How to Plan a Buffet Menu

by Kimberly A. Smith ; Updated December 01, 2017

Cooking for a large group can be stressful, but with good planning you can come up with buffet spread ideas that allow you to spend time with your guests while avoiding last-minute stress at your party. Thoughtful buffet menu planning lets all your guests choose foods they like and eliminates the need to time different courses for a sit-down dinner.

Buffet Menu Theme

Whether your buffet is a casual summertime barbecue or a meal of Italian favorites, finding one theme helps narrow your dish selection and makes the buffet feel more like a unified meal. Select a type of cuisine, or even a theme ingredient, to tie a perfect buffet menu together. How casual or formal you want your buffet to be also helps determine the types of dishes you serve. Once you know the feel of your party, planning the menu is more natural.

Plan for Variety

Every group has picky eaters and people with dietary restrictions. Planning buffet meals for a crowd requires taking this into account. Include a few simple dishes on your menu. This saves you some prep time in addition to ensuring there's something for everyone. Also, consider any potential issues your guests may have with eating specific foods. Vegetarians or people with food allergies certainly appreciate seeing several dishes that they can eat.

Cold Items

When hosting a meal for friends and family, you don’t want to be too busy cooking to spend time them. Cold sides and appetizers give you the opportunity to get some cooking done before guests arrive. Pasta salads can be dressed with anything from creamy dressings to a balsamic vinaigrette with fresh herbs. They're a great side dish for entertaining because they're simple and they get better as they refrigerate. The flavors meld together and intensify, so preparing it 4 to 8 hours in advance enhances the taste and gives you extra time. Even classic green salads can be prepared ahead. Just make sure the vegetables are completely dry and wait to add the dressing until you're ready to serve so the greens don't wilt. Guests appreciate a choice of salad dressings, so have a variety of creamy and oil-based dressings available.

Seating and Utensils

For a more casual buffet, think about where people will sit and how they'll manage their plate while eating. If your guests won't all have a table to sit at, be mindful of anything messy or requiring a knife. A tough cut of meat or bowl of soup is difficult to eat sitting on the couch. Consider making your buffet more of a spread of appetizers or finger foods with one or two more substantial dishes.

Serving Dishes

Think about how to serve your meal and keep items warm. This too helps determine what menu items are appropriate. If you're preparing a buffet meal for a large crowd, get creative with how you keep your dishes warm. A slow cooker on the warm setting is perfect for holding dishes that taste better hot. Electric roasting pans with a low or warm setting can be used for the same purpose.

About the Author

Kimberly A. Smith has been a freelance writer for two years. She graduated from the University of California at Davis and the California Culinary Academy, then pursued a career baking wedding cakes. During her time at CCA, she received certification in nutrition and food safety. She currently attends the University of Oregon School of Law.