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Buffet Etiquette

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Family lining up to fill plates at buffet table at celebration
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I love a good buffet, but after observing some people's boorish behavior near the food, I'm often reluctant to participate. Casual dining by its very nature seems to invite people to do things they wouldn't appreciate others doing. You still need to follow proper etiquette guidelines while dining at a buffet.

Dining Out at a Buffet Restaurant

Buffet restaurants are excellent options for family dining. Each person can choose whatever he or she wants, and if that's not enough they generally allow a second trip to the serving dishes.

Tips for restaurant buffet etiquette:

  • Walk around and look at all the food items before making your selection. That way you can plant, starting with what appeals to you the most and work your way toward items you would like to try without running out of room in your plate.
  • When dining out at a buffet style restaurant, always get a fresh plate before putting food on it. Returning with the same plate is unsanitary and may spread germs.
  • Never reach around someone. Doing so is likely to cause an accident that can be avoided if you wait until they are finished making their selection.
  • Keep the line moving. Don't hover while trying to figure out whether or not you want something. If you aren't sure, move on and come back later after you decide.
  • Don't touch any of the food in the serving dishes. Never use your fingers to pluck something off a serving dish. You also don't want to lick your fingers while standing at the serving counter.
  • Place all serving utensils in the original dishes. You don't want to cross contaminate items. If someone is allergic to a food item that winds up in another dish, that person may become very sick.
  • When you get up from your table to return to the buffet, place your napkin on the seat of your chair to let others know you are returning.
  • If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze, turn your head away from the serving table.
  • Even though you are serving yourself at a buffet, you will want to leave a tip. The staff still has to remove dirty plates and clean the table.
  • Most buffet style restaurants have a policy of not allowing doggie bags with leftovers.

Hosting a Buffet

There is nothing wrong with hosting a buffet because it enables your guests to try as much or as little of each item as they want. Consider setting it up in a way that provides easy access from more than one angle so you don't wind up with everyone trying to be in the same place at the same time.

Hosting tips:

  • Consider having stations for each course. This can help prevent bottlenecks for popular items. You might want to have separate stations for salads, meats, vegetables, desserts, and drinks.
  • Provide extra plates, bowls, forks, knives, and spoons. You may have places set at the table, but it's still a good idea to offer more for your guests.
  • Have plenty of towels and napkins for spills that will inevitably happen with everyone pouring their own drinks.
  • If you plan to have ice cream at the dessert station, keep it in the freezer until time to serve it. It's always a good idea to place it in a container of ice so it doesn't melt and make a huge mess.
  • Use an ice bucket with tongues so people don't have to use their hands.

Buffet Guests

When you are invited to be a guest at a buffet style meal, it's always good form to offer to bring something to add to the selection. You will still want to have a host or hostess gift that can be used later, after the dinner party is over and the guests have gone home.

Etiquette tips for the buffet guest:

  • Only take what you know you can eat. If you are still hungry after you finish what's on your plate, you can go back, after the others have a chance to get their first servings.
  • Don't crowd others when they are serving themselves. Give people plenty of personal space and elbow room.
  • Offer to assist when you see someone having trouble balancing a plate or pouring a drink.
  • Help children and get them seated before serving yourself.
  • Due to the casual nature of buffet dining, it is acceptable to start eating as soon as you sit down with your plate, unless the host or hostess states otherwise.
  • Don't expect other people to watch your children for you. If you bring them, they are your responsibility.
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