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I'm hosting Christmas - need help on serving etiquette

My mother in law openly voted us to host Christmas this year (yes, a bold, old-school Irish mom move), and I need some advice!

I love to cook, and food isn't the problem - it's serving it. We're hosting 12 adults and 4 little kids, and I'm troubled on how to serve and what to use. While I'm not "formal and traditional" by ANY means, we have a new awesome modern kitchen and living space and I don't want to chintz out either. Overall the family vibe is casual.

It will NOT be sit down, but buffet style - everything on the island and come and get it.

Can I use aluminum trays to serve the dishes? They seem so easy to stick in the oven and keep warm until serving. Is this ugly? Or do I use pyrex and cover with foil to keep warm? Or do I need to use actual serving plates?

Can I use the nice looking plastic dishes and utensils?

I WILL be using real glasses and nice plates for apps.

I welcome all opinions and advice! Thx.

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  1. It’s not a matter of etiquette but of aesthetic. I guess I would prefer doing extra dishes and would serve things on serving dishes (and/or Pyrex) and would use the fine dinner plates and all the rest. Besises, the good stuff will go well with your, "...new awesome modern kitchen and living space".

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      I agree here......It's Christmas, go with the good stuff.....I'm sure that modern kitchen has a dishwasher that can handle most of the washing

    2. I'd go for the serving dishes, and just run an extra load of dishes that evening. As for fine dinner ware, again I'd go for your nice stuff, or at least your every day stuff (i.e. not paper or plastic). Twelve adults really isn't that many. If you are concerned about the kids and the nice dishes, you could get some nice festive plastic plates at a place like Pottery Barn just for them. And definitely use your normal utensils.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Cachetes

        OK, you're all right - serving dishes it is. I'll grab a few extra white plates/dishes from ikea or home goods this week. and I LOVE the idea of fun kids plates....I have never done this before so I'm probably making a bigger deal of things then I should.

        Thx all, happy holidays!

        1. re: heidemarie

          It sounds like you've got everything under control. You and your family are going to have a lovely holiday!

          1. re: heidemarie

            Pottery Barn Kids usually has really cute kids plates. I'm sure Target would as well.

        2. Definitely use your pretty plates and serving dishes. It's the occasion for it, and it makes all your guests feel special. Rally everyone together at the end to help wash and dry--especially after you made all that beautiful food!! Go all the way with some candles and tiny jars of flowers mixed up with pine boughs on table--your Christmas tree guy will give clippings away for free usually. If you have a little table, set it for the kids. They love having a specific place to go and eat that is just for them, and make their table beautiful too with easy things like a bowl of ornaments or a teeny candy cane with a bow around it on every plate. Little kids struggle holding a plate on a lap, and it's easier for parents as well, not having to juggle two plates. If you need extra glasses, either encourage people to hold on to the first go round, or IKEA has glasses for super prices. (if you can stand the crowds and there is one close by.)
          Have a wonderful holiday! Faye (of) youtube.com/user/dinnerconfidential

          1 Reply
          1. re: fayehess

            Not everyone likes having guests wash up after the meal - it can mean breakage if they are a bit in their cups, and it definitely spoils the mood. I'd rather do the washing up the day after, and I don't even have a dishwasher. Just get everything cleared away.

          2. This isn't a slam to them at all, because they're really great hosts, but some relatives with a brand new $3m home and the most fabulous kitchen, complete with two dishwashers, enormous Wolf range, several ovens, etc., uses plastic plates and cutlery to serve at big dinners. it's always a really big crowd when I've been there, maybe they don't have that many dishes and don't want to buy any more, but it does seem a little odd to be serving yourself on this extreme high-end marble island or countertop onto a foam or plastic plate. So I guess I'd have to say, if possible, do what Sam, fourunder, etc suggest and use the good stuff!

            Also, no matter what they say, if you use one of the enzyme-based dishwasher detergents rather than the chlorine-based, and run the gentle cycle, making sure the delicate stuff is stable and not going to knock into anything else, you can use your dishwasher. If possible, bypass the dry cycle- it's pretty hot.

            But whatever you decide, it'll be great. Nothing wrong with your etiquitte skills at all!

            1 Reply
            1. re: EWSflash

              Oops, never mind that second part of my previous post...

            2. 100% on the nice china, flatware and drink glasses for the adults, for kids that are younger than 10 you ‘can’ give them plastic dishes so you don’t have any thing destroyed.

              Since it’s buffet service than I would set up a buffet with heated chaffing dishes to keep the hot foods hot, more than likely people will be returning for seconds and luke warm food is never as good as hot. Serving dishes are used on to hold warm food on a table not in a buffet line.

              Cold items should be plated in the most ascetically pleasing way on nice buffet service dishes, if those items need to be chilled place on ice. Proper temperature of food is very important to how it tastes.

              8 Replies
              1. re: RetiredChef


                This is good advice regarding the proper temperature to serve food, however, unless someone has some elegant buffet servers/chafing dishes.....those cheapo wire ones can really diminish all the hard work and effort put into preparing the meal...also, depending on what is served, some items simply do not hold up well under Sterno heat, e.g., Alfredo Sauce. Dishes as such become pasty and like glue pasta.

                When family and friends get their second wind for more food @ the holiday meals in our home, no one ever complains about a quick reheat in the microwave...

                Just something to consider.

                1. re: fourunder

                  I have to say that for all but the dressiest occasions. I really disagree with the wire ones "diminishing" the meal. For most families, this is a pretty good solution. If you want fancy ones, you can buy those, but you had better plan on using them again. If you were hosting a wedding, I would agree, but for a family with a "casual vibe"? I don't think this is something she needs to worry about. I would much rather have a well-thought out buffet like this than one served in the fanciest china serving platters in which the food was allowed to stand out at improper temperatures for hours.

                  As for the food, not all food is suited to this. Pasta dishes, rice dishes, chicken or pork or ham with a sauce, grilled veggies, casseroles -- these all lend themselves to this presentation. Definitely not a beef roast or steak or roast lamb, I agree, so that needs to be served when cooked. But she can definitely use her good china and table linens to dress it up.

                2. re: RetiredChef

                  Do people even have nice china anymore? Most younger people I know don't have a set of 12 nice dishes. I agree that everyone should get real dishes that match, but no need to spend tons of money on them. In a casual family vibe, I think there's even less a need to buy/use the good stuff.

                  1. re: queencru

                    When DO you use the good stuff?

                    1. re: Cathy

                      All I was trying to say was that some people don't have the good stuff at all, or they don't have enough of the good stuff. If you only have 8 good settings, then it's better to use something that all matches and isn't the "good" stuff than 8 of the good stuff and 4 of the regular stuff.

                      1. re: queencru

                        i don't think it's such a big deal if you have a large family group and have mismatched plates/flatware, etc. i have seen big table settings where everything was mismatched (including linen napkins and even the chairs were from several different sets, with a few antique-type oddballs) where it was just charming. the key is to pull everything together with some flowers or decorations--a color or a place-setting garnish or something. no biggie if cousin irma has bone china and great auntie june has a 60 cent green glass ikea plate, the focus is on the togetherness, and the great food of course ;-P

                        the op should not have to worry about spending money and dashing about getting matching flatware sets. you can always ask a family member who is coming anyway to loan some dessert forks or some big serving platters, i'm sure that older relatives will be happy to pitch in. . .

                        1. re: soupkitten

                          I agree, You host a large gathering, We're not obliged to host large groups of state, come on- my fallback is the Cinga speckleware, works for kids, and frankly it's really festive. There's also a lot of plasticware that looks pretty good.

                      2. re: Cathy

                        Everytime we host company and for special family events. I have 4 complete sets of fine china or porcelain dinner ware and two sets of everyday dishes. None of them were bought at full price. Ebay, auctions, estate sales, tag sales, Goodwill, etc all helped to supply the dishware. I honestly believe that if you are going to spend all day or multiple days cooking your heart out, YOU deserve to use the good dishes.

                        You eat with your eyes as well as with your mouth and a beautifully laid table, buffet etc only makes it that much more special. I do not mean formal. Stuffy finger bowls and 14 pieces of silverware are a thing of the past in my world. I mean a well thought out scheme, fitting the event.

                        Rustic ironstone, country baskets, pottery platters, casual wine goblets, country woven clothes can be just a lovely as fine Irish linen, sterling flatware and crystal classware.

                        A well laid table is not one that is too fancy, but one that shows thought and consideration to comfort, aesthetics, your guests, the food, etc.

                        I vote for using nice stuff. I also believe you can set a half way decent buffet using wire chafing dishes, but I would personally rent some nicer chafing dishes from a party rental place for a few bucks. For that matter, you can rent dishes, glassware, flatware etc, I have rented glassware for many events, and the nice thing is, you don't wash, just rinse.

                  2. Do yourself a favor and go to either a party store or a Sam's Club or Costco, and purchase a couple of wire chafing racks for a few dollars. While you are there, buy a package of full size pans (which will hold an inch of water) and a package of half trays to hold food. Don't forget to pick up a package of six hour sternos while there. Covers are optional, as I just prefer to use large, heavy duty foil.

                    Put a double layer of foil under the racks, put the water trays and sternos in, and give yourself 45 minutes to heat up the trays sufficiently to warm the water. If you have to, you can even use one with an ice water bath to serve cold food, but this is the way to do it.

                    I have been hosting parties for various reasons for family, sports teams and other groups for nearly twenty years this way. I learned this when I once ordered catering, and it was so succesful that it doesn't make sense to do anything but the smallest buffets this way. Most people think this is such a big deal, but it really isn't. In fact, for certain dishes, you can even cook the food in the in the half trays in the oven (I might double some of those, depending upon the weight of the contents). For other things, just pour into the trays.

                    The best foods for this have moisture or a sauce. A ham will be fine with pan juices, but a roast beef can't be treated this way. Other than steak or lamb or beef roast, for which rare or medium rare may be preferred, this is perfect. You can take your hot food to the trays once cooked, and hold them at temperature this way for an hour or more before dinner if you cover the food tightly.

                    I use one to five racks, depending on the number of guests and dishes served. You can set this up right on your counter or on a buffet table or folding table, but trust me -- once you do this, you will never go back. And your guests will appreciate that your food isn't cold or in the "zone".

                    Of course, if you want to spring for the really expensive chafing set ups like a restaurant uses (50 to 90 dollars), go right ahead, but for a family dinner, the wire catering rack set up is great for most of us.

                    Good luck -- hope you try it.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: RGC1982

                      I always boil the water before you put it in the pans, that way you don't have to waste your sterno. If you don't like the look of these (ugly) things on the table, you can keep them in your kitchen and use them to keep the food warm for refilling your platters. Don't be fooled though, most set ups like these can't be depended on to keep food at proper holding temperatures (165 deg.) It's no problem as long as you get everything on the table back in the fridge within two hours. fayefood.com

                      1. re: fayehess

                        I keep the food covered with heavy duty foil, and this does seem to keep it at about 165 to 170, In fact, caterer I know delivers these things cold to their customers, and advises them to heat through for 45 minutes before serving. Maybe it has something to do with the sternos used? I buy the large ones that last six hours, and use two, so this seems to work. Those little ones are not meant for this setup. That said, yes -- I agree, Two hours is about it anyway once the food is uncovered for serving. I agree that it is not that hot once the service begins. The food can also dry out considerably in a chafing dish once it is uncovered, so you need to choose foods with a lot of liquid or be prepared to refresh the pans frequently.

                    2. Having at least skimmed this thread, the one thing I'll add is to serve the children on the same dishes as everyone else. We never dumbed down to our daughters and it was never necessary. But even if something HAD gotten broken, bid deal. It's just "stuff." Our children deserve the best. They even got their milk at important dinners in wine glasses. We've all lived to talk about it :)

                      16 Replies
                      1. re: c oliver

                        I agree. My kids got sparkling cider in wine glasses and it always worked out fine. Honestly I think using the special "adult" plates, etc helps put kids on their best behavior. Children like to dress up and do the pretty too.

                        As far as serving goes I would take a clue from the family gatherings the OP has already been to and not reach to far "above" especially the first go in either food or plating. The new stellar kitchen and living areas may be enough of a difference in comfort.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          I disagree, I doubt very much that you were giving a 6 month old his formula or milk in a wine glass. Age appropriate dishes and drinking utensils are very important. Many young children do not have the motor capability to handle a top heavy wine glass and why risk breaking a couple of Riedel Vinum wine glasses so a 2 year old can ‘feel’ he is part of the family. At that age they would likely prefer their favorite sippy cup with the pretty colors on it.

                          As the kids get a little older they like to behave as an adult and serve themselves at the buffet, is it really worth risking a un-replaceable family heirloom piece of china that is 300 plus years old? Sure it’s just stuff, been passed down 3-4 generations and has many priceless memories attached to it so you can have a choice insult terror Tommy’s 3 year old senses and allow the more responsible older people to enjoy eating off a rare piece of history or keep it locked up. Al least you replace the Riedel Vinum’s; just a hundred bucks or so down the drain so that the sweet 2 year old twins could get the proper bouquet of their milk.


                          PS If you were talking about Wal-Mart wine glasses and Ikea plates, be my guest and smash away.

                          1. re: RetiredChef

                            Yes, it depends on the age. A little older and i loved getting a grown-up "virgin" drink with a parasol (or a bit of wine in sparkly water, at home).

                            1. re: lagatta


                              100% agree all of my children, for example, were served champagne (sparkling cider) in appropriate glasses, first sippy cups, then regular cups, then into plastic flutes, then cheaper glass flutes and when old enough they could enjoy the hand-blown crystal and none of them seemed to think they were deprived or ended up needing counseling because they were outcastes from the family.

                              Our children and their friends actually enjoyed having their own dining room at these occasions so they didn’t have to be ‘quiet’ at the adult dinner table. They were given autonomy to re-serve themselves including drinks and accidents did occur, but because of the precautions these accidents were easily forgiven. That was my whole point, about age appropriate service.

                              1. re: RetiredChef

                                I'm 62 now and still remember that I despised the "children's" table.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  Unfortunately many people extend the idea of the "children's table" to people who are well into adulthood. I've been stuck at them fairly recently and I'm in my 30s! I just think the idea of a children's table generally is unappealing. Many children want to be included with the adults.

                                  1. re: queencru

                                    hell, I'm 44 and my cousins and I still sit at the "kids" table. I remember one year me and my husband got moved to the adult table and I was highly offended (joking) and bored.

                                    Of course, now, there's a 3rd card table for the kids with no quotes.

                                    I think even if you must have plastic flatware and utensils, you should still use your best serving pieces. My family extends the buffet onto the stovetop to keep things warm. Perhaps the deluxe kitchen has a warming function on the stove top?

                                  2. re: c oliver

                                    I always hated to be at the "Kids" table, but this past Thanksgiving my SIL sat with the kids (10-30) and she was facinated by their discussion. I fell like I missed out on something this year.
                                    No, really, never wanted to be segregated.....

                                    1. re: breakfastfan

                                      WOW – Our kids and our guest’s children always loved the idea of their own private dining room and used to ask for it. They used to think it was a drag to sit at the ‘adult’ table until they got a little older.

                                      Maybe we structured our dinners differently but I can assure you that the kids actually wanted this private area and only those who choose to sit there would. Anyone was welcome at the ‘adult’ table but the kids just had way to much fun eating together.

                                      You guys almost make it sound like a punishment. There were many times I wish I could have joined the kids, but my wife would never let me.

                                      1. re: RetiredChef

                                        I think the children's table works if the children enjoy each other's company. If they are of a similar age or have a good relationship otherwise, it is fine. If this is the first time Cousin Jane gets to meet her obnoxious Cousin Joe, well, I wouldn't want to be there either.

                                        1. re: RGC1982

                                          Good point about the age similarity. Sticking adults at the children's table just because they're the youngest of the crowd just doesn't make sense if you have a 25-year age range. I remember at one gathering we had a children's table with 4 people in their 20s and one pre-teen and the pre-teen was much more interested in spending time with her grandparents than the twentysomethings.

                                        2. re: RetiredChef

                                          I think you are absolutely right. I loved the kids' table, but I think a lot of it has to do with how the table is set. I think it's critical to set the table as lushly as the adult table, with loads of fun table garnish, cups of crayons, paper, tiny hopping toys, flowers, a riddle written on a little piece of paper stuck under the plates, (for older kids). Definitely (cheap) glasses and plates and cloth napkins and a tablecloth with little pitchers of drinks for them to pour themselves. And kids will let you know loud and clear if they don't want to sit there. Choice is critical. fayefood.com

                                          1. re: fayehess

                                            My grandmother had a big round card table for the kids, with a dedicated white linen table cloth. Each year, we were instructed to sign the table cloth and date it. Then MaMa would embroider over our names in red silk before she washed the cloth. Its cool to see our signatures evolve on this now-35-year-old table cloth.

                                            MaMa was awesome.

                                            1. re: danna

                                              That is wonderful!!! Thanks for sharing.

                                2. re: RetiredChef

                                  I wasn't talking about six months and three years but at six and eight our children were doing fine with the nice things.

                                3. re: c oliver

                                  I used to do it too when my daughter was little, but admittedly she was at least old enough to manage a wine glass safely. Under a certain age it really does need to be sippee cups and plastic dishes. This is a good idea, I think, for their reason you said. I once actually set a breakfast after a birthday sleepover in my dining room with beautiful linens, colorful china plates, and a centerpiece. The girls were about five, if I remember correctly, and they were thrilled. Contrast this with the last birthday party breakfast given by another family which consisted of cold cereal in individual boxes -- nothing else. I never did subcribe to the theory that kids should be treated differently or even fed different food, which some people I know continued to do until their kids were something like twelve years old. (another pet peeve, but that is for another thread).

                                4. I agree with all the people who say go with the good dishes & nice cutlery. If you don't have enough nice dishes or need a few additional serving pieces & don't want to buy extras, ask your MIL if you can borrow some from her. Don't worry if it does not all "match."
                                  Also agree that you should try to have a table space for everyone, even if it means a few different tables, not all in the same room. Again, try to borrow one or 2 card tables, if you don't otherwise have enough space.
                                  You will be glad you went to the effort afterwords, and everyone will praise how nicely you hosted everything.

                                  1. I've hosted a lot of events and been a guest at a lot of family holiday dinners. The amount of people you are having are not so many that it will take a long time to serve the first round of food. I wouldn't bother with heating devices but just use platters. Little kids often enjoy having a table to themselves -- at least at my family's special dinners, the kid's table was a place of great hilarity. That is a good table to use the less good china or plastic. If you don't bring out the best stuff for a Christmas dinner, you'll never use it for anything else either. If you have it, use it. If you don't, use the best you do have or borrow some from that Irish MIL. Serving platters aren't hard to make lovely. I like to use a little parsley, some thin slices of orange, and/or some grapes to decorate any platter that looks less than lovely. A little goes a long way in decorating but it does make the table festive. Put some evergreen sprigs in a basket for a decoration on the buffet table, or a poinsettia plant and let the folks serve themselves. I've been to buffet suppers where a great many more people than you are having ate and with no heated trays and everyone was quite content with their dinners. It is also a lot less fuss. As a first time hostess, relax, and expect to enjoy the event. You should have plenty of help volunteering when it comes to dealing with the extra dishes after the meal. My sister usually hosts our family events and runs the dishwasher after every course despite the fact that her kitchen is open to the dining area.. Her dishwasher is quiet and I expect, from the description of your kitchen, yours is too. Good luck!

                                    1. Here's a suggestion for future buffets. The first time I hosted a buffet dinner with more guests than dinner plates, I went to a home goods store (I believe Bed Bath and Beyond) and found charger plates, 13 inches across. While they are indeed plastic, they're heavy and in colors that coordinate with my table linens. Having a sturdy plate that size allows guests to put bread, sides and entree on one plate without everything running together. I've used them for holiday buffets and cookouts with equal success.

                                      A side note: This was about eight months after my husband and I were married. I bought these on my lunch hour and called him at work, all excited that I had found exactly what I needed and in our colors. There was a long silence on the other end of the line until he asked "We have colors?" I told him yes, we did. My colors were cranberry and hunter green and his were beige and brown.