The Stress-Free Way to Set Up a Thanksgiving Buffet

"Come over for a buffet!" is something you'd say to your friends exactly never-it sounds way too fancy and formal, right? But that's a shame, because whether you're hosting a Thanksgiving at a formal table set with etched crystal or a Friendsgiving from the comfort of your living room, a buffet is the most effective strategy for feeding a crowd. What's more, setting out all of the food together in one place creates exactly the kind of gorgeous, generous-looking spread that the holiday is all about. Even better, there's no more "pass the turkey" or "hey, hoist me the green beans?" Want more of something? Just jump up and get seconds-and stretch your legs while you're at it.

What's more, if you plan your buffet right, it will not only help you get everyone fed but will also keep you organized and sane.

Here are a few rules to help make your Thanksgiving buffet (and your holiday) flow smoothly, without any fights breaking out in the food line:

People naturally want to move from left to right at a buffet table, so take advantage of that flow: start with stacks of plates on the left end of the table, then follow them with the turkey (and any other big proteins you might be serving) and then heavy, starchy dishes like mashed potatoes and stuffing (and anything else that you have a lot of and are happy to have guests overload on).

Next come special-occasion dishes that you don't have as much of, like these fancy vegetarian devils on horseback; that way, people will take less of them because their plates will already be filling up. Finish up with delicate dishes like salads, rolls, and finishing touches like gravy, cranberry sauce, and mustard. You can also put forks and knives rolled in napkins at the far right end of the buffet, or just throw each type of utensil into a tall, sturdy glass for easy retrieval.

Let's face it, no one really waits their turn at a buffet; everyone just reaches for what looks good as soon as they're close enough. So if you want to make sure that the spoon covered in whipped sweet potatoes with honey doesn't also end up being used for the sour cream mashed potatoes, it's best to put two serving pieces out for each dish. You can get extra serving ware at flea markets and just mix and match-as long as you love every piece, it'll all look great together. And if you've got a huge crowd coming, see if you have room to pull the buffet table away from the wall so that people can form lines on both sides to speed things up even more.

It's always nice to let people know what they're eating, especially when you're almost guaranteed to be feeding guests with food allergies, gluten issues, and vegetarian or vegan diets. You can take your cue from chefs and just use a roll of masking tape and a sharpie to label dishes, or you can make signs part of your décor by writing the names of dishes on colorful leaves or having kids make hand-print turkeys. Labels can also help you plan ahead: set them out the day before, next to the appropriate servingware, and you'll know exactly where everything goes when you're rushing to get the food on the table. Or just keep it casual and let folks know as you're hanging up their coats what dishes they should feast on (or avoid).

Whenever possible, set up a separate buffet for dessert, ideally in a separate room or at least on a separate table. That way you can have it all ready to go before the guests arrive. Short on long tables? Just cover folding tables with long tablecloths; no one will know what lies beneath.) Just like with your main buffet, you'll want to put toppings like ice cream and whipped cream at the end of the table, next to the coffee and after-dinner booze (Pro tip: Consider investing in an old-fashioned percolator. You can set it up long before the guests arrive, and it'll keep coffee hot all night.)

We don't expect our guests to carve their own turkey, so why do we make them cut their own pieces of cornbread and slices of pie? By the time half the people get through the buffet line, dishes inevitably start to look messy and hacked-into. To keep everything attractive, pre-portion whatever you can: pre-cut casseroles and pies, consider making single-serving items like cornbread-stuffing muffins and pre-portioned salads in small Ball jars, and opt for dishes that hold their shape, like slices of roasted winter squash, instead of mashing everything. With a little planning, all the items on your buffet spread can look inviting (and Insta-worthy) until the last piece of pie has been eaten.

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The Stress-Free Way to Set Up a Thanksgiving Buffet
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