rainbow of colors may overwhelm the buffet. To prevent this, Little Miss Party in a Box recommends keeping serving trays and other dishware simple, preferably white in color.

“Use all-white platters and cake stands to serve your food and dessert at your next party and your table will look chic no matter what you serve,” she says.

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Step Into 3D with Multi-Dimensional Displays

3D is for more than just video games and movies. Cookware manufacturer Corelle Brands encourages adding shape and height to a display.

“Sturdy platters and bowls can be used under a tablecloth to display foods at different heights,” they say. “Or look for items laying around the house — boxes, bowls, even kid’s sand pails make terrific 3D displays.”

Manja Swanson at the Huffington Post agrees. She recommends taking the time to “create visual interest on your tabletop by varying the height of the elements in your design. By varying the height of objects, you prevent the tablescape from looking flat and one-dimensional.”

Professionals also use Buffet Display Risers and Stairs to create a tiered effect that is modern, fresh and easy.

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Know Where to Place Flowers

Flowers and other greenery add some pizzazz to an otherwise plain display. In My Kitchen, a blog from Sodexo, says floral displays for a buffet have a specific placement compared to other formal dining events.

“Duplicate a buffet’s arrangement by creating miniature variations in glass pie pans. Arrangements on guest tables should be low enough to allow conversation,” they write.


Keep Candy Choices Plentiful

If catering a kid’s party or another whimsical event, a candy buffet is the perfect way to enchant large crowds. Jessica at DIY party blog My Love of Style suggests the following must-haves:

  • Mints (peppermint, buttercream mints, spearmint, etc.)
  • Bubblegum
  • Gummies (different shapes and sizes)
  • Hard candy (candy sticks, lollipops, rock candy, etc.)
  • Chocolate (bite-sized is best)
Let There Be Light

Both the wedding resource EverAfterGuide and Karla Nathan at Karla’s Cottage recommend using interesting fixtures to light up an event hall or other space.

EverAfterGuide in particular vouches for LED branches, which they say “are some of the most cost-effective ways of adding a sparkling splendor” to catered events. “You can easily shape up these battery-operated LED branches the way you like, as these are made up of easily bendable wires wrapped inside a plastic covering.”


Local Is Always In

Appeal to locavores with a menu of freshly sourced foods, suggests Beth Buehler at Destination Colorado. She mentions how her “favorite conference meals and receptions involve locally harvested or produced foods,” and many guests will surely agree.


Let Guests Smell Food as It’s Cooking

Before the food is plated, get guests’ mouths watering by allowing the scents of cooking food to waft into the room. Sarah Lonsdale at Remodelista spoke to California’s Parkside Café owners John and Maxine Gilbert. According to John, the inclusion of a wood-burning stove means the event “becomes all about ‘hearing, seeing, and smelling what’s going on in the hearth.'”


Don’t Go Overboard on Cheeses

The more people attending an event, the more varieties of food you’ll need, right? Tall Guy and a Grill Catering in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin disagrees, at least when it comes to cheese. “For a dinner party of six to eight people, it would be best to have three or four cheeses. No matter how many guests, never serve more than five cheeses or it will overwhelm the palate,” they explain.


Clouding Is Classy

If that simple tablecloth is looking a little too plain, follow the advice from Merry Brides and try clouding.

“Clouding is when you simply take an extra tablecloth (or two) and then bunch and scrunch the fabric on top of your table. It creates a pretty, fluffy sort of look around the base of the platters,” they write. “If you are going to add levels, you would add those on top of the clouding with additional fabric.”


Inform the Crowd

Nikos Morantis at travel site Destsetters emphasizes the importance of food labels at a buffet.

“Even if…F&B managers feel confident that they have built the perfect…menu, they often fail to adequately inform the guests on what each plate is, creating misunderstandings about what the guest has really picked.” This can be dangerous for those with food allergies, so be careful.



Opt for Easy-to-Use Serving Utensils

As mentioned, clients at catered events are often busy socializing. That means they may only have one free hand. You may have thought ahead and plan to serve finger food for convenience. However, Abby Stone at Apartment Therapy says to take that one step further with simple but functional utensils.

“A ladle with a pour spout for the gravy or an easy-to-use gravy boat, a long shallow spoon to dig mashed potatoes out of a bowl, tongs to grab a serving of salad, bread and pies cut into slices. If people have to use two hands or cut a slice for themselves, this cuts down the line,” reminds Stone.


Match Sizes for Serving Convenience

It would be a shame for guests to stop up the line because they can’t get treats out of too-small jars at the candy buffet.

Rachel Raczka at spoke to Pink Orchard Weddings owner Emilie Chang, who warns to “make sure the type of tong or scoop you have actually works with the candy that you have…All your vases should have wide openings, but if it has a narrow one, just make sure it’s filled with something you can get out with a tong.”


Plan the Drinks Station Carefully

Another trick for preventing guests from clustering in one big clump is to rethink where the drinks station will go. Karin Beuerlein at DIY Network notes “people congregate around where drinks are served, even if they’re nonalcoholic, so keep your drink serving station off to the side.”


Serve Food on Unexpected Items

We touched on this somewhat above, but it bears repeating. The writers at BridalGuide suggested this idea for a candy buffet, but it can be applied to almost any other type of buffet. “Be it a vintage farmhouse table, a baker’s rack or a sleek credenza, creative presentation is key to a dazzling candy experience,” they say.

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Offer Numerous Dessert Flavors

Dessert is sometimes overlooked when planning for the main meal. However, Chris Nease at Celebrations at Home recommends giving guests some choices for dessert, too.

“Serving a variety of flavors is a good idea…I also like to choose different textures to serve. Good choices are cakes + parfaits + bars + something crunchy — these would make a wonderful assortment, and a taste to satisfy all palates,” she says.


Don’t Forget the Props

Obviously, props aren’t appropriate for all catered events. For kids parties and other cheery events though, Sophie’s World, a party planning resource, says these liven up a meal.

“Thematic accent pieces, like a wheel of fortune at a carnival party or a piñata for a Mexican fiesta can really add a bit of color and fun to a bland buffet. Just make sure that the items don’t overpower the table or get in the way of the food,” she says.

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