Buffet vs. Plated Meals

Catering buffet plates with canapés and appetizers

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 The decision to offer your guests a sit-down dinner or buffet is not just a matter of preference. Consider the setting of the event and who will be attending. Ultimately, presentation plays a big role in your guest’s satisfaction with their meal. If you choose one format over the other without considering all the angles, you could end up with a less than stellar review of your event.

Basic Rules

In short, the more formal the event, the more appropriate a served meal is for the occasion. If guests are expected to wear jackets, ties and evening gowns, then the expectation will be there for table service. The only exception to this rule might be weddings, as some receptions are designed to be informal. That being said, you should always think twice about asking well-dressed attendees to navigate through a buffet setting.

The other major determining factor in the decision of meal formats is the size of the event. The practicality of a buffet decreases as the guest list grows. The average double-sided buffet line can serve approximately 100 guests in 30 to 40 minutes. Thus, you will need to add another line for every 100 guests that register. At some point, there will not be enough space in the room to accommodate both the buffet lines and the aisle space needed to allow sufficient traffic flow.

Plated Meals

Almost everyone would prefer to be served their food as opposed to getting it themselves. Table service allows for better conversation between guests and maintains consistent serve times for each individual. Perhaps more importantly, it eliminates wait times and the need to meander through a maze of tables and chairs while carrying plates and glasses. Overall, plated meals provide a uniform experience for everyone.


There are two primary instances where a buffet is better suited than a served meal. The first is for meals that offer more than two entrée selections. If the planner is unsure about the dietary preferences of their guests, then they may decide to offer three entrees (chicken, beef, and fish for example) to appease everyone. It is a popular format for events like parties, luncheons and pre-game functions. Social events are the best match because there is less focus on the timeliness and consistency of service.

The other instance where buffets work well is with a standing reception or “dinner by the bite” event. With these, the food is presented as a tasting or secondary in scope to the other festivities. Planners can take significantly more risks when choosing menus for these events because guests have plenty of selections to choose from. Just be sure to include appropriate wording on your invites so that attendees do not arrive expecting a full meal.

Hybrid Meals

There are ways to streamline the service pattern for buffets if you want to offer your guests some of the advantages to a served meal. One option is to preset salads and desserts at each place-setting. It decreases the amount of the food that must be transported across the room, and it ensures a consistent start time for the meal since the salads will be ready at the tables. Combine this with a “captain’s call” where the servers notify each table when it is their turn to proceed through the buffet.

Incorporating both of these options will make the buffet experience more efficient for your guests.

As is always the case with event planning, what works for one group may not be the best match for your event. The consideration should always be on the specific needs and preferences of your guests. The decision to serve a plated meal or buffet is yours to choose but don’t base that decision solely on your own assumptions.