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Plating food or Family Style?

When we have a small number of guests for dinner (4 - 6, usually), I most often plate the food, mainly for presentation purposes. But someone mentioned to me that it imposes portion size on people they may not want (too much or too little of something). On the flip side, I've had guests say 'thank goodness you didn't put the food on the table, because then I eat too much'.

So what say you? Plate, or put all the food on the table and let people serve themselves?

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  1. If I'm serving a number of courses (say more than 3), I like to plate because it helps pace the meal (and consumption thereof) so that people have room for the latter courses. I usually err on the smaller size for portions, but if someone's finished it, I'll say that there is more, though we are also having x, y & z. For family dinners (ie the two of us) I usually serve family style, though sometimes straight from the kitchen as well.

    1. I never plate food because I don't know what people eat or don't eat, or how much they want of anything. I usually lay out serving dishes and cutlery and ask people to serve themselves. It's more messy but that way I don't have to throw away uneaten servings of food.

      1. I let people serve themselves because most often, I'm mixing a group of people of myriad food allergies, food preferences and eating styles (don't ask). I generally put food out "buffet style" on a separate table with ingredient cards.

        If I'm serving a number of courses, then I'll let everyone know ahead of time (in case they want to save room).

        I keep throw-away containers on hand to get rid of leftovers. If I'm certain something will be a hit, I keep recipe cards ready too.

        1. For our gourmet club dinners most often we plate because of the courses. Sometimes I set things up buffet style around the cooktop because I can keep somethings warm that way for folks going back for seconds. When it is just the 2 of us most often I plate unless I am doing something more ethnic where there might be mosr than one dish or i just don't want to leave food sitting in the wok.

          1. I prefer family-style.

            There are times when I'd rather not have carbs or don't like something or simply want to eat less. Rather than make a big deal of it, I'll just serve myself accordingly.

            1. I think guests like family-style better, but I used to plate when the entree was something special like individual Wellingtons. But, one time I put all of them on a platter decorated with flowers, and it looked spectacular. I still like to plate when it's stuff like Pommes Anna or individual pot pies.

              1. Plate? If I am running a restaurant sure. But I am not, so no. My parties are all informal affairs. Plating seems to make it too formal for my taste. Besides, mostly I serve Chinese food. It's all family style eating.

                2 Replies
                1. re: PeterL

                  I'm not running a restaurant, and that IS WHY I prefer to plate both family and guest meals.

                  For one thing, I'm not running a diner ... everybody wants something different, then everybody can cook it themselves. Someone wants more of something, then see if there's more after everybody has been served a portion (you can't pick all the chicken out of the Kung Pao and pass along a plate of peanuts in sauce with no meat - yes, it has happened). One wants it rare, one wants it cooked to leather, I'll do what I can but I get my rare steak and if yours didn't get enough additional cooking by the time I've put the rest of the meal together, there's the microwave and I'll see you later.

                  I listen over and over to the complaints: "you need to serve more vegetables, a balanced meal, you always just serve one or two things."

                  Okay, here's the meat, the starch, the green, the salad ... and the one who needs balance most takes the meat only and leaves the kitchen, the one who needs to watch portions and who calls for balance takes a ton of SOME of what's left because we don't want it to go to waste (and none of some other things because we don't need all those calories ... I know, maybe you can make sense of it), and the one who won't eat anything I've actually touched waits until 11pm and makes a box of macaroni & cheese.

                  So, family ... here it is, everybody's plate nicely presented, garnishes and all. Everybody has some of everything, and if you don't want it, leave it or pick out the minced parsley or drown it in catsup, but don't complain that I didn't fix enough or that I didn't prepare a balanced meal. That 4oz of meat isn't gonna get you through till morning, but it would fill you if you ate the whole dinner.

                  As for guests, I'd like to make the meal look good, so it gets plated and arranged and garnished - you want more, there's usually plenty left in the kitchen for seconds. You don't want that much, I won't fuss if you leave it on your plate (enforcing your diet is your own duty, not mine). And the dessert is coming out on individual plates, all made up and sauced (or whatever), and you are welcome to leave it untouched if you don't want it.

                  I am still warmed by the sight of my elder son, the Kraft Mac N Cheese guy, who won't eat anything "odd". His girlfriend said she'd just love chicken & dumplings so I made it for the first time - she was wolfing it down and praising it loudly, and he was looking at it like it was "eel guts en brochette". I could see the thought balloon over his head: "I've got to say it's weird, Dad cooked it ... can I claim I had it before and hated it? ... No, this time they know it's not true. ... But she likes it and asked for it ... and she wants me to enjoy it too ... HELP!"

                  1. re: wayne keyser

                    Ha, that girlfriend sounds like a future daughter-in-law to me!

                    Maybe some of your family members need to start helping in the kitchen.

                2. So i guess the jfood-clan casts the first vote for every meal is plated. It is very, very rare meal where anything is served family style at the table. Whether just the 3-4 of us or a dinner with friends, sharing and passing just does not occur.

                  There are a couple of exceptions:

                  1 - sleepovers for the kids. Sunday breakfast for 6-12 people will include plates of eggs, bacon, bagels, pancakes, etc. the kids can serve themselves
                  2 - BBQ's around the pool. I'll grill the burgers, dogs and chicken and place in dishes for the kids to assemble.

                  1. Great topic. I usually do family style when not eating with the immediate family. Most weekends, I have a houseful, and try to cook meals that will serve a crowd and are not "time sensitive", as we have lots of kids with sports commitments, and people are in an out all day. Plus, we always want to be in front of the tv when our Pats are on. Lots of weekends, I will have a pot roast, or ribs,or roasted chicken or a rib roast. I can then make a salad, or cole slaw, and blanch the vegatables and finish right before serving. Mashed potaotes, are always cooked right before serving, as are the rolls.

                    1. I always plate food but I only serve 4-5 people max. If I was going to do a nice sit down dinner, I would do it family style.

                      1. I personally prefer "service à la russe" versus "service à la française" for a couple of reasons. As previously mentioned if all of the food is brought out at once your guests have the freedom to fill-up on one dish versus another and maybe not get an opportunity to appreciate all of your creations that evening. Secondly, although it may be impressive to have an array of dishes on the table all at one time, the food invariably gets cold before your guests can get to everything or most things.
                        Both styles to me however are far more elegant and interesting than buffet style which should be relegated to weddings or other large events IMHO. Having the dishes on the table all at once encourages cooperation and communication between guests as they eat (which is a good thing). While plating the food allows the cook to express his ideas fully for the meal. Buffet style to me is far more singular and less intimate than the previous two. It doesn't encourage the group experience as well as the others do.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: Chinon00

                          Russian service refers to the very formal style in which servants present platters to the left of guests and place portions onto their plates. Not many of us do that one.
                          French service is technically what we refer to as "family style" in which all the platters are placed on the table and are passed by the guests themselves in a counterclockwise direction or, after the initial passing, by asking for a platter to be passed. Just because it's called French doesn't mean it's so fancy.
                          Plated presentation is sometimes refered to as American service or restaurant service.
                          There is also English service. The hostess (or host) fills plates from her (his) place at the table and a servant carries them to each guest. Or you can press a willing child into service.
                          Since few of us have servants any longer, we have had to adapt all of these styles (or drop them) for ordinary home use. Frankly, the best thing is to do whatever works gracefully considering your dining room/kitchen/eating space and the food you are serving. All of them can be elegant if done with planning and foresight.
                          Elegance isn't necessarily "putting on the ritz" either, it's doing even the simplest thing with grace and making your guests comfortable.

                          1. re: MakingSense

                            1) My understanding of "service à la russe" versus "service à la française" is much more basic than yours, the former meaning courses being plated individually and served in series to guests and the latter meaning the individual dishes which make up a course are served simultaneously allowing guests to take what they like and in what ever portion size (within reason). Yours is an interesting comment though.
                            2) In response to your comment “Just because it's called French doesn't mean it's so fancy”, I neither said nor implied that. As I matter of fact I stated that I prefered “a la russe” to “à la française”. What I did say was that both “a la russe” and “à la française” are to me more elegant ways of dining when compared to “Buffet Style”. Guests shouldn’t be standing lined up in your kitchen (or elsewhere) like they’re in their high school cafeteria or something, the only difference being that they are holding plates instead of those orange fiberglass trays.

                            1. re: Chinon00

                              The terminology has gotten mixed up since these forms of service aren't used in the same way they once were. I used to arrange many dinners at all levels of formality and always asked my clients to define exactly what they meant when they used a term. You may find this article interesting http://www.hertzmann.com/articles/200... although it does show how archaic the whole thing has become for most of us.
                              My comment about things French was an off-hand reference to what I see as a tendency to somehow assume that French things are somehow more elegant or upscale than they might really be. Sometimes marketing takes advantage of this by Frenchifying something quite simple because the pedigree makes it more desirable. Got any Grey Poupon? Even if it's made in America?

                              I agree with you about Buffet service being less elegant than a seated dinner. Isn't it interesting that true French Service is actually guests passing platters themselves at table? It's nice to have a table large enough to acommodate that.
                              But these days with smaller or no dining rooms and more informal entertaining, we have to adapt gracefully.
                              We've been adapting since our ancestors ate with their hands and knives, wiping their mouths on their sleeves or the table linen.

                              1. re: MakingSense

                                Excellent point! There was a news report a few years back about the disappearance of the dining table in many homes. Young couples just aren't buying them. Yet I can't imagine any true Chow who owns a home without a dining table.
                                btw: I had Thanksgiving dinner I my house for the first time this past year. It was only 4 including myself. The meal was served "family style". I found the intimacy level so much different from previous Thanksgivings where about 10 -12 of us get in line, make a plate, and quickly venture off to other parts of the house to eat (the basement for some, dining room for others and of course in front of the tv for the game). Maybe the small number helped but it was very fun and interesting to actually have a conversation during Thanksgiving dinner.

                                1. re: Chinon00

                                  We have Thanksgiving family style, too. Thankfully, I have a lrge dining room. We put the kitchen table in the dining room, with both leaves, and add the leaves to the dining room table. We seated 23 this year. Lots of fun, and a great meal- lots of serving dishes, however!

                                  1. re: Chinon00

                                    We've always been fortunate enough to have a DR and we used it even when the kids were really small. Sorry about that rug!
                                    They learned to set the table and use decent manners. The food went onto platters and into bowls which really didn't add that much to cleanup since the stuff went into the DW.
                                    It really paid off in family time around the table because there was no TV, no answering the phone, just talking to the kids for a little while as we ate. Sometimes it was nothing but hamburgers, but there we were in the DR.

                                2. re: Chinon00

                                  While we're on the subject - in the Dominican Republic at my husband's family's home and those of their friends - they use what I guess is a variation of a la russe, whereby servants bring the food to the diner, and the diner serves herself from the serving plate - both for daily meals and for parties. Took me forever to finally figure out how properly remove the food and return the serving utensils to the platter gracefully.

                                  1. re: MMRuth

                                    Always a problem for Americans since we don't grow up with this. When we lived in Latin America, my kids were small and our household help even tried to serve hamburgers this way one night. I almost fell out of my chair laughing.
                                    It is awkward though when American business executives or diplomats aren't familiar with it.

                            2. I plate rather small portions, then offer seconds and thirds. I don't like big platters/bowls of food on the table getting cold. I can keep things warm in the kitchen. I've never liked the busy-ness of passing food back and forth at the table, so I don't do it.

                              1. I must be passive agressive because I do both. I plate the first 'helping' so that it is served in the manner I prefer because I refuse to allow anyone to botch my hard work (I almost shrieked once when someone wanted to serve my lasagna with a big serving spoon) I also like to see that everyone gets an equal proportion of ingredients or 'goodies' on their plate, sort of the wor won ton soup approach to serving. Then once my guests and DH have indulged me in my eccentric behavior, the rest is free to take family style.

                                1. Depends on the food. Always plate Japanese given the importance of presentation. Usually plate French. Italian depends on what. Always family style for Chinese. Usually plate Thai. Always plate salads. Varies for other styles.

                                  1. Definitely plating whether for a dinner party or just the 2 of us. For one thing, it saves from carrying loads of dishes to/from the table. For another, as another poster pointed out, if I'm going to all of the hard work to prepare a delicious meal then I would like it to look delicious and properly presented. The exception to this is if I have a meal such as paella that would look fabulous when presented on a gorgeous platter or some similar meal.

                                    1. I can't help but be reminded of the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode where Lou serves himself about 90% of the main dish Mary prepared for a dinner party because the rest of it burned. She then has to take him aside and convince him to put it back, after he had made such a big deal to everyone of how hungry he was. So he comes back to the table, reversing himself ... "On second thought...." I guess she should have plated.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Steve

                                        Veal Prince Orloff! LOL!! I remember that episode well.

                                        1. re: ns538bmk

                                          So funny that you remember the name of the dish! You win the prize!

                                      2. We're 50-50. Some things are plated, either they're "pretty" dishes or serving them is intricate. The rest of the time I plate the first round and anyone who wants more can help themselves.

                                        When guests are over it's still 50-50. We're a vegetarian household and we have some friends who are really picky, one loves all vegetables, the other only eats meat and a few vegetables/non-meat items (family fortunately will eat anything I serve!) So I'll make several dishes and they can help themselves. Despite the picky eaters I always plate salad, soup, appetizers, kid's dishes and dessert.

                                        1. At most multi-guest dinners we pass the food family-style, especially when the guests ARE family, as their food tastes are all over the map! The only exceptions are when I make a composed dish of some sort, such as something served on a base of polenta with a sauce poured over and an edible garnish placed around it. Don't do those very often, though.

                                          1. As a guest at a friend's house for dinner, plating vs family style vs buffet all depends on 1) what kind of food is being served, 2) how many people are present, 3) layout of the house, to some extent,

                                            For an elegant dinner, plating is wonderful, however I always feel sorry for the host who is trying to be the mostest and ends up spending the majority of the dinner time either in the kitchen or running back and forth to serve. Many of those hosts refuse assistance in bussing or serving and that makes me feel uncomfortable and therefore unable to completely enjoy the meal.

                                            If the host has kitchen help to properly plate and help bus the table, that's ideal for an elegant dinner. The only thing that would be better is if there was enough kitchen help so the host could sit and enjoy the entire meal with the guests.

                                            1. Our friends gather at my house for a weekly Saturday dinner. Food is placed on the table (family style) but to control portions I limit what is put on the table. So if it's ribs, salad, grilled new potatoes, beans, green beans all the "healthy" stuff goes in large portions, proteins are limited availability, but with some in reserve. Does this make sense? I think I just confused myself!

                                              1. I did two dinner parties last weekend and was pressed for time both nights. For the first time in a long time, I didn't plate. I did, make an effort to present everything nicely, which was no big deal. It was a whole lot easier than plating, most folks ate less, and people who wanted more could have it. (which was ofetn, not the case when I plated. I'm a convert.

                                                1. As the children grew to young adults putting food on the table really took up too much space so we moved to a "serve yourself setup" mostly at dinner.

                                                  For company we always go buffet (make your own dish) to allow guests their preferences and portions.

                                                  My least fav way to entertain is plating.

                                                  1. I really agree with you, HillJ. I don't like to put someone else's food on their plate and I don't like it when someone fixes my plate. That's fine for restaurants but not for home entertaining. At least in a restaurant, you can ask for "sauce on the side" or a substitution. You shouldn't order a host around and he shouldn't take orders.
                                                    Plating takes too long and the people who do this seem to want to decorate it or decide how I should eat it, how much I should be served, how much sauce I should have and on what.
                                                    This is fine for a seated appetizer course or dessert. Get creative there. But for main courses, passed serving dishes or buffet service is my preference.

                                                    1. We usually plate when it's just the two of us and always when we're doing gourmet club dinners. When we have other guests, it depends. Some of our company really prefers to eat family style, which drives me crazy because it means people have to keep moving dishes of food around and waiting for things to be passed before they can eat, and everything gets cold.

                                                      1. If it's just my son and me, then I plate. If I have guests, then I set up a buffet, but if it's a small group, then I do family style on the dining table. Far be it for me to tell my guests what their portion size should be, they may want more or less of something. I always make more than I should and usually have left-overs, even after people go for second helpings of their favorites.

                                                        But then again, most of my get-togethers are casual, and I usually don't do anything that requires a complicated presentation. Most anything can be plattered nicely enough with the right garnish, etc.

                                                        1. It all depends on what's for dinner and how many people are there. If it's a large group, there isn't room on the table for all the dishes, and if I plated everything up myself it would get cold before I was even finished serving it, so the kitchen counter becomes a buffet and people can help themselves... for a small-to-middling sized group I either plate or put the food on the table... and when it's just me and my husband I plate the food unless it's something like tacos or nachos which involves lots of fiddling around and 'bits and pieces'...

                                                          1. I always wondered what 'should' be done. We tend to serve family style when we have guests, and plate when it's the 2 of us. I guess I feel awkward when someone plates my food - for example, I don't like asparagus, and if it were up to me, I wouldn't take it. But if I'm a dinner guest at a private home and it's already on my plate, I feel obligated to eat some of it. (Of course, if it's a restaurant, I wouldn't eat it.)

                                                            I also find that people are more inclined to have seconds when it's served family style - and I'm always happy to see people enjoying what we've served!

                                                            1. Im not fond of the term "plate" as a verb.

                                                              I find this family style thing funny because in my family of origin, my dad served every one - whether you wanted it or not!
                                                              I associate receiving a composed plate with restaurants or service to children.

                                                              We almost universally serve ourselves from a buffet or serving dishes on the table - a soup or salad course with a garnish or fancy presentation might be the only exception. This is preferable for a group of adults who have their own tastes and preferences. The food also stays warmer in the serving dish than it would be by the time I got all the plates served out.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: jen kalb

                                                                Merriam-Webster doesn't have a problem with it as a transitive verb.

                                                                1. re: Andiereid

                                                                  to reference concepts like metal-plating, yes. For food it seems to have crept into general use from being a technical term in restaurants or culinary school - im just being an old fogy about this, since I think about putting food on plates as serving, and think about "plating" as being a more artistic composition which a restaurant chef would do. I dont like "gifting" and "gifted" (in the context of giving gifts" either.
                                                                  Old fogy.

                                                              2. For the entree, I always serve family-style, both when for just the family or a few guests and for a bigger holiday dinner. As some have noted, people have different tastes and appetites, and I'd rather have everyone take what they wish. I always make big traditional sitdown dinners for a crowd at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I couldn't begin to get the such options as white meat/dark meat, sweet potatoes/mashed/potatoes/no potatoes or carnivore/vegetarian options straight if I plated the food. However, I sometimes plate soup and/or dessert.