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How to Set a Buffet Table | Tips for Self Catering

Updated on June 11, 2014

Setting a Buffet Table

How do you set a buffet table? Is there a certain formula? Buffets are a mainstay our society -- whether it is a potluck or pitch-in party, something as important as a wedding or maybe a baby or bridal shower, buffets are a great way to serve your food offerings.

Since buffets encourage mixing and mingling of guests they are very popular with hosts. Every host wants their guests to be comfortable and happy at their event. Making sure you have a pretty AND functional buffet will go a long way toward achieving this..

Below, I have outlined some tips curated from my years in the wedding and catering industry. Hopefully these will help with your next self catered event or party!

Credit: Karen Kuffel Party Services

Creating Different Heights is Visually Appealing - on a Buffet Set Up

There are many ways to create different heights for your buffet. One of the easiest is to use stacking cake plates. Use all three together to create a tower of sumptuous food. Or use only two or even all three separate if you like.

Anchor Hocking 3-Tier Presence Platter Set
Anchor Hocking 3-Tier Presence Platter Set

There is lots of versatility here. You will find yourself using them over and over for cakes, pies, cupcakes, candy, appetizers or anything else you have on your buffet.


Designing the Décor and the Function of a Buffet - The Starting and Ending Points

Just a few suggestions to help your buffet come off without a hitch!

  1. If your buffet table has a true starting point, like a rectangle or long line shape, there are a few items you need to have readily available for guests at the beginning. Obviously, plates are the main ingredient. You can stack them if you like but if you want a bit more visual appeal than just a stack of plates, consider using a Dinner Plate Rack, a.k.a. dessert or tiered stand. You can add décor to the top or under a wire/metal frame to add some spice.

    Keep the remainder of plates nearby but out of site so you can refill easily.

  2. If your buffet is more "cocktail station" style or is a round or oval table with no real starting or finishing point, you could make small stacks of plates all around your table near the foods. That way, no matter where a guest approaches from, they will have a plate they can load up!
  3. Place your rolled flatware at the END of a long or rectangle buffet. Guests will need both hands while serving themselves from the buffet. It's hard to juggle plates, silverware and serving at the same time.

    If it is round or oval, opt to have some rolled flatware next to each plate stack for convenience.

Tip #1

Roll the flatware guests need in a napkin. With one grab, they get two essential items.

Dinner Plate Racks - Stands - Setting a Buffet Table

Plate racks can be used to hold plates for your buffet or they can hold platters of desserts, appetizers or whatever you serve.

Tripar 2 Tier Metal Plate Rack
Tripar 2 Tier Metal Plate Rack

Try a plate rack to hold your party dinner plates. It looks a bit more elegant than stacking plates directly on the table. Add a ribbon bow in your color scheme. This rack accommodates 8 1/2" to 11" plates.

NOTE: Do not try to lift or move the rack while plates are stacked on it -- could cause an accident.


A Few more Dinner Plate Racks - Choose your favorite option

InterDesign York Dinner Plate Stand, Bronze
InterDesign York Dinner Plate Stand, Bronze

This one holds a single stack of plates in its elegant metal holder.

Wrought Iron Pie Stand/Rack Triple Tier Hand Made
Wrought Iron Pie Stand/Rack Triple Tier Hand Made

One, two or three -- use whichever size will hold the plates you need.

InterDesign York Dinner Plate Stand, Satin Nickel
InterDesign York Dinner Plate Stand, Satin Nickel

Here is a satin nickel version of the single stack plate holder.


Tip #2

Use led candles and lights. A guest reaching over an open flame is an accident waiting to happen.

Décor that is Beautiful and Well Placed - Designing Your Buffet Table

  1. Select your décor keeping your guests in mind. Candles are pretty and add ambience to a buffet. However, the open flame can be dangerous. Using l.e.d. votives, tealights, twinkle lights and pillar candles will keep your guests safe while they peruse your buffet. On one wants a sleeve passing over an open flame. (Suggestions shown below.)

    If you must use traditional candles, use them with tall candle holders or candelabras that guests won't have to reach over or around, lessening the chance for an accident.

  2. Create peaks and valleys with your risers to allow guests to easily see and partake from the foods. These also give you lots of opportunities for décor. Place silk greenery in valleys and under risers. Place statuary or other décor items in and around the peaks and valleys. This makes for a welcoming and elegant display.
  3. Almost anything can be used on a buffet table as décor (as long as it's food safe). I have found that using silk greenery and floral bushes like English ivy and wisteria are a great way to add some color and character to your buffet table. Place them in valleys, under plate holders or 3 tiered risers or at the base of another décor item for an elegant touch.

    Experiment and see what looks good!

  4. For more ideas and suggestions for creating a beautiful buffetscape, visit another of my articles titled Ideas for Buffets

Use LED Candles when Setting a Buffet Table

LED candles are beautiful and give you that ambient lighting a candle doe but with one definite advantage -- no open flame. Guests reaching across a buffet table can get burned or catch a sleeve on fire. Better safe than sorry!

Everlasting Glow LED Wax Candles With Drip Effect, Ivory, Set of 3, 4" x 2"
Everlasting Glow LED Wax Candles With Drip Effect, Ivory, Set of 3, 4" x 2"

These pillar candles look so real with the drippy edges and the flickering light. But they will make a hostess breath easier that no one can get burned by these candles!


L.E.D. Candles and Lights - Set a Great Buffet Table Accent

L.E.D. candles and lights are a much safer choice for decorating your buffet. Most have on/off switches and will avoid an open flame where guests are reaching.

Lily's Home Color Changing Everlasting Tealights Candles with 7 Rainbow Colors- Set of 12
Lily's Home Color Changing Everlasting Tealights Candles with 7 Rainbow Colors- Set of 12

Tealights that change colors! These would add a wonderful glow to your buffet table.

Flameless LED Candles; 2 Set of 3, 4, and 6 Inch Ivory Round Pillar Wax Candles
Flameless LED Candles; 2 Set of 3, 4, and 6 Inch Ivory Round Pillar Wax Candles

You won't need more than this! 2 each of the flameless candles in 3", 4" and 6" heights. Group them or not on the buffet table.

Everlasting Glow Micro LED Light String, 30 Warm White Light, Electric, Timer
Everlasting Glow Micro LED Light String, 30 Warm White Light, Electric, Timer

I love string lights. I especially love to place them under fabric and let the warm glow surround the different dishes on my buffet table.


Remove Unnecessary Items that can Cause Long Lines - At your Buffet Tables

These are some tips for removing unnecessary items or items that can be placed somewhere other than the buffet table.

  1. Beverages on tables -- Whenever possible, set your guests tables including glassware and the beverages you have chosen. If you are offering iced tea and iced water, set pitchers of each on the guest tables along with the appropriate glassware at the place settings. This will eliminate guests trying to juggle a beverage, a full food plate and silverware from the buffet to their table.

    If you are having wine, place bottles and glassware on the tables as well. This can shorten the lines at the bar.

  2. If at all possible, set the napkin and silverware on guest tables as well. A pretty napkin fold and shiny flatware make the tables look more festive and no more juggling.

    For a buffet, the guest tables can hold everything your guests need but their actual dinner plates. This makes the table beautiful and functional. You can even still use a charger if you like!

  3. Consider setting up one or two condiment tables away from the main buffet. This will cut down on the wait time for guests at the main buffet.

    Better yet, place salt and pepper, butter, sour cream, dressings, etc... on the guest tables. They can visit while they doctor up their food in the comfort of their own table.

    Public Domain Image via

Guest Table Place Setting for Buffet Service

Guest Table Place Setting for Buffet Service
Guest Table Place Setting for Buffet Service

Necessities for Your Guest Tables - When Setting a Buffet Table

Remember, even when you use a buffet style for your food, there are still some things you will need on the guest table.


Pitchers to hold, water, tea or lemonade at the guest table means they won't have to leave to get a refill.

The Jay Companies 5908-SNCK-GB You're Invited 4 Section Server with Wood Swivel Stand, White
The Jay Companies 5908-SNCK-GB You're Invited 4 Section Server with Wood Swivel Stand, White

Dishes like this one are perfect for condiments like sour cream, mayo, ketchup and the like.

Trudeau Colonial Condiment Set with 3 Bowls
Trudeau Colonial Condiment Set with 3 Bowls

You'll save time in the food line when you place condiments, dressings and sauces on each table. Guest can get their food at the buffet but doctor it up at the table!

"Love and Hugs" Salt & Pepper Shaker 3" (2 pieces) CERAMIC
"Love and Hugs" Salt & Pepper Shaker 3" (2 pieces) CERAMIC

Don't forget the salt and pepper! This "Love and Hugs" set is perfect for a shower or wedding!


Tip #3

Make good use of your table space by building up!

Adding Height When Building a Buffet

Symmetrical, Asymmetrical or Wing It

To make things easier to reach and still make the best use of space on your buffet, think of it it terms of levels. You can use a symmetrical design, asymmetrical design or just wing it using different heights all over for a peaks and valleys feel.

Whether it is a long or rectangle table where guests will line up on only one side or a round table or double-sided serving buffet table all need to build upwards. It's easier to describe with a visual. Below are two example figures.

Risers? Use pots or pans, stacks of books or boxes, soup or veggie cans, wine or martini glasses upside down, etc... Just make sure the platter, bowl or plate is stable on whatever you use as a riser.

Drawings by Mandee (DecoratingforEvents)

McDaniel's Catered Elegance
McDaniel's Catered Elegance

Best Advice of All

Dry Run of Setting Your Buffet Table

The best advice is to try a dry run. Set up a table the same size and shape you will use for your buffet. Gather all your décor, risers, fabric, dishes and anything else you might use and jump in. Try different arrangements and then go back and act as a guest going through buffet. Ask yourself questions like these:

Is everything within easy reach?

Can you see all the food offerings?

Does the décor add to the ambiance of the table and theme?

Between the buffet and the guest table, do I have everything I need to enjoy my meal?

A dry run is really the best way to know if a design will work or not. If you come up with a winner, write down (or draw) all the details so it will be easy to re-create when ready.

Good luck!

Image: Copyright - DecoratingforEvents - Mandee , Design by McDaniels Catered Elegance

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How to Set a Buffet Table

Tips for Self Catering

Hopefully you have come away with some awesome ideas to build on as you learned how to set a buffet table and some tips for catering.

Are you ready to set up your buffet table?

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    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 3 years ago from Colorado

      These are awesome tips. As one who has set herself on fire before, I can most appreciate that tip about LED candles!

    • profile image

      discount2013 4 years ago

      really helpful suggestions,

    • CrazyHomemaker profile image

      CrazyHomemaker 4 years ago

      These are good tips for setting a buffet. I try to set up the meeting lunches so they look nice. However, I need to start decorating a bit. Thank you for the inspirations.

    • lisln profile image

      LorLinda 4 years ago from Denver Colorado

      This is very attractive. They do a lot of catering where I work I am helping some but not to this extent yet. Great lens!

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 4 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      great hints for a buffet table!

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 4 years ago from Canada

      Can I come to your next buffet, Mandee?

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Wow, what fabulous tips on setting up a buffet table from an experienced professional! I've bookmarked this for future reference, Mandee, and I thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge with the rest of us! :)

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 4 years ago from United States

      As always, you share the very best buffet table advice! So much I learned by trial and error, mistakes and mishaps! Sure wish I had DecoratingforEvents advising me decades ago. Still, I seem to learn something new, so new tip or tidbit of information every time I read an article by Mandee Sears :)

    • purpleclouds profile image

      purpleclouds 6 years ago

      What a great lens, soo many good tips for decorating a table (not only for weddings, but dinner parties as well). Thanks for sharing :)

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 6 years ago

      VERY good tips!