At first glance, you might be overwhelmed by the hundreds of buffet table decorating ideas out there.
After all, most of us have been to quite a few buffets in our lifetimes, and each was different and unique. However, as with all home decor, most of it was simply an illusion.
The truth is, the key concepts and building blocks of buffet table decor are decidedly few and simple.
With just a few “rules” to understand and follow, you’ll be well on your way to decorating a buffet table that gets people talking… and eating.
The beauty of decorating a buffet table is similar to the beauty of a buffet in general: it’s simple, effective, satisfying, and offers a plethora of possibilities based on just a few sound fundamentals.
What’s the Occasion?
Without a clear theme, all other ideas will fall flat, as will your buffet party. Even food won’t save your party, because even if it’s good, it will be forgotten.
And the whole point of decorating is to make a lasting impression that will wow your guests, making them want to come back for more.
And that’s what a buffet is all about: more! More food, more fun, and then some more food.
The good news: it needn’t really matter what theme you choose. It just has to be clear, understood by all, and obvious without being overdone.
Some tried and true buffet themes that are most common include:
- Birthday party buffet
- Chinese buffet
- Christmas buffet
- Fall buffet/Autumn buffet
- Graduation buffet
- New Year’s Eve buffet
- Thanksgiving buffet
- Wedding buffet
Once you’ve established your theme, the next most important thing with buffet table decorating ideas is to associate it with two, and often three, dominant colors. The concept of color is well documented and you can get ideas elsewhere on Decor Medley, but having a theme without an accompanying color set (or colors without a theme) is not enough. A theme is nothing without colors that bring it to life.
Again, this needn’t be rocket science. Color schemes can be basic, with red and green for Christmas, shades or orange for Fall, white and silver for weddings, you get the idea. Just pick two colors you like and that go well together, and you’re off to the races. Let the buffet begin!
Devon… Get the Tables!
Buffet table decor does you no good unless you actually have tables to put the food on (although I went to a summer buffet this year that in fact had no tables; don’t ask).
Before you go running out to buy three big tables at a furniture store, please think twice.
Remember, your tables are going to be covered by tablecloths, so no one is going to see them. You could have boxes under there, or even dead bodies for that matter, and no one will know. Any tables will do, no matter how big or small. Just cover them up with something that looks good, and you’re done.
So look around your house for anything that will do, such as a card table, console table, coffee table, dinner table, picnic table, or even your husband’s uncle with the big, square-shaped, stubborn head that looks like it could support 30 pounds of food. Just pick something flat, cover it up, and don’t spend another minute thinking about it.
Rush Hour Traffic
With buffet table decorating ideas, less important than what kind of tables you choose is the layout of them.
You might want to rub elbows with the rich and famous, but you don’t literally want to rub their elbows. Especially when your guests are neither rich nor famous, or have dirty elbows.
With that said, you want to place your buffet tables in such a way that encourages free flowing traffic that gives people plenty of room to serve themselves heaping spoonfuls of pasta with meat sauce.
In other words, don’t line them up side by side and yell, “Time to eat!” If you do that, you’ll see a stampede of cattle rushing at you with no rhyme or reason, fishing for forks and knives, reaching for the bread rolls while you’re trying to pour gravy on your ham.
Leave that kind of chaos for your mother-in-law’s sloppy parties; YOUR buffet will be well organized, seamless, and decorated with such class that they won’t even notice that you overcooked the turkey.
Instead, organize the tables in a semi-circle or U-shape, with dishes on either side of the table (space permitting). Round tables are best, but square or rectangle are fine too. Before the party, walk around the tables and pretend you’re serving yourself, and imagine the flow of traffic. Is it congested? Do you have room for the decorative centerpiece (read on)? Is there enough space for everyone to not have to worry about hitting someone? If so, then it’s time to move to the next step in exploring buffet table decorating ideas.
Fork it Over
Conventional wisdom for buffet table decorating ideas says to place these at the end of the flow so guests can pick them up on their way out. Of course, other sources say to put them at the beginning of the flow.
To be safe, I recommend putting them in both places. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then put them at the end.
The potential problem of putting them at the front is that it requires people to hold them while they’re serving themselves, and most of us only have two hands.
On the other hand, if you only have them in one place, you’ll create traffic problems with the boneheads who forget to get their utensils on the first trip, and have to go back and get them while everyone else is already in line. For that reason, I advocate putting them both in the front and also at the end.
Low, Medium, and High
One of the best buffet table decorating ideas is to vary the heights of the tables and serving dishes. Make some tables and dishes short, some medium, and some tall. By doing this, you create the illusion of abundance. It also mixes it up a bit, and guests will notice. Give them multiple layers, and you create a whole new mood and environment and at little to no cost at all.
If you’re limited on furniture, no problem. Place a box or stack of boards on the buffet table, cover them up, and put a side or entree on there. This makes the food pop out; a great idea if it’s a dish that you’re particularly proud of.
Ready, Set Decorate!
Now that the basics are out of the way, let’s talk about some of the simple-yet-cool buffet table decorating ideas you can incorporate.
Napkins: You can either have these next to the utensils or already at the table, placed in triangles at each place setting. Oversized ones are good and always look professional. And remember to match them with the colors of your theme.
If it’s a more casual party, paper napkins will do. Again, just be sure they match your theme. Always have spare napkins on hand in case of mishaps or when the food being served tends to be messy (ie, ribs, pizza, or other finger foods).
Candles: Candles at buffet tables are pretty much a must. Any decorative expert always ranks candles at the top of any list of buffet table decorating ideas.
Empty out a pumpkin, carve it, and place candles inside for a beautiful Fall buffet table decorative item. Can’t carve? Then slice off the upper two-thirds of the pumpkin altogether, and place candles on the bottom, creating a pumpkin plate, if you will. Do the same with watermelon for a cool summer party.
Want to really wow your guests? Place some water in a large flat bowl or pan, and feature floating candles. Afraid of fire? Then take some glass cylinders, decorate them as you see fit, and place candles in there.
Get creative. Personally, I like battery operated candles that flicker. This relieves me of worrying about kids or clumsy fathers knocking them over and burning down your house. Nothing ruins a party like fire extinguishers, firemen, and crispy purses.
Fruit: Fruit, especially exotic fruit, makes an excellent choice of buffet table decor. Edible is fine, but fake fruit is best because it can be re-used every year and save you money. Be bold and try exotic pieces like starfruit, ugli fruit, kiwi, passion fruit, papayas, and other atypical fruit fare. Oranges and apples are nice, but overdone. Bring out your inner pomegranate.
You can even make these yourself using a hole puncher and colored paper, but sprinkles are fairly cheap if bought at a crafts store. Expect the sprinkles to get dirtied up a bit at the buffet table, but this is ok.
Just make sure you sprinkle the buffet table BEFORE you serve the food, or else your cranberry sauce will have little pieces of paper in it.
Leaves: A great idea for Fall buffets is leaves sprinkled throughout the buffet table. People associate leaves with Fall or even Thanksgiving, so let there be leaves. Again, matching your buffet table color themes is most ideal.
Sugar cubes: If you want to be really unique, sprinkle sugar cubes (colored sugar cubes are even better) all over the table. I guarantee you it will be a buffet table decorating idea that your guests will have never seen before.
Ribbons: Good for weddings, and really, any party, ribbons that match your color theme are another excellent choice for buffet tables.
Petals and flowers: Rose petals and flowers in your theme’s colors make a gorgeous appearance for buffet tables. They are relatively inexpensive and extremely effective.
Ice cubes: Faux ice cubes (or even real ones, to surround your floating candles) make a nice touch and a sure conversation starter. You’re going for the wow factor, and little things like ice cubes and sprinkles add up.
Sea shells: For your daring side, try sea shells and see how your guests react. While not appropriate for all occasions, sea shells are a terrific idea for a summer or beach party buffet table. Bring the shells to your ear and you’ll be able to hear people whisper to others how cool your buffet table looks.
Menu: I once created a laminated menu of all items being served at my husband’s 30th birthday party. It was a huge hit and people even took pictures. Try this and see if you get the same effect. Create the laminated menu and clip it to a faux plant near the utensils, and it’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
The centerpiece: Lastly, aim for one good centerpiece of decorative item that makes them say Wow. It might be as simple as the pumpkin candle holder idea mentioned above, or a chocolate fountain.
It could be something you buy at an arts and crafts store that caught your eye.
Or it could even be a lamb serving station manned by your uncle Bill, who has kindly volunteered to serve guests behind the chafing dish. Whatever it is, have one thing that has them all talking.
We’ve given you several buffet table decorating ideas, so please try the ones you like and have fun with them.
No matter the occasion, buffet tables should be simple and fun to decorate, as long as you follow the main principles we outlined above. Pick a theme, choose your colors, create a nice traffic flow, feature some nice candles, and get creative with everything in between.
NOW you can say, “It’s time to eat!”