Buffet Party Basics

Manners, food safety and other important elements for the perfect self-serve party.
By Joanna Lavoie

As the holiday season approaches, it’s likely that the popular buffet party will make its way into social calendars everywhere. With people dropping in from late afternoon until the later hours of the night, a full “sit down” dinner may not be the way to go and that’s when buffet-style parties become the perfect choice. But these events require a little planning from both the host and guest.

Tips for the host

Food selection and presentation

Patti Glasner, of Toronto’s Gibson and Lyle Catering, says that to keep cold dishes safe, it’s important to keep them refrigerated or on ice. Glasner also adds that heated foods should be kept in chafing dishes or heat-retaining casserole dishes. For food safety, it’s important to only keep items out for an hour and a half and to only bring out smaller amounts of food at a time. Ask a few helpers to assist you by replacing empty dishes on the buffet line. And when it comes to presentation, a host may also want to avoid serving sensitive dishes that do not stand up esthetically, like unsauced vegetables that may lose their bright colour or sauces that separate or change consistency within hours as they cool.

Lisa Wright and Lynne Waugh of The Etiquette Advantage, a Toronto-based company that offers interpersonal skill training, say that to avoid an embarrassing situation at your buffet party, “have some foods that are still delicious (when) served at room temperature.” Some examples of foods that typically remain tasty, safe, and esthetically pleasing are: sliced cured ham, oil-dressed salads with broccoli or green beans, and crusty bakery bread or a variety of buns.

Also consider that your guests may have allergies to nuts, shellfish and lactose, or vegetarian needs. By offering a variety of food selections, even in your dessert menu, everyone is sure to enjoy the buffet.

Placing your dinnerware at the start of the buffet and cutlery rolled up in a napkin at the end of the line makes for smooth traffic flow. Setting up the table with breads and cold salads followed by starches and veggies and their appropriate entrees such as meat, fowl, fish or vegetarian, accompanied by the proper condiments, is the simplest way to go.


When considering alcohol supply, The Etiquette Advantage suggests purchasing more liquor than necessary so that you don’t have to run out halfway through the party.

“If you are serving wine and beer, buy more than you think you will need. Each 750 mL bottle of wine can serve about six glasses of wine,” say Wright and Waugh noting that, because a typical buffet party spans several hours, the host should plan for at least three glasses of wine per person.

To be a responsible host, monitor the amount of alcohol your guests intake and make arrangements for designated drivers and taxi rides. You may even have to invite guests to spend the night at your home if they’ve had too much to drink.

Create comfort

Another important role for the host is to make sure guests feel at ease, whether it means introducing them to one another, offering a drink, or being available and relaxed enough to enjoy spending time with them.

Additionally, your home should be tidy, have the trash emptied, keep the front light on, and make sure the washroom is clean and a hand towel is available for guests

Tips for guests

Etiquette and table manners

To be a great guest, it is your duty to not drink excessively, to be polite and respectful at all times, and to not overstay your welcome. . . .

When it comes to enjoying the buffet, you should NEVER double-dip food, do not overfill your plate, always cover your mouth and turn away from the food when coughing or sneezing, and use provided utensils for putting food on your plate, not your personal fork.

As a courteous guest, it’s better to stick to light conversation especially with those you have just met. Getting into sensitive topics like sex, politics and religion may create an uncomfortable situation for everyone.