Buffet vs. Plated Meals

When planning an event, which is best?

Four people serving themselves from a buffet table
••• zoranm / Getty Images

Deciding whether to offer your guests a sit-down dinner or a buffet isn't just a matter of personal preference. Presentation ultimately plays a big role in your guests' satisfaction with their meal.

Consider the setting and size of your gathering and who will be attending when you're planning an event. You could end up with a less-than-stellar review if you choose one format over the other without considering all the angles.

The Basic Rules

The more formal the event, the more appropriate a served meal is for the occasion. The expectation will be there for table service if guests are expected to wear jackets, ties, and evening gowns.

The only exception to this rule might be weddings because some receptions are designed to be informal. Otherwise, always think twice about asking well-dressed attendees to navigate through a buffet line and carry their own food back to their tables.

The size of the event is another major determining factor. A buffet becomes less and less practical as the guest list grows. The average double-sided buffet line can serve approximately 100 guests in 30 to 40 minutes, so you'll have to add another line for every 100 guests.

There might not be enough space in the room to accommodate both the buffet lines and the aisle space necessary to allow sufficient traffic flow if you have hundreds of guests.

Plated Meals

Almost everyone would prefer to be served as opposed to fetching their food themselves. Table service allows for easier conversation between guests, and it maintains consistent serve times for each individual. Everyone at the table gets to eat various courses at the same time, and this allows other aspects of the event to revolve around those times, from toasts to speeches to special dances.

Plated meals also eliminate 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.


A buffet is more suitable than a served meal in two situations.

First, the meal offers more than two entrée selections. A planner might decide on three entrees, such as chicken, beef, and fish, to make sure the dietary preferences of all the guests are acknowledged.

Second, buffets work well with standing receptions or “dinner by the bite” events. The food is presented as a tasting. It's secondary in scope to the other festivities.

A buffet is a popular format for events like parties, luncheons, and pre-game functions. Social events are the best match because there's less focus on the timeliness and consistency of service.

Planners can take significantly more risks when choosing menus for standing receptions because guests have plenty of selections to choose from. Just be sure to include appropriate wording on your invitations so attendees don't arrive expecting a full meal.

Cost Considerations

Buffets are far more cost-efficient than plated meals if you're dealing with a tight budget.

It's not necessary to pay servers when you offer a buffet beyond someone to man the buffet tables. But you'll need at least one server, if not two, per table for a plated meal.

Servers must not only be paid, but they should be tipped as well. The total expense will come down to your guest list and how many tables must be served. You'll also have to invest in place cards or employ an escort to guide guests to where they're supposed to sit.

A buffet might mean preparing and paying for more food, however. Plated meals provide for a single serving for each RSVP. You'll know in advance how much will be needed. But Uncle Joe might go back to that buffet table time and again if he really takes a liking to the roast beef. You really have no way of gauging this in advance.

It's customary to go heavy on food costs with buffet meals. You don't want to run out if there's a run on those delicious Clams Casino.

Hybrid Meals

There are ways to streamline the service pattern for buffets if you want to offer your guests at least some of the advantages of a served meal.

One option is to preset salads and desserts at each place setting. This decreases the amount of food that must be transported across the room, and it ensures a consistent start time for the meal because the salads will be ready at the tables.

Combine this with a “captain’s call” where servers notify each table when it's their turn to proceed through the buffet. Incorporating both these options will make the buffet experience more efficient for your guests.

The Bottom Line

What works for one group might not work with another and be the best match for your event. The consideration should always be on the specific needs and preferences of your guests and the nature of your event.

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