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Test Kitchen tips: Buffet psychology, event and potluck tips

December 10, 2012|By Noelle Carter
  • Do your holiday buffet right with tips like: Organize the food layout, with a definite beginning and ending.
Do your holiday buffet right with tips like: Organize the food layout, with… (Ann Johansson / Los Angeles…)

With the holiday season in full swing, more than a few of us will be hosting a festive dinner party, buffet or potluck. Following are a few helpful tips and tricks I've learned from hosting my own gatherings over the years:

LISTEN: Noelle talks buffet psychology with "The Splendid Table" host Lynne Rossetto Kasper

BUFFET PSYCHOLOGY 101: As pleasant as any holiday event may be, it seems like the moment someone rings the dinner bell an otherwise civil gathering can turn into a stampede as guests mob the food table.

Much as I like to keep my buffets casual and freeform, there are a few rules I always follow to keep the meal organized. Call it a little "buffet psychology." Here are a few tips:

1. Organize the food layout, with a definite beginning and ending. Set the plates, napkins and silverware/plasticware at one end of the table near the food, so guests know where to line up. This will keep the guests from rushing the food like an NFL defensive line.

2. Consider plate size. Guests tend to fill up whatever size plate they have, be it small or large. Go with a smaller plate (8 to 9 inches) so guests don't overfill and waste food. They can always go back for seconds.

3. Organize all of the less-expensive/greater-quantity foods at the "beginning" of the buffet, like salads and starches (rolls, rice, potatoes, etc). Save the big ticket and expensive items for the very end of the buffet (tri-tips, ribs, chicken and fish) so guests have less room on their plates and are less likely to overfill.

EVENT AND POTLUCK TIPS: While planning an event can be fun, it can also be a bit daunting, especially if you use your party planning skills only once or twice a year. Here are some tips and tricks to help you successfully plan your next gathering:

1. Invitations: Send online invitations so people can respond at a common site, such as Evite or Pingg. It's an easy way to keep track of the head count. If you're hosting a potluck, have the guests indicate which dish they'll be bringing. This is a great way for both you and your guests to keep a running tally of what you will have and what is still needed. Many online invitations offer specific potluck options in which you indicate what you need, and guests check items off the list.

2. Food safety: Food can spoil quickly, especially if it is kept outdoors. Consider chafers if hot foods will be sitting out for any length of time; cold foods can be kept on ice. If you're hosting a potluck, have guests bring dishes that are not temperature-sensitive. For sensitive foods, make sure you have enough proper space set aside in your kitchen (a warm oven for warm dishes, and plenty of refrigerator space for cold).

3. Potluck do-ahead: Have your guests prepare the dishes before they arrive so you don't have to worry about providing cooking space (and related cleanup).

4. Stocking up for potlucks: Depending on the size of your party, have each of your guests bring enough of a dish for at least six to eight servings. You may want to have more than one guest cover staples and favorite sides that everyone will want. Ask guests to bring more side dishes than desserts, and be sure some of the guests bring light dishes, such as salads.

5. Setting the table(s): Get a rough head count as soon as you can, and place your order for linens and other place settings with a party supply company as far in advance as possible to ensure you can reserve the number of items you need. Plan to rent a few extra chairs, just in case.

6. Serving spoons and utensils: Guests may not bring a serving spoon or utensil to go with their dish. Keep extras on hand. If needed, you can rent these from your party supply company or buy inexpensive servingware at restaurant supply companies.

7. Glassware, plates and silverware: Consider whether you want formal or disposable. You can rent china and glassware from a party supply company or purchase disposable items from a party store — a big plus with disposable is you do not have to wash anything, and you don't have to worry about breakage. Finally, be sure you have plenty of silverware — you will need things like forks for dinner and dessert.

8. Beverages and ice chests: Have guests bring a beverage along with their dish. Be sure to have water and sodas on hand, and plenty of ice. Buy your ice early in the day, before things get crazy, and stock up your ice chests (chill sodas and water, extra ice for drinks).

9. Cleanup: No one wants to clean up after a party, much less a big dinner. Have plenty of trash cans available during the event, and give yourself some time the next morning to allow for cleanup.

If you have any kitchen tips or questions you'd like me to explore, leave a comment below or shoot me an email at


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