Catered Buffet vs. Plated Meals

When planning an event, which is best?

People serving themselves on a catered buffet line at an event.
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Deciding whether to offer your guests a sit-down catered 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. Some determining factors include how formal your event will be and the price range you budgeted for food.

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. If guests are expected to wear jackets, ties, and cocktail or evening gowns, the expectation will be for the dinner to be a table service meal.

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. Also, formal sit-down events will often include some sort of presentation during the dinner. You don't want guest wandering back and forth to the service buffet during an aria or speaker's speech.

The size of the event is another determining factor when choosing between a buffet and a plated meal. 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.

Catered Plated Meals

Many attendees will 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. Also, this option allows other aspects of the event to revolve around those serving 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.

One difficulty may arise if diners need special diet items served. Events should always be inclusive and offer a vegetarian or other alternatives to the meat and starch dish. Servers should visit each table with the first course and get the guest's main course selection at that time. In that way, no guest is left without an entrée in front of them when the rest of the table is served.

Overall, plated meals provide a uniform experience for everyone.

Catered Buffets

There are some situations when a buffet may be more suitable than a served meal. If you wish to offer several proteins or side choices a buffet could be your best option. A planner might decide on three entrees, such as chicken, beef, and fish, to make sure the dietary preferences of most the guests are acknowledged.

Guests are able to match their dinner choice to individual tastes and appetites. 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. So, they could be your choice if you're dealing with a tight budget. It's not necessary to pay multiple servers when you offer a buffet. However, you will still need servers to man the buffet tables. These servers will keep plates stacked and ready, make sure dish refills are timely, and may even serve at a carving station. Be sure to follow safe food practices and have a single, long-handled utinsel for each dish on the buffet.

During a table service meal, you will need at least one, if not two, servers per table for a plated meal. Nothing is worse than going to a sit-down event and having part of the room on their dessert while the others still have salad plates on the table. You may wish to remove some of the duties of the table servers by having a couple of roving server with bread, condiments, and wine. Roving servers can also help bus tables between courses.

Server Considerations

Servers must not only be paid, but they should be tipped as well. For a plated service, 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. Buffet servers will need the same pay and tip consideration but there are fewer hands to fill. One consideration for buffet lines is the time the server is working on the line.

A buffet might mean preparing and paying for more food. 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 by-table method may also tie into your event theme.

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.