How to Plan a Buffet Menu

by Kimberly A. Smith
Holiday meals can be served buffet-style for a beautiful presentation.

Holiday meals can be served buffet-style for a beautiful presentation.

Cooking for a large group can be stressful, but with good planning you can arrange a buffet meal that still allows you to spend time with your guests. A buffet allows your guests to choose the foods they want and eliminates the need to time different courses for a sit-down dinner. Try using these tips to avoid last-minute stress for your party.


Whether your buffet is a casual summertime barbeque or a meal of Italian favorites, finding one theme will help narrow your dish selection and make the buffet feel like a meal. Select a type of cuisine, or even a theme ingredient, to tie all your menu choices together. How casual or formal you want your buffet to be will factor into the types of dishes that you want to serve. Once you know the feel of your party, planning the menu will be more natural.


Every group has picky eaters. Keeping a few simple dishes on your menu will save you time in preparation and make sure that there is something for everyone. Also, consider any potential issues your guests may have with eating specific foods. Vegetarians or people with food allergies would certainly appreciate seeing several dishes that they can eat.

Cold Items

If you are hosting a meal for friends and family, you don’t want to be so busy cooking that you can’t spend any time with your loved ones. Adding a few cold side dishes and appetizers to your menu gives you the opportunity to get some of the cooking done before guests arrive. Pasta salads can be dressed with anything from creamy dressings to a balsamic vinaigrette with fresh herbs. Pasta salads are a great side dish for entertaining because they get better as they refrigerate. The flavors meld together and intensify, so preparing it 4 to 8 hours in advance will improve the flavor and give you extra time. Even classic green salads can be prepared ahead of time. Just make sure that the vegetables are completely dry and wait to add the dressing until you are ready to serve, so the greens do not wilt. Guests might appreciate having a choice of salad dressings, so have a variety of creamy and oil-based dressings available.

Seating and Utensils

If you are planning a more casual buffet, think about where people will be sitting and how they will be managing their plate when they are eating. If your guests will not 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 would be 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

Thinking about how you will serve your meal and keep items warm may help determine what menu items are appropriate. If you are 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 thing.

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.

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