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Home Ec Lesson:
Setting A Buffet Table

The holidays can mean lots of fun family gatherings. The holidays can also mean lots of work for those that put the fun family gatherings together and then have to clean up after them. If your family gathering involves food or a dining situation, you may want to consider going "buffet style" to alleviate some of the extra work. This is a perfect opportunity to teach some basic etiquette and table setting skills to your children.

There are two basic styles of buffet settings. First, is the most basic buffet setting where the food is placed on one or more tables, depending on the amount of space it takes up, and the guests are expected to stand or sit informally with their plates balanced in their hands or on their laps. The food is usually something very simple like finger foods that do not require cutting or that can be eaten without utensils at all. Conversations, mingling, and other activities and entertainment usually continue while eating.

Second is the more formal buffet setting, usually used for foods that require the guest to set at a table setting and use utensils.

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Let's set the food table(s) up first.

Set up the buffet where it will be most convenient for serving, clearing and guest traffic. There are pieces of furniture that were once designated for this purpose. Nowadays, most people use kitchen counters, card tables, picnic tables, side tables, etc. for this purpose.

Whatever you use to place your food on, even if you are using multiple locations -- one table for the beverages, one table for the main dishes, one table for the desserts, etc. -- make sure the traffic can flow easily around the serving area. Also, use serviceable table coverings rather than an heirloom the more food and guests involved, the more likely you are to have spills and messes. If you just have to use that antique lace table cloth, cover it up with a clear, plastic cover to protect it from stains and unusual wear and tear. Plastic table covers also make clean up easier and protect wooden and laminate services from staining and spills.

For a very large group the best option would be to place the buffet table in the center of the room so guests can help themselves from all sides of the table. For a very large group, you can set up identical serving lines on two sides of the table. Many homes do not have the luxury of space to accommodate this so to save space, place the table against a wall and leave three sides open for serving.

To save confusion, be sure guests know where the line starts. Place the food in order, so they can serve themselves without backtracking. Arrange the plates first, then the main course and vegetables, followed by salad, condiments and bread. If it's a true buffet, put the flatware and napkins last so your guests' hands will be free while serving themselves. Other wise, following the directions below for setting a formal dining table.

To save more space, while your guests are finishing the main course, you can clear the buffet table and arrange the dessert, dessert plates and flatware on the buffet table or on a side table.

To add drama and interest to your buffet, display dishes at different levels. Place pans or bowls upside down on the table, drape them with a tablecloth or napkin, and arrange serving bowls and plates on top. Larger, showier centerpieces can be used to dress up the table since guests won't be seated at the buffet table.

After you have your food table(s) set up, continue on to setting your dining space(s) up.

You'll want to cover your dining table with a nice tablecloth or sheet, but again as with your food table(s), make your covering serviceable. If you insist on using a fancy table covering, be sure and protect it with a plastic cover or make sure that it is polyester and washes well.

Use small centerpieces so guests can talk to each other easily and there is room for condiments or extra breads and/or rolls. You may also want to place a pitcher of whatever beverage you are using near at hand so that guests don't constantly have to get up for refills.

Handmade place cards stamped with seasonal images can help guests find their spots quickly and with less fuss of "who sits where and by whom."

After you've decided exactly what you are going to have in the center of your dining table, you need to arrange your individual place settings. I will give you directions for a complete setting; however, feel free to make changes based on the number of settings you have to have at the table, the types of food you are serving, and the number of dishes you have on hand.

At a formal dinner, forks will always be placed to the left of the plate and knives will be on the right. Two exceptions are soup spoons and oyster or shellfish forks. The soup spoon will be on the right, to the outside of the knives, and an oyster or shellfish fork will be to the right of the soup spoon (or to the right of the knives, if no soup spoon is needed). Traditionally, an oyster or shellfish appetizer is served first, then soup, followed by salad, and then the main course, so all the silverware is arranged in this order.

If dessert will be served, a dessert fork and/or dessert spoon may be placed near the top of your plate, parallel to the table edge. Sometimes dessert utensils are only brought to the table with the dessert itself.

What follows are some general, simple table setting rules.

According to several "manners" and "etiquette" books, a dining table can be set for a variety of services -- breakfast service, a buffet meal, an informal lunch or dinner service and a silver service on formal occasions. The cutlery, crockery, glasses and linen that go with each service should be laid according to the type of meal being offered. The normal requirements for laying a table are:

A table cloth, table mats, serviettes (also known as a napkin), a soup spoon, a large knife, a large fork, a dessert spoon, a small fork, a butter knife, a large plate, a side plate, a water tumbler, a cruet set, and a vase of flowers.

Before laying the table, clean the table and chairs and position them correctly. Lay the tablecloth carefully and place the tablemats correctly for each setting. Simple rules govern each setting.

Place the large plate in the center of each tablemat.

All knives are on the right hand side of the plate, except the butter knife. The sharp edge of the knife should face the inside of the setting.

All spoons are placed on the right side of the plate. The dessert spoon is laid on the top of the setting with its handle towards the right side.

All forks are placed on the left side of the plate except the pastry fork. The small fork for a sweet course should be laid on top of the plate under the dessert spoon with its handle towards the left hand side.

The side plate with the butter knife is laid on the left hand side of the large plate.

The water tumbler is set above the large knife on the right side.

Serviettes (also known as a napkin) are usually folded and kept in the center of the large plate. Sometimes they are placed decoratively in each water tumbler.

The cruet set should be checked to see that it is full and flows easily. It should be placed in the center of the table along side the vase of flowers. The flower vase and the floral arrangement should be low so that the guests have easy eye contact.

It is very important to ensure that dishes, cutlery and glassware are clean and shining. My suggestion make sure everything is cleaned and polished a day or two ahead of time.

Through all of this, the most important thing to remember is this it is just as important for the host and/or hostess to enjoy any gathering as it is for the guests to enjoy being there. Always feel free to tweak the "rules" here and there so that you can accommodate any special needs or family traditions. Leave room for a high chair or let the kids have their own table on the linoleum floor in the kitchen so they don't have to be so stressed about any possible messes. Cut the food into serving size pieces in the kitchen rather than waiting to make a big production of carving the turkey or ham at the table. Do what is most right for you and your guests.

Have make it easy, have fun, and enjoy! Happy holidays!!


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