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How to host a buffet for evening parties

Buffets are the flexible option for just about any type of party, from casual to formal

Hosting a party is always fun, but it is also hard work. If you want to invite a large crowd, a buffet will be the easiest and most practical setup.

If you have room for a sit-down buffet, then you will probably want to consider a caterer and hiring extra people to serve. Formal type buffets require all the attention and accoutrements of any fancy meal.

However, if you can gather up enough chairs and a few end tables and just want to prepare the food yourself, here are a few tips and ideas to get you started.

If you can depend on nice, temperate weather, definitely have seating available outdoors. Try to keep the food inside, though; those pesky flies and other buzzing insects that are drawn to foods are not an appetizing sight.

Select your menu with thought to finger-sized foods. Even though your guests will be using forks, the food should not have to be cut or sliced. Avoid foods that require knives. It is simply too difficult to maneuver both a knife and fork when balancing a plate on a lap.

As with any party, prepare as many foods as possible ahead of time. Some will need heating, but others, such as roast beef and ham, can be served cold.

If you do want a warm side dish, make a casserole that will retain heat. If you can arrange for a chafing dish, all the better.

Dollar rolls make perfect small sandwiches - they are classier than regular breads. Have the accompaniments cut to size as well. It's hard to eat a dollar-sized sandwich with meats and cheeses lapping over the sides.

Buffet setups require more volume than a sit-down meal. Guests tend to graze at a buffet and consumption is often higher.

Avoid runny foods. Pooled liquids that migrate to other parts of the plate are unappetizing. Choose firm cream-cheese-based dips; never use sour cream. Potato salads and marinated baby carrots are good, firm foods that are still soft enough to eat with a fork.

Pasta should be saved for the family picnic. It's slippery and difficult to spear with a fork.

You can plan a themed buffet that includes foods from a particular ethnic region or even an international mix. An around-the-world buffet is always an appealing idea. Countries such as Indonesia offer a host of perfect buffet foods that include pork satay on skewers and meatballs or turnovers.

Make sure your food selection is colorful; keep all-white foods such as chicken, cauliflowerets, and potato bites separated by colorful foods to brighten up the buffet table.

To make your duties easier, set aside a clear path to and from the kitchen or other selected area for used plates and utensils. You'll spend less time running around gathering up discarded items. If the buffet is extremely casual and paper or plastic is the setting of choice, then place several trash containers in unobtrusive spots. Put extra bags in the bottom of the can and when one fills up all you have to do is scoop out the trash and replace it immediately with a fresh bag.

Purchase extra plastic storage containers of all sizes. You'll be able to store prepared foods pre-buffet and whisk away food that is looking a little wilted or is about to exceed the 2-hour at room temperature time limit.

For come-and-go parties, set out smaller platters of same foods. As quantities dwindle, keep the rotation going from fridge-to-table or fridge-to-oven-to-table for food safety. Do not add fresh food to used platters; rather, move the leftovers to the new tray.

For desserts, again, think easy foods: bake-ahead sweetbreads and fresh fruits that are cubed.

Avoid testing new recipes on guests with one exception. It's always fun to serve one or two items that are unusual - foods you know most of your guests have never tried. They may or may not feel adventurous, but it will give everyone something to comment on - one way or another.

A buffet-style party lends itself to so many styles at any time of year; let the season or occasion be your guide to decor; a complement of fun food will lead a path to your guests' hearts (and stomachs).

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