How to set up a buffet table (& examples of what not to do.)

Ah, summer time, the season of the backyard barbecue and potluck.  It’s fun, it’s relatively easy and laid back… a nice way to enjoy friends and family.  However, easy and simple is  NOT synonymous with sloppy and thrown together.

It doesn’t matter if it is at a BBQ, a potluck or Thanksgiving dinner, there is a right way and a wrong way to set up a buffet table.

Here is a great example of What Not To Do:
My wonderful and funny friend Connie at The Young and the Relentless recently attended a potluck party in her old hometown.
This was not a spur of the moment get together…
This was planned…
This should have been better organized…

In her own words:

“Granted….this is a cow town. It’s an hour from the big city and people don’t have a reason to dress up or anything but I was appalled at what I saw.  First of all…our dear hostess.  Paper plates….but not pretty ones.   And no napkins…a paper towel roll.  Forks (and only forks) were in a glass vase and packed in so tight that they all flew out every time someone took one out.
I brought my dessert in a plastic cupcake holder because they were a little messy and asked her if I could throw them on a plate of hers…thinking I’d just leave them all when it was time to go home and not accidentally leave my container.  Nope, she just threw it on the table with everything else.”
The goal for any host/hostess should be to make sure that their guests feel comfortable and taken care of.  Even something as simple as a pot-luck buffet should have a minimum of thought going into it.

These photos are courtesy of Connie.  The numbers and commentary are courtesy of me.

1. Really?  A roll of paper towels? Not only is that tacky, but how are you expecting your guests to balance a plate in one hand and tear off a sheet of paper towel with the other hand? Is it an octopus party? How many hands do you think your guests have?

2. Salt & Pepper on the buffet… because your guests should know by sight if the food is seasoned to their liking.

3. The lid is still on this…. Can I have some?  Maybe it isn’t for us… Should I take the lid off and try to cut myself a slice…?  Never mind. There is nothing to cut it with or serve it with anyway.  Besides, I am already having trouble with the paper towels.

4. Is this….? Yep. It’s trash.  On the buffet table.

5. This looks like a plate of sliced strawberries and kiwi fruit… Should I just use my fingers, or…? Is the container of plastic forks what I’m supposed to use…?

6. Should I use my fingers for the greasy burger patties too…?

7. More trash? Or is this one of the side dishes…?  Hard to tell.

But wait! There’s more!

1. Clearly it is a bad idea to have Costco-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner near the buffet.  Then again, perhaps guests will need a shower after going through a buffet line, sans serving utensils…

2. Once you take the foil off of your casserole and the groceries out of the bag, the foil and bag should not be left on the buffet.  Move them.  Put them over by the shampoo at least.

3. This looks like a sheet cake.  With nothing to cut it or serve it with.

4.Trash and sunglasses….

5. Ugly bowl, empty glass, bad windbreaker on a guy leaning on the buffet table.

6. This is a giant vat o’ salsa, with a spaghetti server (with holes) used to serve said salsa.

7. The lid to the ugly bowl, taking up prime real estate on the buffet table.

8 & 9. I’m pretty sure crappy wine coolers are supposed to be served cold, and I know they’re not supposed to be plopped down on the buffet table in the cardboard carrying case they came in.

10. More fresh cut fruit with no serving pieces. (I’m off to take that shower now….)


Updated to add: Sometimes the best way to learn is to show you what NOT to do.
 That’s why Glamour Magazine shows those Fashion Don’ts  with the black bar obscuring the fashion victim’s face.  This is no different.  It’s just with a buffet and a description of why it’s a Don’t.

How to set up a buffet table:  Keep these 5 things in mind when it comes to setting up a buffet:

1. Ease of use – What was difficult for you the last time you went through a buffet line?
Leave a little space so that your guests can set down their plate if necessary.  It’s very likely that people navigating the buffet line will have a drink in their hand, or they will need to spread a condiment, etc.  Leave a little room for your guests to set their drink down, while they hold a plate in one hand and serve themselves with the other.  If you’re serving burgers, make sure that you have enough space for guests to set their plates down while they spread condiments/assemble their burgers.  Think about what you would need or want, and make it happen.

2. Practicality – It needs to make sense.

Don’t throw condiments all over the table.  Put them near the dish they’re most likely to be used with.  Why put silverware at the beginning of the line?  Your guests don’t need to juggle that too.  Put silverware at the end of the buffet so that it is the last thing they grab on their way to their seats.  Have a serving utensil for everything on the table.  Don’t stick beverages or desserts in the middle of the buffet, etc.

3. Traffic Flow – Make it easy and obvious.
Have an “entrance” and an “exit”  The line starts here… grab a plate…  help yourself… here’s your silverware… off you go… Enjoy! Try to have a separate dessert table and an area for drinks.  If that isn’t possible, at the very least, designate specific spots for them on the table.

A good example of ease of use, practicality and traffic flow:

(Don’t be jealous of my mad picasa skillz…)

4. Presentation – It’s not critical, but it is definitely important.
You have paper plates and want to use them? Fine! I am all for paper plates and plastic forks, but that doesn’t mean you serve food out of cardboard boxes, throw lids on the table, make people pick up little pieces of melon with their bare hands, and in general  have your guests pick through a mish-mash of food that was clearly thrown together.

5. Hospitality – Make your guests feel welcome and cared for.
No one wants to be the guest who has to cut the first slice of a whole cake on a buffet.  Pre-cut any desserts that are like that.  And for goodness sake, make sure that you take them out of their carrying containers!  It takes just a tiny bit of effort to put cookies or a cake on a nice plate.  (I think food tastes better that way too…)
No one wants to be the guest to open a sealed container or have to deal with where to put wrappings or lids.
No one wants to wonder where they put their plate when they’re finished.  Make sure your guests know where they can toss their paper plates (And make sure the trashcan isn’t too far away, but that it isn’t too close to the festivities either. ew.)
No one wants to have to search for a glass or silverware or salt & pepper, etc.  Put these things out and make sure they’re readily available.  (And for that matter, make sure there are clean hand towels and plenty of toilet paper in your bathrooms….)

With a little thought and common sense planning, even the simplest and most casual of get-togethers can make your guests feel welcome and comfortable.  And really, isn’t that what hospitality really means?


  1. says

    Make it stop. Please, please make it stop! The only thing that would have been better is if it had been all spread out in the garage amongst the tools and lawn mowers!

  2. says

    There was some double duty happening here. That lid you pointed out for the ugly bowl actually held the taco chips for dipping or double dipping in the salsa vat.
    Even my sons, in their 20s do a better job than that.
    Sounds like she really didn’t want to host this get together.

  3. says

    When I hold a get together I want to use everything in my cupboard that I usually don’t!! All the platters, serving trays, serving dishes, flatware, dishes….
    So I have to wash dishes afterwards…but jeeeze! Just plopping everything as is on the table…no napkins, no nothing! I can’t believe it!!!!!!
    I am sure she didn’t want to host that party. Was it imposed upon her??

  4. says

    I’ve presented some and been to some ugly buffet tables. But only with my close close family. I would NEVER do that shiz to anyone BUT my family! LOL!!! LOVE your mad picasa skillz.

  5. says

    What the? How did Connie get pictures from my last family reunion?

    I swear I will one day disown my family.

    I’m loving your mad picasa skills, Viv. You always make me laugh. EVERY. TIME.

    Thanks Connie for giving Viv something to make fun of! I have some stuff for your blog if you’re interested! lol

  6. says

    I am reminded of the Thanksgiving feast in the movie, Carolina. (Watch this movie!) All that was missing was the microwaves at the end of the line, to heat the sagging paper plates of food. What a mess!!!

    If nothing else, trash should be removed from the table! And NO ONE should be leaning their behind by the food. Ewwwww…..

    Vivienne’s diagram is quite good. I often move the condiments/fixin’s to a different table/station. It helps the buffet line move a bit faster. Drinks are always at their own station…and coffee has it’s own location. I don’t like mixing hot and cold beverages…this can be dangerous, if there are young children around. Plus, I usually have a special coffee bar set up…all kinds of stuff to add to coffee. And desserts are on their own table…or brought out after the guests have had time to go through the buffet line a couple of times.
    Jane (artfully graced)

  7. says

    So glad to see someone tackle one of my pet peeves. You don’t have to go all Martha Stewart, but a little common sense about your food would be helpful. If you don’t want to make a decent spread, don’t host. By the way, I do really enjoy a little Martha Stewart presentation thrown in. It makes the food taste so much better. :)

  8. says

    I tried to post a comment when you first posted this and blogger wouldn’t let me? Anyway, I think you learn this kind of stuff from your mom. Maybe these people were raised in a frat house? The trash on the table is from the guest’s response to their hostess not caring. I grew up with a mom that would give Martha Stewart a run for her money. She frequently entertained and was amazing at it. Even now when it’s just our family she ALWAYS makes the table special, even if it’s paper plates and burgers, it’s first class. I hope this poor woman reads your blog. She needs an party intervention!

  9. says

    OMGGGG….this needs to be given to all people who throw parties. YOU MUST make this a standard manual. Go to print. NOW. NOW. NOW.

    LOVED this post if you didn’t gather. :)

    I work in the restaurant biz and when I took over some banquets that required buffet set up, I used to be driven to drink heavily when some not so “common sense” people got their hands on it before I got to it.

  10. says

    This is great! I’ve been to numerous “bad” buffets and never would have thought to tell such a story about it. Thanks for informing (and entertaining!) us!


  11. says

    I too, felt like you had snapped a pic of one of my IN LAW parties… all the way down to Uncle Fred leading against the buffet in his sporty party attire. Someone commented to use a separate condiment area, love that idea… and your ideas should be printed and handed out at every 18 year old birthday party; we gotta start educating the young or there will be more of this to come!

  12. says

    Thank you so much for the entertaining post!

    I’m a country girl from Missouri, but my mom was and IS the best hostess in the world! She taught me well.

    After my daughter’s recent grad party her friends kept asking her “who catered?”

  13. says

    I love to make things special when I have a get together. My friends have always laugh. They don’t understand why I love to go through ‘all that trouble’. They sure do love that I go through all that trouble.

  14. says

    Wow. I am so incredibly shocked at how tacky you and Connie are.

    Hey about a blog about this…”How to make fun of your host.” Oh wait you just did that. How about, or “How to eliminate friends.” Oh, you did that too. Dang.

  15. Anonymous says

    This made me sad. I usually love all you blogger gals for your sense of humors but this just seemed mean. Who knows what the circumstances were? I love hosting parties and preparing evertything just so, but I would never be this cruel to someone else who doesn’t. Why so be harsh and judgmental? If you want to be totally type a good for you, but don’t penalize other, more laid back gals, because they want to get together with friends and family without getting the shakes! I hope the hostess reads your blog also…and remembers to strike your names from any further get-togethers, for fear of offending your delicate sensibilities. I mean really! Some people like the whole “idea” of entertaining, while others just like to get together without it being a “big deal”. Take a deep breath, move away from the oh so offensive buffet, and just enjoy the company (if you can find it in yourselves to do that either).

  16. says

    I thought this was a fantastic post!

    Sometimes rather than saying only ‘this is the way you should do it’ – the point is driven home much clearer by saying ‘this is the way you shouldn’t do it’. Does that make sense?

    I don’t think anyone is picking on the hostess. This is the way she chose to set up her buffet, and people have a right to react to it. Just because someone hosts a party doesn’t mean they are exempt from constructive criticism.

    I think it was a really informative post of how to set up a buffet, and learn from someone’s mistakes.

  17. says

    Hilarious! I think there’s a place for fancy buffets and a time and a crowd for laid back, plop-it-on-the-table potlucks too. I always find that people have more fun at the low-key parties. That being said, you need some freakin’ utensils for the food.

  18. Anonymous says

    On your other blog “My Favorite Hate mail”, in the leave a comment box it says, “Only nice comments allowed….Only support”. Why would you want someone to leave only nice and supportive comments for you when you can’t do that in your posts? This post is a tad harsh.

  19. Anonymous says

    I agree that this post is nasty. I understand that this buffet is set up poorly and I even understand doing a “what not to do” post about it, but all of your comments come off as incredibly spiteful and cruel. Also, I’m guessing since this was a pot luck, that people just brought their food and set it where ever they could. This comes back to the poor planning by the host, but more understandable.

  20. Anonymous says

    Sadly I have made some of these mistakes and will try to learn from them. HOWEVER…..there is no reason to not have serving utensils for the fruit and hamburger patties! That is just plain gross I don’t care who you are. It was a side note at the bottom but not having toliet paper stocked in the bathroom is the rudest thing a host can do to her guest. I have been to so many parties where there is no tp in the damn bathroom. I get it when the tp runs out on the roll and you have to get from under the cabniet all by yourself. But I have seriously been to a party when the hostess had no tp in the bathroom what so ever. Rude and plain stupid.

  21. says

    I missed this post and thankfully found it through My Favorite Hate Mail.
    I love your silly sense of humor and know that you are a total tongue in cheek kinda chick!
    There is nothing worse than going to an improperly set up buffet. I went to one last week that consisted of tough steaks and whole grilled peppers with no utensils provided and only paper plates. Um, do other people eat these foods with their fingers because I was confused.

  22. says

    I will admit, I have committed some of these potluck crimes. I never thought of some of these because my potlucks are with a tight nitch group, no one complains, everyone is happy, and they do the same things I do at their potlucks (no wonder I didn’t think anything of it). But these are great suggestions. I wouldn’t bother doing separate stations unless my potluck was for a lot of guests.

  23. says

    Sadly this is better looking than a buffet that was served at one of my family’s Christmas parties. The host got drunk and all she managed to make was a crock pot of meatballs…but nothing to eat them with. :(

  24. Anonymous says

    This post does seem a little mean spirited. I think it shows Connie in a far worse light then her host or hostess. She was rude to take these pics for the sole purpose of mocking the host. No well mannered guest would ever do that. If Connie had time to snap the photos, why didn’t she take the time to help out a bit with the table? Fetching utensils, rearranging the food and removing trash?? The host probably would have been grateful for the help. Obviously the host isn’t domestically inclined; I don’t think that should mean they aren’t “allowed” to have parties. I would imagine that many of the guests at the party think Connie is stuck-up and uppity; of course, I have no idea if that is true or not.

  25. Anonymous says

    How rude. Instead of being a judgy snob, why didn’t you offer to help. It would have taken less effort to pitch in and be a decent human being than take pictures and snark later.

  26. Anna says

    This ceased being a tongue-in-cheek ‘how not to’ when you started with the unnecessary name calling. You just come over as bitchy and judgemental when it appears you were aiming for witty and cool. This has nothing to do with defending paper plate usage or the lack of utensils (however concerning), it is the snarky descriptions of the ‘ugly’ bowl, the ‘crappy’ wine cooler, the ‘bad windbreaker’, the ‘octopus party’ reference etc.

    I actually found this post via your Hate Mail site, after reading the original post in full I agree with the comments. Your ‘sarcasm’ is not sarcasm at all, it actually reminds me of high school bullying.

  27. Dorothy says

    I think that anybody with a shred of manners would help the host(ess) to keep the buffet area looking nice, rather than stand there thinking of bitchy comments to post online about it later. If you were really so terribly appalled, maybe you should have had your chauffeur drive you to a better party.

  28. sugaree says

    Well, I’ll beat a dead horse (assuming that the proper horse-beating utensils have been supplied).

    Vivienne, your comparison to Glamour’s Fashion Don’ts breaks down because I am like 95% sure that the women with the black boxes across their eyes are not really fashion victims, surreptitiously photographed on the streets wearing their actual clothes. Those women are working models at a shoot arranged by Glamour specifically for the Fashion Dos and Don’ts page. No one is actually being held up as a Fashion Don’t, because the stylists and models know where these pictures are going and why.

    But your pictures held up a real person as a Buffet Don’t (as well as a real man as a Fashion Don’t). I presume without her permission? Not cool.

    If you wanted the visual aids to back up your points, you could have done the same kind of thing that Glamour does: set up a “bad buffet” on your own table and take pictures. More work for you, but no hurt feelings for anyone.

  29. says

    Sugaree, my comparison to Glamour “Don’ts” still stands. The fact that you are 95% sure they are staged just means you’ve never been to NY, LA or a county fair. There are tons of people walking around who think they’re wearing it well, but simply making the people around them incredibly uncomfortable. Much like the buffet table in the photos.
    I stand by my post.

  30. sugaree says

    I am not arguing that there are badly dressed people in the world (although I personally have never been made uncomfortable by them. Amused sometimes, but mostly indifferent). I am arguing that Glamour does not put them into their Fashion Don’ts page. Because that would be rude, mean, and hurtful.

    Perhaps a better comparison of your post would be to the People of Walmart site?

    I stand by my comment: if you wanted to write about buffet dos and don’ts, you could have done so without seeking to humiliate some random private citizen in Colorado. Tacky.

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  32. says

    Awesome post! I just went a potluck with no serving utensils and there was a rotisserie chicken. Um . . . haha . . . how am I supposed to eat said chicken? We couldn’t find the host and ended up rooting through kitchen drawers. It was either that or no one eat.

    I’m not sure why this post is mean spirited. It’s mean to want something to get your food with? It’s a good reminder if you are hosting a party, actually.

  33. Ladybug says

    I end up at a lot of parties because of church and many friends. One thing I have noticed is the lack of places to sit. The young ones sit on the floor, the couch may hold 3 people but I am over 60 and it is not in my MO to sit on floors. Now I bring my fold up chair which is very comfy to parties. My biggest challenge is keeping others out so I can sit!

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