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Family Style vs Buffet Style: What’s Better for a Dinner Party?

Having to decide on serving style at a dinner party can be hard, here's how family-style and buffet style works and how they can impact food waste.

Top view of people having dinner

In a world of endless possibilities, it can be hard to decide on a dinner party menu and serving style.

Do you go with family-style? Buffet-style? A combination of the two? I believe that family-style is superior for a true dinner party because it allows ample communication time, food choice, and limits food waste.

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. ”― Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

How Family Style Works

A family-style meal begins with the main course spread out onto a platter. Guests first take the serving utensils they desire. Then they serve themselves directly off of the platters.

This approach ensures each guest gets a satisfying portion size while serving themselves however much or little they desire.

How Buffet Style Works

Buffet Style Dinner

The main advantage buffet style has over family-style is that guests do not have to wait for food to be passed during the meal. People may chat with the person next to them in the buffet line.

However, this benefit comes at a cost; when it comes time to clean up, the host will have to do much more. The host will still spend more time cleaning and putting things away than they would if everyone had eaten family style. I love cooking but hate the cleaning up part.

In terms of space, buffets require lots of trays, dishes, and other serving equipment. A buffet table can take up a bit of room in the house.

It is not uncommon for guests to make multiple trips to the buffet table as needed. At least with family-style, the food is on the table – just get some more until it empties. When I have on my dinner party heels, I don’t want to keep getting up and balancing food.

Chatting and Trying New Things

Buffet style is just less personal. The meal’s atmosphere feels more like that of a cafeteria. People are just grabbing food and filling their plates before finding a seat. One of the things I love about family-style is the excitement that I ( and others) have when a new plate comes out.

As the above quote from Michael Pollen states, we converse and learn to take turns at the dinner table.

It is usually a nice icebreaker to “ooo” and “ahh” with my tablemates and guess what went into the dish. When I lived in China, these family-style welcome dinners at my job were a great way to learn about local foods in real-time. I remember a friendly debate over whether the fried and flattened bird laid before us was a duck or a chicken.

I never would have eaten jellyfish at a buffet – or anywhere. When a knowledgeable friend suggested the item during a family-style lunch, the four of us sampled it but still feel that octopus tastes way better.

I never had such experiences at a buffet.

Food Waste

food waste

Besides time consumption, buffet-style can lead to food waste. Buffet meals typically allow guests to take as much of each item as they want. Yet they fail to consider how much food guests need. Food is simply too expensive now to risk discarding.

For example, if you plan to serve chicken, guests can take more than one piece of meat. The problem is that they may end up taking more pieces than they need.

At least with family-style, I notice that other guests and I are less likely to “pig out” in front of others. It is polite to make sure everyone samples each dish at the table before getting extra portions.

Family style eliminates food waste, which is a good thing in a hungry world. Quite frankly, we waste too much food already in this country.

On average, Americans waste 40 million tons of food — 80 billion pounds — every year. Food is the main thing in our landfills. I would rather not add to that while hosting or being a guest at a dinner party. Usually, the booze never goes to waste, so I am all for serving enough food that won’t go to waste either.

Wrapping Up My Thoughts on Family Style VS Buffet Style

I prefer family-style eating. Some others feel the same way because it is a casual, yet elegant option that is simple, quick, and easy to clean up. Plus, I love learning new things from my tablemates.

Buffet style does not have any of those benefits, though it may work for large dinners where making individual plates would take too long.

If speed or ease are your primary concerns, do what works best for you!