How to Set Up a Buffet Table

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How to Set Up a Buffet Table

If you are hosting a sizeable holiday gathering, then I’m a firm believer that a buffet is the way to go. Or really any kind of large party, whether it be a graduation celebration, engagement party, summer soiree, and so on. And while a table laden with beautiful food is going to look great no matter what, with a bit of extra time and thought, you can make the buffet a real focal point and part of the décor.

Table with a decorated centerpiece and serving plates with food labels.

Plan Ahead Buffet Table

The number one thing to do: Set the buffet up the night before! Unless you need the table desperately for prep, just get it all organized a day ahead. Then, all you have to do to the buffet the day of your party is plunk the dishes down in the predetermined spots.

On the Table

Consider a tablecloth or a runner, or maybe both. I love the way a runner looks layered over a tablecloth — it adds texture and makes any patterns pop. I used a simple white tablecloth and a linen-washed brick-red and white-colored runner on top.

Red table runner topped with greenery, flowers, fruit, and decorations.

Think about creating a centerpiece of sorts if you are going to line the dishes down both sides of the table. Or, if you are pushing the table up against a wall (as I did here), create a festive backdrop. Here are some of the ideas and items you might consider for your buffet table decorations.


You can pick a few colors to focus on or maybe one or two colors to anchor your tablescape. I picked red because I don’t think there is a more festive color, and I mixed in touches of white, brown, and green.

Flowers and Foliage and Greenery

I doubled down on the red theme, with a combo of a few elegant, not quite bloomed, amaryllis and some blowsy peonies, and also some prickly little dried flowers I found this fall at a flea market. It’s nice to put flowers in vases of different heights for variety.

Beneath everything there are a few branches with lovely fresh berried juniper greenery — and you can snip branches from trees outside your home or find other greenery at your local flower shop. Some dried brown and green magnolia leaves are tucked into short square glass vases. Not only are these flowers and foliage beautiful, they smell lovely.

Whole pomegranates on branches of juniper.


There are lots of ways to go here, but of course, make sure when they are lit, they burn safely. Here, I used some sort of lily flower-ish candle holders with a touch of metallic, with simple votives within.


I’m a big fan of mixing in some edible items into pretty much any centerpiece. In keeping with the red theme, there are cranberries (stuffed into little caviar servers because somehow I ended up with caviar servers in my home, but really never any caviar) and pomegranates. The cranberries will later turn into Cranberry Orange Shrub, and the pomegranates will lend their arils to Arugula, Orange, and Pomegranate Salad.

Small glass bowl of cranberries.


This is where you can be super creative and use items you already own. Take a spin around your home and see what might look pretty, whimsical, or surprising on the table. I recently bought this funky carved red wooden bust, which has a slightly gnome-like or elf-ish quality, which I tucked right in, and one of the pomegranates sits on a little silver cup.

All of these things are conversation pieces, which is part of the fun.

Red table runner topped with a carved red statue, greenery, and a candle holder.

How to Set Up a Buffet Table: Everything you need to know about pulling together a buffet that is planned out ahead and looks beautiful.

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Setting Up the Buffet Table

Take a mental walk through your whole menu and choose all serving platters and bowls ahead of time. Then, make sure they are clean!

Think of the order of events and how people will pass through the buffet: you’ll want to start with the plates at one end and then lay out your serving dishes in the order you think makes the most sense and has the most visual appeal. Use Post-Its or scraps of paper to label each platter with what it will hold, and put the serving utensils on top of, or next to, each dish. 

Decorated table with serving dishes labelled "Potatoes" and "Garlic Bread."

Place trivets where you will be serving dishes in hot casseroles. Remember the small things, like a space for salad dressing or butter for the rolls.

Put the utensils and napkins at the end of the buffet so people can grab them once they’ve filled their plates. Don’t stress about having everything match — there is a great deal of charm in mixing up the various items you own. Many people turn to paper for larger gatherings — that’s up to you, depending on the number of people you will be having and the amount of dishes you are willing to face the next day.

While many of your dishes may be self-explanatory (“ham,” for instance), you might consider putting out little cards describing the offerings, e.g., “Vegetable and Farro Salad.”

The Food

The keywords are “make-ahead” and “(mostly) room temperature.”

For the buffet food, start by thinking about what kinds of foods are happy to sit out for a while. My thinking is to pick one or two things to serve hot but still delicious as they cool, like ham, a lasagna, or roasted vegetables. Don’t feel the need to have an enormous menu; 4 or 5 offerings are just fine. If you have a big group, you will likely want to make back-ups of certain dishes so you can swap in a fresh platter as needed.

Classic Traditional Thanksgiving Stuffing in serving platter.
Traditional Thanksgiving Stuffing

Also think about color in the food, things that make sense together on a plate, and make sure you have something from all of the food groups. And don’t forget to have an offering for those who are vegetarian and gluten-free if you know some of your guests will be looking for these options.

Have a few dessert options as well (utensil-free things are good — brownies and cookies and such), and find a separate area for those if possible. If you are someone who likes to plan out and prepare the whole dinner menu yourself, desserts are the perfect thing to ask people to bring when they offer.

Setting Up the Bar

Set up the bar ahead of time. Put out glasses, a bucket for ice, and small bowls for citrus wedges and olives.

Consider filling a large container or bucket with drinks and ice earlier in the day so that everything stays cold and people can help themselves. You can keep your list of offerings tight for sure — pick a few alcoholic choices and a few non-alcoholic ones, and just make sure you have enough in total. But having one special cocktail can add a nice little flair to the evening. I love a pitcher drink for entertaining — there is no way I am muddling for the masses.

Don’t have a real bar space, and running out of room? Clear off a bookshelf and make that the bar for the evening — it looks quite great.

Making the buffet table look warm and homey sets the scene for a great party. And then, no matter whether people are sitting at one table, a few tables, or even on cushions on the floor or folding chairs, you’ll have given the meal and the day a beautiful backdrop.

Also, consider setting up a breakfast buffet for guests in the morning — you’ll be the host with the mostest!

Great Buffet Recipes

Main Dishes

Vegetarian Main Dishes

Vegetable Side Dishes

Grain, Pasta, and Potato Side Dishes

Breads and Muffins



About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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