Tips on Menu, Quantities and Serving Strategies
A successful dinner buffet menu for 20 guests should strike a balance between offering enough variety to be interesting, but limiting the selection enough for you to prepare each item successfully and serve it at an appealing temperature. If you take on so many tasks that you’re frazzled and worried, the quality of the food will probably suffer – and you’re unlikely to enjoy yourself. There’s no shame in asking for help or including some prepared food if those strategies fit your budget.
The menu items you include in your dinner buffet menu should depend on the occasion, your budget and how much you like to cook. Consider the big picture, and create a balance between main dish proteins, starches, vegetables, salads and finger foods. Also take into account the types of guests you’ll be serving. Include more vegetables for a health conscious crowd and more protein for a group of athletes. Choose mainstream dishes for mainstream guests and eclectic items for alternative thinkers.
Serve both hot and cold menu items. This will give guests a different kind of variety and will save you the hassle of having to serve, and keep, all of the buffet items hot.
Think in terms of about a pound and a half of food per person, divided over the different buffet items. Provide more of the main dish proteins and less of the side dishes. You don’t need to have enough for everyone to eat as much as they want of everything, but there should be enough for everyone to taste each dish, and there should be something remaining so guests can come back for more and eat their fill.
Guests tend to be hungrier and eat more at a later meal than an earlier one. Plan on more food for a 1:30 lunch than for one served at 11:30, or a dinner served at 7 versus one served at 5. The more comfortable your guests are with one another, the more they’ll eat. People are likely to eat more when they’re among close friends than when they’re at a networking event, trying to impress potential contacts or employers.
Guests will be able to serve themselves most easily at a buffet if all the menu items can be eaten from a single plate and with a single utensil, preferably a fork. Despite the appeal of soup, it is difficult to manage, especially if guests are also carrying plates. If you’re concerned about not having enough of a particular menu item, place it late in the line so guests will reach it once their plates are already mostly full.
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.