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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?

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  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.