Friday, December 30, 2011

Buffets: The Easy Way to Entertain

When we have friends over to dinner, unless it’s a very formal sit-down meal, it’s almost always a buffet. I love buffets! Guests can go through the “food line” and after they’re done, choose a table and a seat to sit at. A lot of people really seem to like to decide for themselves where to sit.

Buffets are easy. Other than putting a tablecloth on the table and perhaps a centerpiece, you don’t have to do anything else to “set” the table. Guests get their own plates, glasses and eating utensils on the buffet line. That cuts down a little on your prep work as the host.

Another plus: You don’t have to try to fit all the serving dishes on the table(s) where you’re eating. That’s really the main reason I like buffets: we always have LOTS of different entrées and side dishes to choose from at our dinner parties; there’s not room to put all the platters and serving bowls on our dining room table or the buffet/side tables that are adjacent. However, we have a good-sized, rectangular-shaped center island and two other large counters in the kitchen—which is perfect for setting up a buffet.

But while buffets can definitely be easier to pull off than sit-down dinners, you still need to put in some advance planning to make them work. Here are some suggestions:

*If your dinner is one where the guests can sit wherever they choose, make sure you have enough seating for everyone. If there’s not enough room around your dining and kitchen tables, you might set up folding tables and folding chairs. You may also clear coffee and end tables in the living or family room for people to sit at. Folding TV trays can also be set out if you have them. If it’s a very casual meal—and you’re serving food that does not require a knife and fork to eat it—you may be okay just having your guests sit on sofas and chairs with their plates on their laps.

*Decide where you’re going to set up your buffet line. I already mentioned that I set up mine on my kitchen countertops and center island. If that’s not something you have available, you could set up folding tables. You may need to get creative. I have a friend with a “tight” kitchen who has a large, 3 foot by 6 foot piece of plywood that she lays on top of her washer and dryer in her laundry room (which is just a few feet away from her kitchen) for at least part of her buffet line when she hosts parties. Ideally, wherever you set up your buffet line, it should be a location close to the seating area, and there should be enough space for guests to go through the line without crossing into each other’s paths.

* Set up your buffet line in a logical order, so that guests won’t have to backtrack. Stack the dinner plates at the beginning of the line. Follow this with the meat dish, starchy side dishes (potatoes, rice pilaf, pasta, etc.), cooked vegetables, tossed green salads and bread. Be sure to place trivets or hot trays under the hot dishes. Set out serving utensils next to each item being served. Put napkins and eating utensils at the end of the line, so your guests won’t have to juggle with these items while they’re dishing themselves out food. Salad dressings, sauces and other condiments should be next to the food they go with (for instance, sliced onions and pickles next to the grilled hamburgers, croutons next to the salad bowl, and gravy next to the bowl of mashed potatoes).

* Ideally, have a different table or countertop just for beverages and cups. If you have several desserts, put those on still another table or countertop, with space for a carafe of coffee or your coffee maker and cream and sugar dispensers.

* Before your guests arrive, put Post-it labels on each serving container (identifying what food will go in each dish), and place the containers where they should go on the buffet table. That way, if some of your guests arrive early and volunteer to help you set up, they’ll know exactly what food goes where. Also, you’ll be less stressed when you’re trying to set out all the food, because you won’t have to be hurriedly trying to figure out last-minute what serving dish would work for what food item. You’ve already decided this in advance, and now it’s just a simple matter of putting the food in the proper serving containers.

* Choose menu items that are easy to serve and dish up. Something like hamburgers and hot dogs are always good for buffets because all guests have to do is use tongs to pick up a piece of meat. For something like lasagna, cut out “squares” ahead of time so guests can just use a spatula to scoop out a piece. If you’re serving a roast of some kind, slice it up before your guests go through the line so all they have to do is pick up a slice with some tongs. Don’t expect them to do their own cutting. The same goes with desserts. Cut up pies, cakes and cheesecakes ahead of time, so that all guests have to do is use a pie server to get themselves a piece. Don't set a cake out on the buffet line uncut; if you do, chances are none of your guests will want to be the first to cut the cake. As the host, you need to do it for them.

* If you’ve got a lot of guests and the food on your buffet will be set out for quite a while, invest in some chafing dishes for the warm entrées, and some chilled serving platters and bowls (with a tray for ice that fits under the platter or bowl) for your foods that need to stay cold. The latter is especially nice for BBQs and cookouts during the hot summer months, when food can sometimes spoil in an hour or two.

* Don’t forget to set out a trash can for your guests to dispose of paper plates and disposable cups and eating utensils. I have a collapsible round laundry hamper that I bought from Target which I use as a garbage can for parties. It’s not too big, and the standard-sized trash bags fit perfectly inside. Of course, this last point is important if you’re using disposable plates and eating utensils. If you’re using “real” plates, cups and eating utensils, you’ll need to have space in your sink or on a countertop for guests to stack them. I actually have a large collection of plastic plates that we use for buffets, and we’ve used them over and over again. In fact, they’ve more than paid for themselves multiple times. The plates look just like your standard paper plates, yet they’re made of plastic and are very sturdy…and they’re dishwasher safe. I found these at Target as well, and they’ve been a great investment.

Well, that’s the main thoughts I have on buffets. Hope my tips have been helpful!


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