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buffet table ideas

decorating & styling tips by professional party planner

Learn how to set up a buffet table / food station for parties, weddings, or entertaining at home

Matt's Tip

I always think it’s a good idea to concentrate the majority of your party decorations around a dessert/buffet table/food station. This will create a focal point in the room. Decorations often have to compete with existing room decor so they can get a bit lost if spread too thinly. I think you’re far better off creating one really well themed feature wall—with great food presentation & styling—that everyone’s eye will be drawn to. You can then use a few general decorations around the rest of the room to tie everything together.


matt james

food station / buffet table ideas

Ok so I've got to tell you...buffet tables are over. They're old fashioned, sloppy, and bring to mind those nasty 'all you can eat' restaurant spreads where the food has been sitting there all day. Nowadays, for event professionals, it's all about creating food stations.

Food stations still enable you to feed large numbers, lay on a range of different dishes—so there's something for everyone, and keep everything relaxed and informal enough so as not to kill the party food. The difference is that you get to wow guests with the elegant and creative presentation that comes with plated dishes, and the food station becomes a focal point in the room to center all your party decorations around.

With traditional buffet tables people tend to go a bit crazy and pile on the food, working their way along the entire table and taking far more than they'll actually eat, so you always need to prepare such huge amounts—so much of which gets wasted. With food stations, everything is geared towards offering small plates, DIY options, and 'bites'—like a tasting menu—which can help keep costs down. What you find is that people pick and try a few things, then go back to mingling (rather than shuffling off to a corner to demolish a huge plate of food!), so it helps keeps the party atmosphere going.

The only downside is that you can't just plonk big bowls of food on a table—it requires a little more thought and effort. Often, you're still serving the same types of food as you would on a traditional buffet table, but you're just presenting them differently. Just follow my simple food styling and presentation tips below and you'll have everyone thinking that your party has be professionally caterered!

 

fruit and vegetable buffet table
Photo: Serena Grace
fruit and vegetable buffet table
Photo: Party City


Buffet table / food station Backdrops

First off, you'll want to create a backdrop for your buffet table / food station. This will help make it the focal point of your party decorations. Before we get started on menu ideas, food presentation, and styling, head on over to my page of Dessert Table Ideas which has lots of different ideas for backdrops, along with tips and suggestions for how best to construct, support, display, or hang them. There are ideas suitable for every occasion, including milestone birthday parties, weddings, and baby showers, which can easily be recreated at home and there's something for every type of budget. At the end of that page you can follow the link back here.

great gatsby dessert table
balloon dessert buffet table backdrop
bead curtain dessert  buffet table backdrop
baby shower dessert table


The 80 / 20 Rule

When creating a food station at home, instead of a traditional buffet table, I would suggest going for approx 80% cold food and 20% hot, to make it easier on yourself. For the 20% hot food, I recommend setting up a DIY station so guest can assemble things themselves. This could be a hot dog, burger, mac & cheese (below right), baked potato, taco, burrito, or mash potato (below left) bar with a selection of toppings, or something like a 'make your own grilled cheese' where you set up an electric panini press or toaster for guests to do it themselves. These interactive food bars take the pressure off the host while providing an experience for the guests.

Check out my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Stations, Hot' for more menu ideas and tips for preparing the hot elements using crockpots.

mac and cheese food station / buffet table
Photo: Stripes and Polka Dots Blog (defunct)


Food Presentation

For the 80% cold food, it's easy to make even simple party food—such as chicken skewers, pasta, or salads—look amazing by serving items in individual portions. You can still batch-make everything in advance, then just before guests arrive, spend a little time dividing everything into small plates, bowls, and shooters.

When it comes to displaying the food, the reason most buffet tables / food stations at professionally catered events look so stylish is because they abide by a few simple rules; Groups, Rows, and Levels.

buffet table food presentation

Groups

If you look closely at the photos below you'll notice that the menu is presented in groups; that is, only one type of food per serving plate. It's a simple rule but it instantly gives the buffet table / food station a clean, defined, well-ordered look.

fruit and vegetable buffet table
Photo: Serena Grace
party buffet table food presentation
Photo: Party City
green dessert table food presentation
Photo: A Party Style


Rows

Then, on each serving plate, food is presented in individual containers or with individual utensils, and arranged in rows. Not only does this give it a modern, professional look, it also helps with portion control as people are more likely to take just one of each item.



Levels

Finally, make use of different levels. Buffet tables / food stations look terrible if everything lies flat on the table, so make sure to add some height to your display with a mixture of flat plates, cake stands, and risers.

buffet table food on risers
Photo: Tied Bow Blog
buffet table finger food presentation
Photo: Serena Grace


shooter glasses

When it comes to presenting each food item, make use of a few different disposable tasting party containers (check out the full range here). Shooter glasses (below left) in particular are extremely versatile. Whereas you might ordinarily serve things like chicken skewers piled up on a plate, by serving them in individual shooters with a little dipping sauce in the bottom, they instantly look more interesting. Similarly, instead of big bowls of cold pasta salad, skewer a few store-bought cheese-stuffed tortellinis and serve them in shooters with a little pesto. Or serve chilled soup shots with a crostini balanced on the rim. You can pick up disposable shooters here.

Check out my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Shooters' for more menu ideas.


Shooters are also a great way to serve salads, such as this caprese (below left) or this feta, tomato, cucumber (below right), veggies, or mini shrimp cocktails.


Of course, shooters are also perfect for mini desserts. Even the most simple mousse recipes and jello desserts look great served in individual portions, or if you have a bit more time you can get creative with layered fruit cocktails and cheesecakes.



tasting cups

These square plastic tasting cups, available in clear, white, or black, are also perfect for any number of snacks, salads, and dips. Check them out here.

See my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Cold + Savory' for more menu ideas.


You can also get more creative with salads, such as this chilled sesame salmon, rice, and avacado salad (below left), or just use them for mousses, fruit cups, or even individual cups of anti-pasti.

Sushi Salad
Photo: Cook Kosher
chocolate mousse tasting cups
 
fruit tasting cups
anti pasti tasting cups


tasting spoons

Another option is to serve bite size items on elegant serving spoons—these look great when presented in rows. Check them out here.

See my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Serve on Spoons' for more menu ideas.



pipettes

Skewering party foods with sauce filled pipettes is a really simple way to wow your guests with something unusual, and they work just as well with sweet or savory bites. You can also combine them with the square tasting cups above and serve salads with the dressing in pipettes. Pick up the pipettes here.

See my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Pipette Ideas' for more menu suggestions.

caprese salad pipettes
lamb with pipettes
Photo: Hitched
raspberry pipettes
Photo: Weezer Monkey
s'mores pipettes
Photo: Lenox


premium disposable serving plates

Once you've decided which foods to present in each of the tasting containers, arrange them in rows on these premium plastic square and rectangular plates by EMI Yoshi. They're only $10 for a pack of 10 so they're perfect to use as serving plates on a buffet table / food station. They look great as they have a gloss finish and even though they're plastic, your guests won't be handing them, so it's fine. Check them out here.

premium plastic serving plates
premium plastic serving plates
premium plastic serving plates

Don't forget to arrange your serving plates on a number of different levels. You could do this just by covering stacks of books in gift wrap, or draping them in fabric, before placing the plates on top. However, I always perfer a nice clean modern look, so you might want to check out the range of different risers here. The acrylic ones are often quite inexpensive, such as this set of 3 (below left) for just $9.

buffet table risers
buffet table risers
buffet table risers


designer tasting plates

if you have a bigger budget, or your catering for much larger numbers, you might want to check out this range of designer plastic tasting party supplies. Unfortunately though, they're really aimed at wholesale purchasers so a lot of the items only come in cases of 50+. But worth a browse depending on your budget.

disposable tasting bowls
buffet table displays
disposable tasting bowls


party food in jars

Another fun way to serve party food is in mason jars. You often see desserts served in jars, but don't forget about savory options too. They're great for pasta salad, taco salads, or even regular salads. If it's a special occaision, such as a milestone birthday or baby shower, get some inexpesive personalized stickers printed to use as labels then tie a wooden fork or spoon around the neck with decorative string. You can pick up cheap mason jars here and have personalized stickers made here (including ones with a photo of the guest of honor).

See my Pinterest board 'Party Food: Serve in Jars' for more menu ideas.


Another great little attention to detail is to have personalized wooden utensils made for a special occasion, such as these below center and right. Alternatively, there are plenty of ready-made ones available stamped with different phrases which should make people smile. See here for both options.

personalized wooden utensils
personalized wooden utensils
personalized wooden utensils


martini glass salads

Another stylish way to serve salads is in martini glasses. If it's for a party at home and you've got large numbers, just go ahead and use plastic ones. They won't look out of place with all the other plastic tasting cups and glass ones will only end up scratched and broken anyway. You can pick them here.



chinese take out boxes

A trend often seen at professional events is to serve salads or chilled noodle salads in chinese take out boxes, complete with chopsticks or wooden forks. They look great lined up en-masse on a buffet table / food station. Again, you can personalize these with simple stickers used as label and tie the utensils on with decorative string. I think the brown kraft paper style boxes look nice for parties as they look more decorative, but you can check out the full range here, or, alternatively, see here for decorative / colored ones.

party food in chinese take out boxes
Photo: Tori Spelling
salad in chinese take out boxes
Photo: Made by Med
personalized chinese take out boxes for weddings
Photo: Wedding Club


Fork displays

A fun way to serve individual bites is to skewer them on upright forks, like these cheese examples below. Use craft foam blocks with slits cut into it to support the forks, then either cover with gift wrap or place the foam into shallow boxes and cover with coarse rock salt, like in the example below. These heavyweight plastic forks are designed to look like silver, so if you've got large numbers you could use these. Alternatively, you can pick up a pack of 36 stainless steel forks here for only $14.

buffet table fork display
Photo: Ten 22 Studio
buffet table fork display


food tents

Another way to give your buffet table / food station a more professional look is to label each item. Check out this site for a whole range of inexpensive labels—many of which are printables—that you can customize with your own text.

buffet table food tent labels
buffet table food tent labels chalkboard
hello my name is cheese labels


chalkboard runners / tablecovers

Another fun way to identify dishes on a buffet table / food station is to hand-write the name of each item on a chalkboard runner or table cover. An inexpensive way to do this is to just buy a roll of chalkboard paper and use it as a table runner. Alternatively, you can buy chalkboard table covers, runners, and serving trays. See here for all options.



kraft paper

Alternatively, if it's a less formal event, you can do something similar with simple kraft paper.



drinks Styling & Presentation

Now that we've looked at how to set up a buffet table, with ideas for decorating, food styling, and presentation, head over to my other page of party drink ideas for more tips and suggestions to give your party a professional look and feel.

lilac drink
fruit name drinks stirrers
party drinks in vintage mile bottles
ice lollies in prosecco




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Many thanks

Matt





buffet table ideas


About Matt James

is a professional event planner and owner of event agency Left Field Productions, which has produced events for Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kevin Spacey, Stella McCartney, David LaChapelle, John Waters, and Elvis Costello & Diana Krall. Since 2004, Left Field Productions has won 30 industry awards for excellence including Production Company of the Year.


matt james

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  • food station / buffet table ideas

    decorating & styling tips by professional party planner