Depending on where you're serving, the size of your crowd, and the set up of your home, tips may vary, but there are a few general pieces of advice that seem to suit most situations.
• First, make sure all pets are accounted for...this coming from someone who needs to follow her advice more often. For our huge dog anything that's within snout's reach, which unfortunately is just about everything as long as nobody's looking, is fair game. And there's really nothing appetizing or beautiful about a half gobbled platter of Thanksgiving fare. This year, she'll be joining us after all guest plates are fully loaded.
• To make the most of space, set up separate stations for appetizers, drinks, dinner, and desserts. Not everything needs to be in the dining room or kitchen. Employ the entry console and coffee table if need be.
• For drinks, place the proper glasses next to the appropriate beverage. Depending on what you're serving this may not be an issue, but for those serving a variety of particular beverage, making sure wine glasses are next to the bottles of wine, champagne flutes next to the champagne, cocktail glasses next to the mixings, etc. will help reduce the likelihood of splattering wine as guests reach across the table to the fetch the proper glass. Label specialty drinks so that guests know what their getting themselves into.
• Appetizers make the most beautiful buffets! Depending on your traditions, they may not figure in large for a big meal like Thanksgiving, but if you are doing a cocktail hour spread, go wild! Remember, everything looks better on a cake stand, or spread out poetically. I always marvel whenever Bev Burch from the Willows Home & Garden in Phoenix posts pictures of her family's dinner parties and events (picture 2). The buffets are showstoppers, and most seem to possess exactly the type of casual elegance that helps guests to feel at ease. Tips to take away for cocktail hour buffets: spread a natural, un-precious table cloth or piece of raw natural material, place taller flowers in back, place messier items on cutting boards with appropriate serving items, play with height by placing some items on cake stands while letting others like crackers overflow onto the table cloth, then intersperse with tall groups of candles and natural decorative touches like leaves and fruit.
• For the main buffet, it helps to do a dry run the day before (today!) using empty serving platters as your templates to make sure everything fits— there's trying to make space on the table while wielding a 20 lbs plate of juicy something or other.
• If possible, move the main buffet table to the center of the room or at least away from a wall so that guests can reach it from all sides.
• Place dishes that go together side by side. That means, gravy next to the mashed potatoes — although I know many a person who would argue that gravy should cover everything— or all sauces at the end of the buffet so that guests can use them as they see fit. In our house, we generally put main courses at the beginning of the buffet and side dishes at the end.
• Label dishes and drinks using place card holders. If there are dietary concerns, list the ingredients under each dish. If space is limited this is an easy way to add a little festive flair without taking up a lot of space. Labels allow you to be as creative as you'd like to be (picture 8).
• If space permits, a menu scrawled on a chalkboard or decorative paper can be another way to spice up the atmosphere. For inspiration, check out Sunday Suppers, the talented Karen Mordechai's beautiful blog and new website.
• Limit centerpieces. Towering vases filled with water can be a disaster waiting to happen when it comes to a fully loaded table and lots of reaching hands — water-logged casserole anyone? It's usually safest to go with low lying centerpieces and candles that won't run the risk of being knocked over or catching anyone's sleeve on fire.
• Place Plates at the beginning of the buffet next to utensils (bundled with a napkin), or place plates at the beginning and utensils at the end.
• If guests are hesitant to start, pick out a line leader by handing them the first plate.
What other tips do you have for setting up the buffet?