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Nov 11, 2011 08:44 AM

Advice for Thanksgiving buffet set-up?

I wish I had cooked for more dinner parties, so this is a basic question, but how can I set up the buffet so that it is easy for my guests? Cranberry sauce and gravy on the dinner table, but everything else on the buffet (I'll just set up on the kitchen counter)?

I was thinking of serving a salad, but should I leave that out of the meal since it will take up valuable space on the dinner plates (I'm kind of joking, but...I know that I want to have plenty of room for the good stuff)? Just now realizing I don't have a lot of serving dishes and proper utensils, but I think I'll just serve casseroles direct from their baking dishes.

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  1. Springleaf, how many are you having over for the holiday?

    You can certainly serve from baking dishes, etc. for items liked dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes. You probably would want a serving dish for mashed potatoes, and something for gravy service - perhaps a guest can bring something for you to use. A fondue pot that is candle heated is great, as it keeps the gravy warm. Or, use a vacumn bottle - like a thermos or coffee server for gravy.
    At party supply store, you can buy nice plastic serving utensils for a couple dollars each if you need large serving spoons/ forks - or, hit up a thrift shop and get used ones for about the same. You are recycling this way!

    I ran catering co's. for many years, so some of my advice is put plates at beginning, flatware and napkins at the end so guests don't have to juggle those while serving themselves food. Think through the order of items; put the gravy AFTER the turkey, stuffing and potatoes as it goes ON them. If you have any concerns about running out of anything, put it later in the order of service for items.
    A salad or salad-type items is refreshing (waldorf salad can be nice; apples, celery, walnuts, grapes in a light dressing).

    purchase some nice disposable plates for this and to hold rolls and butter. Can get nice coated paper in a color that is seasonal at the same party store. This is also a great place to get some plastic quality glasses (they can be washed and re-used) to make sure you have enough bev-ware.

    1 Reply
    1. re: gingershelley

      This is all *so* helpful. Would never have thought of a thermos for gravy -- just brilliant!

    2. Springleaf,

      Also wanted to mention to think creatively about WHERE you put the buffet. You might need your kitchen space for finishing things, getting dessert ready after the meal or for clearing, so coming up with an alt. spot for service might be good.
      At Easter, I have a brunch for upward of 40 guests, and to make sure all eating/ seating areas are kept free for guests, I convert my office into a buffet with a board, two sawhorses and a couple of tablecloths so the LV & DR can host guests for eating and chatting. Just a thought:)

      3 Replies
      1. re: gingershelley

        Thank you for taking the time to share all of this. I hope your guests appreciate what you do!

        1. re: springleaf

          They do! Not trying to toot my horn, but I am pretty well known as a hostess amounst my friends and their friends, as I can pretty reliably put out a dinner party or a larger event and not have it be a pain for my guests.
          15 years in catering sure helps in getting you to think ahead of all the possible things you need.

          I like to make checklists, and use them. Also, set up your table, check over your dishes and make sure #'s of plates, serving items, etc. match the menu AHEAD of time. Like, a couple of days at least if you can swing it so you have time to fill in any gaps and don't feel rushed.
          YOUR supposed to have fun too!

          1. re: gingershelley

            A checklist is a great idea. I'm kind of anal, so I do an Excel spreadsheet. I list the menu items, the recipe source and the serving vessel and serving item (spoon, tong, etc). I list my market items by the date I need to buy them. Prep list is also done by the day it needs to be done. I fine-tune the list til it's "perfect" and then execute. Sometimes I tweak as I go along in the execution. It makes a big difference so I'm not trying to figure things out while I'm in the middle of it.

      2. For me, turkey is rested and then carved in the kitchen and cut portions laid out on a platter with both dark meat and white meat. Oven baked caseroles are served right out of their baking vessel and then tented with foil so things stay warm when guests for back for seconds (I often keep preheated thermo mats or a couple heating pads under them to keep warm usually). Mashed potatoes are made while turkey is cooking and then kept warm in a crockpot on low with butter or cream added if they get a little dry (almost never need to adjust).

        Non baked veggies (pan fried, steamed etc.) like corn, peas, candied baby carrots, are served out of a buffet line type multi lidded pan crock set, or mini crock pots if guests have brought them. Stuffing can be put in a bowl and then foiled or put in a small crockpot or a warmed earthen vessel to keep warm and tent.

        Gravy is the fork in the road. It can be put in a boat on the table and then the remaining kept warm on teh stove or microwaved as needed for refills, or kept warm on the buffet line in a sterno heated dip pan or in a small crock pot.

        Salad I serve on teh buffet line and that frees the dining tables for cranberry sauce,salad dressing and the gravy boat (if serving the gravy that way).

        After many years of chaos, that how the ship gets run these days.... LOL

        2 Replies
        1. re: jjjrfoodie

          I've never heard of thermo mats, but will look into it. Mashed potatoes in a crock pot, can't wait to try that!

          1. re: springleaf

            By thermomats I mean insulated hot/cold packs that come in the Rubbermaid , Pyrex and other casserole covered/transport kits that are out there. There is a thermal pad in the center of the mat and the mat can be heated in the microwave, in hot water (or cooled in the freezer for chilled items)'. They come in 9 x 13 and other common cassarole dish sizes.

            Heat teh pads up in teh microwave and then set the dish on top. Easy peasy.


            IIRC, Bed bath and beyond and other places carry them.

        2. My question to you is, do you have a separate dining room from the kitchen? I grew up in a tiny apt in Brooklyn and my mom would set up the buffet on the kitchen table. She would open up card tables in the middle of the living room (moving the coffee table aside) and could easily fit 12-15 pp at 2 tables put together. I have so many pictures of family dinners in that room! I also went to a (Passover) holiday seder (dinner) years ago where the total number of guests was 36. Several card tables were set in an L shape to fit in the dining/living room (combined space), the buffet was in the kitchen. My point is if you can, be flexible about where you set up your table. Guests will overlook the actual room they are eating in if (a) the meal is great and (b) the table is set attractively. And most people are forgiving about Thanksgiving anyway.

          I also agree with all of the suggestions above: plates at the beginning, silverware/napkins at the end. You can also roll your silverware in the napkins (easy to do) and put them on the buffet, or place those on the table at each place setting. I've done plastic cutlery tied together in raffia (I make an X shape with the fork and knive, spoon goes in the middle) which looks nice when done in your seasonal theme.

          Good luck and have fun!

          2 Replies
          1. re: alwayshungrygal

            Thanks for sharing the way the tables were arranged, that is very helpful to know. I loved hearing the way the tables were set up...I'm imagining it! Bet it was great.

            1. re: springleaf

              You're welcome. We were a family of 6 people, so anytime we had more people, we were in the living room. Just couldn't fit in the "dining" area of the kitchen. No separate dining room.

              Oh! I just had another thought to help you. Use "risers" to elevate platters on the table. Risers can be a few bricks wrapped in a pretty napkin or a few sturdy, large cans similiarly wrapped. Elevating platters makes it easier to fit more items on the buffet. Put one up, then the next one down, then one up, etc. Turn rectangular or square items sideways to give more interest to the table. If you can, place items (empty platters, bowls, etc) out before the actual day to make sure everything fits. If you don't want to put the silverware on the table used for seating, you can get a utensil caddy (Target, Bed/Bath/Beyond, or similar source. TJ Maxx/Home Goods is a great resource), or use pretty coffee mugs to hold individual types. Be like Martha Stewart and think outside the box.

              Table decor can be pine cones spray painted gold, accented with cranberries and cinnamon sticks (layer it in a slim glass vase or scatter on the table). Nestle candles on a tray or plate (wrap with foil) then cover the base with cranberries. Easy stuff to do.

          2. I have done Thanksgiving buffet style for about 15 years, usually 12-18 people. We have the table(s) fully set with plates/silverware/napkins. Also on the tables are the butter, s&p, gravy, cran sauce. The guests just grab the plate from their spot and head to the buffet (like you on the kitchen counter... we have a penninsula). Turkey on platter, hot side dishes in the pan they were baked in, mashed potaoes and cold dishes in bowls, etc... Big basket of rolls. After everyone has sat down, I transfer the turkey plantter and roll basket(s) to the tables. We have a separate smaller table in the eat-in kitchen area disignated for before dinner apps and drinks, then for after dinner desserts.
            Ultimately, it is usually chaos! But who cares when the food is tasty and the company is fun!

            1 Reply
            1. re: PamelaD

              Chaos...but fun, looking forward to it!