Etiquette Q&A: Buffet Fundamentals

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Last week we continued our etiquette series with questions related to buffet-style entertaining. Autumn weather lends itself well to alfresco dining, and buffets provide the perfect setup. Even when the weather takes a chillier turn, the dining style also creates a cozy feel indoors. This week, we continue the topic, offering guidelines for fundamentals like food and flatware.

Q: Can you offer any guidelines on types of food to serve at a buffet?

A: My No. 1 rule for buffets is to serve foods that can be eaten with a fork. It is hard to orchestrate a knife and fork while balancing a plate on your lap. Of course, if guests are to be seated at a table, food requiring more utensils can be served.

I like to avoid foods that my guests must handle, such as baked potatoes that call for added toppings. In addition to being awkward, this kind of food slows down the serving process of the buffet.

Q: Should dessert be incorporated into the buffet?

A: I prefer to set up a dessert table separately from the main buffet. A separate dessert table can be so attractive, and it allows guests to decide about dessert after they have finished their meals.

I think it is thoughtful to allow just a little time between the meal and dessert. It gives time to clear the dishes and glasses and to brew fresh coffee. It also allows guests time to visit so they do not feel rushed through a meal. Guests may leisurely return to the table for dessert and coffee.

Q: Is it rude to return to the buffet for seconds?

A: Absolutely not! In fact, it is preferable to overfilling your plate the first time you go through the line. The first portions should be moderate to make sure everyone is served. Guests should feel free to return when the hostess says, “Please return for seconds.”

Q: How should napkins and flatware be handled at a buffet?

A: The easiest way to ensure guests get their eating utensils on the first pass through the line is to wrap the pieces (it may be just a fork) in napkins, and place them at the end of the serving line. Most hostesses choose the napkin they would use at a seated dinner party. The formality of the occasion determines the napkin, not the food being served.

I love to use colorful paper napkins for casual outdoor parties and cookouts—especially when children are attending. As with any party or dinner, the most important thing is for guests to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable.

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