How to Set Up a Buffet on a Dining Table or Sideboard

How to Set up a buffet for parties or family gatherings

How to Set up a buffet for parties or family gatherings

It’s the season for entertaining, which means if you haven’t already started planning your holiday gathering or family events, you will be soon! As they should, most get togethers revolve around food, so while you don’t have to make things complicated, it’s always important to put some advanced thought into either making or buying something (hey, we aren’t above prepared dishes or catering!) delicious for your guests. The next step is setting up a buffet, which can sometimes feel intimidating.

We’re going to walk you through it, step by step — whether you’re using your dining table or a sideboard!

On Your Dining Table

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

1. The Right Centerpiece

Now is not the time to create a large, over the top centerpiece. For one, something elaborate takes up prime real estate you’ll need for platters, dishes, napkins, and flatware. Second, you don’t want anyone worrying whether they’re going to light their shirt sleeve on fire as they’re grabbing the gravy boat.

We like something small but impactful. A flower arrangement in a bold colors has a lot of look in a little bit of space. We chose a deep crimson color palette to echo the red pattern on our container, but whatever the time of year, pick something bright and bold!

2. Prep Work

Always, always set out everything you’ll need at least the morning of the event so you can see how much space you’ll have and how many platters you can fit. Be sure to put out the stacks of plates, napkins, and flatware so you aren’t left squeezing those in at the last minute! We like to use sticky notes to map out where everything will go.

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

3. Order is Everything

The speed at which people move through a buffet is directly proportional to how well the flow works, so be sure to think through how people will serve their plates!

A stack of plates indicates where the line starts, so always have your plates at the head of the table, but don’t put your flatware and napkins in the beginning! It’s too difficult to serve your food if you’re also trying to hold a plate and flatware and a napkin, so place flatware and napkins at the end of the line so people can grab them as they make their way to their seats! Here’s how we like to order things:

Plates > Entrée > Salad > Sides > Bread > Napkins > Flatware

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

4. Vary the Heights

Since space is often limited on a buffet, using serving dishes at varying heights enables you to fit more on your table. We like to use footed bowls and cake stands to elevate some dishes, allowing more platters to fit.

Lazy susans are helpful! We put our flatware and napkins on this one so guests on either side of the table can reach them!

How to set up a buffet on your dining room table

5. Label Your Dishes

It’s not crucial but it is considerate to label your dishes. We used place card holders shaped like ornaments to let guests know what we’re serving. This is also a great way to warn people with food allergies!

How to Set up a buffet for parties or family gatherings

On a Sideboard

Space is even tighter on a sideboard or console, so you’ll need to be very thoughtful about the serve ware you’re using. In occasions like this, think vertically!

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

6. Double Up Platters

Plating several dishes on one platter is a great way to take advantage of space. Here, we put both fish and chicken on the same platter, but you could also garnish your roast with a side dish like asparagus.

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

7. Tiered Serveware 

A three tiered stand is perfect for a buffet because it gives you a ton of extra space. Even if you’re just piling bread or rolls up, you’ll save a ton of space and makes things easier for everyone.

Here, you can see how we used two platters, two footed bowls, and a tiered stand to squeeze everything in. The edges of the platter can be tucked under the taller serveware pieces!

How to set up a buffet on a sideboard

Find tons of holiday inspiration here, and shop Ballard Designs Tabletop & Entertaining.

Did you like this post and find it helpful? Rate it below and share your thoughts in the comments.

Caroline McDonald

Caroline lives for pairing together patterns, mixing furniture styles, and oogling over our newest furniture pieces. As you can imagine, her little 1920's craftsman is in a constant state of flux. Here on How to Decorate, it's her goal to help you turn your home into your own little slice of paradise.


  1. Reply

    Amy Saunders

    February 4, 2022

    Ooh la la! I never would’ve thought that a dinner table could be so fancy-schmancy. Thank you for explaining about all the cutleries and accessories needed for such a setting. I’ve been thinking of brining my husband for a lovely meal this Valentine’s Day. I’ll make sure I include this aspect when I make a reservation later.

  2. Reply


    September 17, 2018

    Love how you setup the whole things darling. Fabulous job!

  3. Reply

    Nancy Bivins

    November 9, 2015

    I notice you have whole roasted chickens. How is one going to cut off a leg or a slice or breast while holding his/her dinner plate? Do you have “chicken shears” or a sharp knife handy? I always slice/cut up my chicken and place it on the serving platter so that guests can easily pick up the chicken w/ a meat fork.

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      November 13, 2015

      This is a great point, Nancy. Pre-slicing the chicken makes a buffet line move much quicker!

  4. Reply


    November 2, 2015

    I love the simple menu and flow around the table and sideboard.

  5. Reply

    Barbara bouzidin

    October 22, 2015

    I noticed a few of your dishes needed two hands to serve yourself. So my question is, would it better to make room to set the plate down or to just have single serving utensils .

    • Reply

      Caroline @ How to Decorate

      November 5, 2015

      Hi Barbara,
      It’s good you mention this. You’re right, some dishes (like salads with tongs) really require two hands, so yes, leaving about 10 inches on the outer edges of the table allows guests to quickly set their plates down. Great comment!

  6. Reply

    Bonnie Taylor

    October 8, 2015

    Great ideas for buffet/sideboard entertaining. We recently downsized our living space and need ideas to still enjoy entertaining friends and family in our small space.