Buffet Etiquette

Friends standing in buffet line
Follow proper etiquette guidelines when you are at a buffet. Jupiterimages / Getty Images

Do you ever wonder about the proper etiquette at a buffet? Whether you're setting one up or helping yourself to the bounty of food, it's important to know the correct way to serve yourself. It's not only about having proper etiquette, but it also involves cleanliness.

Buffet dining has become very popular in restaurants and at private dinner parties. It's a way to take as little or as much food as you want, and you're able to sample a wide variety of dishes.

Most people enjoy a good buffet, but some people's rude and sometimes disgusting behavior near the food can make it a less than desirable experience. Casual dining by its very nature seems to invite people to do things they wouldn't appreciate others doing. You need to learn and follow proper etiquette guidelines to prevent grossing others out and ruining their experience.

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 they don't get enough during the first round, a second trip to the serving dishes is typically allowed, unless otherwise stated.

Tips for restaurant buffet etiquette:

  1. Walk around and look at all the food items before making your selection. That way you can plan, starting with what appeals to you the most. Start there and work your way toward items you would like to try without running out of room on your plate.
  2. 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 and bacteria.
  3. Never reach around someone else. Doing so is not only rude, but it's also likely to cause an accident that can be avoided if you wait until they are finished making their selection.
  4. Keep the line moving. Don't hover over the serving table 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.
  5. Don't touch any of the food in the serving dishes. Never use your fingers to pluck something off a serving dish. Use the tongs, spoon, or serving fork that is provided. You also don't want to lick your fingers while standing at the serving counter.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze, turn your head away from the serving table. Even if there is a sneeze guard, some of the germs can spread to the food.
  9. 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.
  10. Most buffet style restaurants have a policy of not allowing doggie bags with leftovers. You may eat all you want, as long as you do it there.

Hosting a Buffet

Hosting a buffet enables you to mix and mingle with your guests. 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. If you don't have enough dishes, most buffets are casual enough to offer paper plates. Make sure the paper plates are sturdy enough to hold the food, or you may wind up with a lot of spills.
  • Have plenty of towels and napkins for spills that will inevitably happen with everyone serving themselves and pouring their own drinks.
  • Be helpful when someone spills something, and do whatever you can to avoid embarrassing them.
  • 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 tongs 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. Make sure your children know proper etiquette before you bring them so you can relax and not have to nag them during the meal.

Buffet Dining

The nature of buffet dining is normally casual, but you may find semi-formal and formal buffets as well. If you're not sure what to wear, ask the host.