How to Set Up an Outdoor Buffet Table the Right Way

Streamline al fresco entertaining by helping guests help themselves.

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food on outdoor buffet

John Kernick

It's hard to time everything perfectly when you're feeding a crowd. That's why we love serving meals buffet-style, especially if we're entertaining outdoors and don't want to keep running in and out of the kitchen. Follow our tips for the right way to set up an outdoor buffet—and you'll be the host who's as cool as a cucumber when you entertain this summer.

Location Matters

Thoughtful placement of your buffet table (and the supplies and meals on it) will keep food fresh and your guests well-fed.

  • Set the table close to the house, but not so near that people can't easily move around it. Have everyone start at one end, letting them serve themselves from both sides of the table. This eases traffic.
  • Position platters where they can be refilled easily. Grilled foods should be close to the grill and cold salads near the door to the house.
  • Stack plates at the head of the table so guests can take one to start, but lay napkin-wrapped silverware at the end (so guests can pick up what they need once they've filled their plates). A common buffet error is to put napkins and silverware at the start of the table, beside the plates. This requires guests to carry the silverware while they are loading their plates with food—or return to the start of the table to pick up silverware if they forget.

Set Up a Separate Drink Station

Prevent a bottleneck or spills on the buffet by serving drinks in a different area. Arrange beer, wine, and nonalcoholic drinks along with plenty of ice and garnishes. If you plan to serve cocktails, they should be pre-batched—this is not the time to be shaking drinks one by one! Check out our sangria, punch, and cooler recipes for refreshing ideas. If you're serving brunch, a Bloody Mary bar is always a crowd-pleaser.

Use Ice for Drinks and Food

We love summer weather, but not if the heat makes our salad limp and lukewarm. Keep flavors fresh and greens crisp by placing the salad bowl over ice. Or take it to the next level and make decorative ice bowls by freezing edible flowers, herbs, or citrus slices to serve the salads from. We also have plenty of summer salad ideas that can stand up to the heat.

Condiments in bottles
Courtesy of Johner Images / GETTY IMAGES

Put Condiments on Both Sides

You want to keep the buffet line flowing. Just as having guests serve themselves from both sides of the table keeps things moving, simply placing a set of condiments in two easy-to-access places prevents traffic jams as guests wait for the ketchup or mayo. If you really want to impress them, serve homemade condiments.

Set Out Tongs

Serving tools are essential. You might think that having utensils for each dish at the buffet is important—and you're right. But it's not enough to have any old spoon: You need the right option for each dish. Nothing slows down a buffet line like having to put your plate and glass down on the table in order to serve yourself using a spoon and fork. The solution? Tongs. They work for everything—including salads, sliced tomatoes, chicken cutlets, sausages, and other dishes.

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