HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >


How do you serve and seat a family holiday dinner for 20?

In all the party planning articles, books, and blogs I never find the real nitty-gritty... how do you serve a big family dinner? It is so much work to rent/borrow tables for a holiday meal, but we usually do it. We have even tented our patio and moved in heaters, but I am ready to try something easier and would welcome ideas. Last year we were still washing dishes two days after Christmas and I do not want a repeat of that experience. Time for plastic or just one glass one plate?

I have a pretty big dining room, but my table maximum is 12, maybe 14, with no room for a buffet. We have tried the buffet on the kitchen table and eaten in the dining room, but this year we will have about 20 for Christmas dinner. I could put a small table in the living room, but we don't have any kids to exile, just 12 young marrieds who want to see each other and us 6-8 parents who don't want to be stuck alone. Option 2 is to serve buffet in the dining room and eat at a small table and on laps in the living room. Never done that... does it work well?

The menu isn't cast in stone but I like to have prime rib roast, and can "simplify" with a potato casserole, salad, and veg. Anyone ever eaten prime rib on your lap? Is it a mess?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. When I have a big crowd, I switch my dining room with my living room, which is larger, and set up several round tables seating 8 to 10. You can usually rent these quite inexpensively. All the furniture gets pushed against the walls or moved to other rooms. I set the buffet up on the dining room table. I have been able to host 40 people this way, and everybody had a place at the table.

    I've always been lucky enough to have lots of relatives and friends helping to clean up, so that's not much of a problem, but the place I rent the tables also will send people to set up and clear for a very reasonable fee. If you rent their dishes, you don't even have to wash them.

    As to the prime rib, If you decide to go the lap route, I'd be leery of anything I'd have to cut with a knife. Perhaps a fish that can be cut with a fork or maybe shrimp?

    3 Replies
    1. re: phofiend

      This is an intersting idea I hadn't thought about before. I don't know if I could "switch" the furniture, but I guess I could move the smaller pieces out. Our living room is huge but we do have a baby grand and other large pieces.

      Do you really set it up with full on china, wine and water glasses etc? I have the china, just not the energy. This is a crowd that is led by a matriarch who jumps up to clear when I am still eating. Last time she stacked plates in the sink and then left. It is a challenge to encourage Dining rather than Eating.

      1. re: DeniseM

        I do a complete place setting, but avoid bread plates, as they take up too much space. I also forego a green salad in favor of a chopped salad or a vegetable-laden relish that can be put on the dinner plate along with the entree to obviate the need for a separate salad plate. Ditto for soup. I serve drinks and appetizers as people arrive, when I'm finishing up the final prep before we sit down for dinner. I just put out a few platters of nibbles and a stack of small plates. I've also put out a big tureen of soup and a tray of teacups that guests can serve themselves from. It is very informal, and a good way to get people interacting with each other, so that when we all sit down for dinner, conversation flows freely.

        1. re: phofiend

          Great soup idea. It sounds like you have one dinner plate from the buffet table and the glass from appetizers ("bring your glass, dinner is ready..."). I don't really want to rent dishware, just want to keep things do-able.

    2. Set up a table in the living room. Set it up as fancy as the living room. Let people pick which table they want. You have 2tables but not a children's or adult table.

      Cutting any meat on a plate on your lap while balancing a wine glass and silverware is always uncomfortable and sometimes messy. Go for two adult tables. Or buy individual trays for each guest. That way they can have a small "table" to hold plate, glass, silverware.

      1. If people have to use their laps for tables, then serve finger foods only. Even lamb chops.

        I agree with phofiend about using the living room!

        1. Two thoughts - if you move your table to the living room, you can then also buy a piece of plyboard to put on top of the table, that will allow you seat 20 - use fabric to cover. Or, if you do the buffet/not sitting at a table route - I have a friend who has fabric-covered boards, the size of a large placemat, that she uses in this scenario - that's how we ate at Thanksgiving, and had no trouble cutting meat etc.

          1. We've done the living room route as well and set up two large rectangular tables fully set. We've also used our pavillion in the back yard, but we've usually got weather on our side. If you don't have two large tables, you might consider purchasing one of those cheap folding rectangular tables. With a table cloth over it, you can't tell the difference.

            1. If you end up having two groups--one in the living room and one in the dining room--mix up the groups for dessert so that everyone's sitting with a different crowd.

              1. In the formal living room, I turn the dining room table against the wall to serve as a buffet table. Use the bombay chest for desserts, and then I set up 4-6 card tables with cloths, which will seat 4. It works out really nicely. But thats' if we're all going to eat at the same time which isn' too often.

                The kitchen table is for the kids, who are usually having a ball out there.

                1. You can move some furniture in your living room, move your dining room table in there, add some card tables to the ends (or make a table with saw horses & ply wood) then cover all with a festive variety of overlapping table clothes (so you can't tell where the good table ends and the others begin). Set up a buffet in the dining room. Go online and find the fanciest disposable plates you can find (here's a website w/ some good examples):
                  http://www.finestationery.com/ (search "plates" on the site
                  )Use real silverware & glasses. It'll be lovely.

                  1. Are you a Costco member?

                    While shopping for a party last week I came across boxed cutlery that looks like silver but is sturdy plastic AND 50 count salad/dinner plates that look like china (white with a silver band)! The company is Comet and the look-alike line is called, "Reflections." Perhaps other party goods stores carry it as well.

                    Regarding eating in ones lap...if it does become necessary to offer seating but no tabletop then squared plates as opposed to round is a sturdy surface.

                    I liked the suggestion to use a variety of rooms in & out as dining space. Not crowding company is an important aspect of planning parties for a larger group.

                    Have a great holiday!

                    1. We just had 20 for Thanksgiving at our home. Our dining room table seats 10 so I do the furniture shift as noted in other responses and place a folding 8 foot table next to (not end to end) our dining room table and make a large square which accomodates 5 people down each side. that way everyone is at the same table and the large square layout provides opportunity for a beautiful centerpiece and candles that are never in the way of the food. Also - in our house if it's family - you all do the dishes together after the meal !!

                      1. i wouldn't try eating prime rib on paper plates with plastic. i'd rent or borrow tables, or buy a 6" table from target that folds in half so one person can carry it & it's easy to store. we use them for farmer's markets because they are easy to set up and throw into a truck, they're like $40 or something.
                        and working a buffet line will definately make your life easier when serving 20, unless you can set up 2 identical 10-tops, 4 6-tops, etc

                        1. My best friend is in the same situation and is clearing the furniture from her family room to set up tables. Alas, we don't that space to work with. She suggested turning my dining table catty-corner and adding a table to the end. Think I will try it.

                          BTW, I went to fa family dinner where they added a long table to the side of the dining table and I didn't like to very much b/c you couldn't really talk across the table or hear any conversation except with your immediate seat mates. Long and narrow seems to encourage dinner talk, in my experience.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: DeniseM

                            Sounds like you have a wonderful, large dining room. You said it seats 12-14. Perhaps you could move the table out and set up 2 or 3 rounds for dinner using your own chairs and some rented ones.
                            Serve buffet style from the kitchen. Place cards or not, your choice/style.
                            Drinks and appetizers in the living room. Coffee and cordials back there around the grand piano after dessert. Gives the Matriarch an acceptable destination after dinner instead of clearing the table.

                          2. Twenty people isn't that many. We have two separate areas, one for "adults" and one for adults with young children. The dining room holds about 15 people. The breakfast area holds another 6 with young babies. Guests bring some folding chairs.

                            Dish washing for 2 days afterwards? What you have no dish washer? The dish washing and leftover wrapping was finished the same evening for us.

                            Please no paper plates. This is supposed to be a festive gathering.

                            1. So many great ideas. Thank you. Although I have been doing these dinners for 30 years, I love hearing experiences from other people in the same situation. Sometimes, one or two new tips can make things much easier.

                              Sounds like many people add tables where they will fit and just make the best of it! Not a bad idea at all.

                              Haven't yet gone to paper or plastic, but yes dishwashing over 30 wine glasses, 60 plates, etc. did take two days, even with the dishwasher running. Guess we just don't have the stamina we used to.

                              Trying to think "outside the box" about seating has given me a new way to consider the tables and avoid eating on laps. There has to be a "happy medium" that will allow for a great evening and avoid total host exhaustion. Fewer dishes and glasses will help too. I think I am going to pace out adding a table in the dining room, or moving furn in the living room to set enought tables.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: DeniseM

                                I think if you entertain much at all, and have a place to store them, a selection of big and small folding tables is a great thing to have. They look just fine arrayed w/ tablecloths. I have in the past gone to fabric stores and bought yards and yards of inexpensive fabric to cover the tables, and then put better cloths on top of that.

                                At our family gatherings (24 at last count), we extend the dining table into the living room w/ card tables, and serve the food buffet style on the kitchen counter tops. The buffet can then extend onto the stove top, allowing warm foods to be kept warm on low heat settings.

                                We do paper plates and cups because my grandmother's house where this occurs is dishwasher-less. I will use real china if and when the party moves to my house.

                              2. My dining room and living room are connected by an arched doorway. When I've served more than 12 (I've done a seated dinner for 24 before), I have a folding table that I can use which extends the dining room table through the doorway and into the living room. Ikea sells really decent folding chairs for like $10 a piece. I have six of those that I use to supplement my regular chairs when serving a big group.

                                I usually serve food for a group of this size in a buffet set up in the kitchen (because I don't have an area large enough in the dining room to set out the food).

                                You can buy really high-quality plastic plates at Smart and Final, in both small and large sizes as well as bowls. I've used those when serving a very large crowd.

                                1. "Anyone ever eaten prime rib on your lap? Is it a mess?" This is a wonderful way to ruin your furniture. If you like your stuff don't do it!

                                  There is no really easy way to entertain a large group in a "holiday" way well unless you have staff or are willing to commit the time. Paper plates, no matter how "fancy", are not festive. You can make compromises like using plates and glasses that go in the dishwasher, etc. Rental dishware is great for exactly this reason.

                                  We host Christmas every year (card tables) and I love it and yes, I do use the very best goodies because I choose to. But I understand it will take me another day of handwashing. My choice.

                                  1. I bought 36 large white buffet plates several years ago at a restaurant supply house. Everything fits on one plate. They cost less than renting about three times. And even the best quality paper or plastic still doesn't cut it for a nice party. Why use it if you can have nice things?
                                    The same supply source had silverplate flatware similar to my sterling so I added enough forks and knives for large buffets. Plain cotton napkins, same source by the dozen. Caterers' type wine and highball glasses that go in the DW.
                                    I make sure that the dishwasher is empty when the party starts so plates are scraped and loaded as they are cleared. Clean-up is a flash. If my sterling goes through the DW once in a Blue Moon, it's not the end of the world.

                                    1. Since you're renting tables, have you considered renting plates, glasses, etc. That way, you can just load the dirty dishes back into the containers and be done with it. Food just doesn't taste as good on plastic/paper.

                                      Many guests, like the matriarch, like to help out. If you give them a specific task, it would make things easier, rather than harder.

                                      1. some rental places don't accept dirties back though-- the ones that do tend to be more expensive as well.

                                        remember that it can be perfectly nice to drink a table wine out of a simple rocks glass.

                                        also, i'm assuming that there will be close family members coming to this-- if you are close to a sibling or other family member, ask if they would be good enough to bring 8-10 plates for the gathering & if they are very understanding, ask if you can send them home rinsed but not clean in a bustub or other container-- this might really cross the line, but i don't know!

                                        many people know that the little details of a big party can be tough to deal with-- ask for a little help & you might be surprised!

                                        1. RENTALS - It is customary for dishes to be returned 'rinsed', without food particles, but not washed. For safety and sanitation purposes, rental companies must wash the dishes when they are returned. I've worked in the hospitality industry and regularly rented furniture, tenting, lighting and dishware (plates, stemware, flatware, etc). Rentals are worth the money, if your budget can afford it.

                                          The most important part of the affordability factor is to plan your menu accordingly to minimize what you will need, hence what you will have to clean. A sit-down dinner will normally require more dishes, stemware and flatware. A buffet should require a dinner plate, flatware (normally knife and fork, possibly spoon, but it can be cumbersome), and glassware. If you are serving wine, this is where those little wine charms everyone seems to be giving like fruitcake come in handy - everyone keeps their glass at hand, rather than looking for another one. Dessert can also be served buffet style using a B&B plate, and if serving a selection of miniature, finger-food sized desserts, even flatware may not be required (though spoons for coffee/tea would be needed). Careful menu planning will go a long way to helping with the logistics of accommodating 20 people.


                                          1. WE have 20+ on Thanksgiving. I have a large dining room table and a large kithcen table- when all the leaves are added. I move my kitchen table into the dining room, and there are enough seats for all. I also have lots of chairs- folding and otherwise. In the kitchen, I bring up two card tables and cover with a tablecloth. That way, I have someplcae in the kitchen for appetizers. I also serve the soup ( clam chowder) with the appetizers- kept warm in a crock pot. For the appetizers, I use paper plates and cutlery. For dining, I bring out the china, silver and crystal.
                                            The men always do the dishes! Dessert is usually served later- and involves lots of "grazing". If you can move tables around, just make sure you have help moving them back!!