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Whether you are planning a lavish Thanksgiving buffet or an open house spread during the winter holidays, a little planning will go a long way toward making the event a successful one for you and your guests. From choosing favorite recipes to setting the scene, the charm comes from small details and great company. If the possibilities seem overwhelming, read on for our suggestions for decadent buffet food ideas and picture-perfect styling.

Assess Your Space

Even before you begin scanning recipes for buffet food ideas, you should take a moment to assess your entertaining space. Long tables are ideal for setting out lavish buffets, but they are not required. You can easily set up smaller stations by category: main course and sides on one table, drinks on one table and desserts on a sideboard. The only real requirement is that your fabulous offerings are easily seen and reached. After that, take a look at your possible seating arrangements. As the editors of Real Simple point out, you want to “[c]reate a flow that makes sense by strategically shifting your furniture.” This means that people can mingle, talk and relax while eating. Strategically placed side tables next to chairs, couches and other seating will always make things easier for your guests.

Plan Your Décor

If you are setting one main table for a Thanksgiving buffet (or other winter holiday celebration), simple decorations that highlight your food tend to impress. Table runners in luxurious fabrics at Thanksgiving give the space a cozy and traditional atmosphere. From there, Martha Stewart Living suggests adding little touches, including a simple wreath over the hearth and glass jars on the mantel filled with lemons and limes that offer a pop of color and light fragrance, while still being available to be called into action.

Is winter white part of your buffet theme? Consider using icy tones in the table runner, tablecloths and other linens. You can take this idea a step farther by creating your own wintry scene. Better Homes & Gardens suggests that you can “[a]rrange your dessert display on a white table adorned with a paper snowflake garland to create a sweet winter wonderland scene. Hang a silver ornament ball behind a white wooden picture frame with a light blue ribbon, and hang a mix of colored and silver ornament balls on a metal Christmas tree frame.”

Do you have special dishes that you always use during the holidays? You can easily color coordinate your table linens to complement your platters and serving dishes, as well as the accents in your holiday plates. This will help make your entire spread feel pulled together.

Explore Your Menu Options

The possibilities for buffet food items are genuinely endless. Start by deciding on your main course and let that decision guide your choices of appetizers, side dishes and desserts. While a Thanksgiving buffet can evoke expectations of traditional offerings of turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, even there you have the ability to mix in unique flavors and choices.

Are you planning an invitation-only New Year’s buffet? There are dozens of terrific food ideas to ring in the New Year. Among Martha Stewart Living’s favorite options: “Roast Pork Loin with Pancetta and Sage,” “Cornish Hens with Pomegranate-Molasses Glaze,” “Baked Tortellini with Bacon,” “Soupe de Poisson,” “Salmon with Brown Sugar and Mustard Glaze,” “Honeyed Ham with Pears and Cranberries,” and “Butternut Squash and Sage Lasagna” (a terrific option if you have vegetarian guests). Each one of those main dishes brings wonderful flavor while being visually stunning – the perfect addition to your buffet table. Naturally, cooking times will vary, and you’ll want to time out your secondary dishes accordingly.

Are you searching for buffet food items for an open house? It’s a terrific option for people who love entertaining. Some open their doors to neighbors; others welcome a flow of family, friends and colleagues to celebrate the winter holidays or the New Year. This option does pose some challenges, as you have a longer window where food and drinks will be available.

Food & Wine recognizes this and offers suggestions that combine both hot main courses and many small bites that work well at room temperature to fill out your table (smaller tastes can also be easily replenished as the day goes on). Among their suggestions for main courses: “Porchetta,” “Smoked Ham with Apple-Riesling Sauce,” “Green-Olive-and-Lemon Crusted Leg of Lamb” or “Flank Steak Spirals with Porcini & Red Wine Sauce.”

Fondue is making its much-anticipated return to holiday buffets. Food & Wine loves the idea of serving a classic cheese fondue: “Chef Ryan Hardy makes his luxurious fondue with two kinds of Swiss cheese (Emmentaler and Gruyère) and two kinds of spirits (white wine and Kirsch), all traditional ingredients” that will help make your open house buffet the talk of the season.

Once you have chosen your main dish, you can have fun with your appetizers, sides and desserts. “Crudités with Creamy Pistachio Dip,” “Roasted Persimmons Wrapped in Pancetta” and “Smoked-Trout-and-Caper-Cream-Cheese Toasts” are among Food & Wine’s favorite buffet starters. Salads are always popular; they hold up well over a long buffet period, and they bring a colorful pop of green to your table. You can choose something traditional, like a “Lemon and Arugula Salad” or the “Fennel, Apple and Celery Salad with Watercress.” Though Food & Wine experts do recommend “toss[ing] the salad just before setting it out on the buffet” to help maintain its crispness.

Roasted vegetables, including baby carrots, asparagus, or caramelized Brussels sprouts are never a bad choice on a buffet table – this is true for formal Thanksgiving buffets, as well as more casual open house celebrations. Likewise, pan-roasted fingerling potatoes will never go to waste.

After choosing all of this tantalizing food, you might wonder if dessert is overkill, but dessert is always a delight. It’s also another place where you can add surprise and whimsy to your buffet. Small finger foods can work as pre-dessert options, like raspberry macarons, your favorite chocolate chip cookies or festively decorated sugar cookies. If you have a separate dessert table, it’s a great idea to have a main dessert offering in the center, with other options around it. The editors at Food & Wine rave about John Besh’s Père Roux’s Cake. Their take: the “cake pays homage to New Orleans’s classic bananas Foster with a filling of sautéed bananas, cinnamon and dark rum in between each layer of fluffy Genoise cake, capped with cream cheese frosting.”  From there, consider adding chocolate or fruit tartlets to the mix on your table. Even decadent bread puddings or vanilla parfaits can be great additions.

Organize Your Table or Tables

For Martha Stewart Living, one of the crucial elements to a successful buffet is organization.  

The day before your event, make sure you have all of your serving items. If you have one long table, if possible, pull it away from the wall to allow for a flow of guests on either side. Now, lay out your serving dishes and platters to see how everything fits. If you feel as though some of your dishes might get hidden by others, Better Homes & Gardens suggests setting “dishes at different levels so the table feels less crowded and guests can easily see every dish.”

Begin by placing your stack of dinner plates at the end of the table, closest to where guests will logically enter your room. You can choose to have utensils wrapped in linens on a tray next to the plates or keep them loose with festive napkins nearby. Next, lay out the platter for your main course (or courses). Your side dishes can follow your main dish, while salad items can sit in the middle of the table, or be offered at the end of the serving line, along with any breads you want to include.

If you are incorporating a drinks station into your main table (as opposed to being on a separate table), Martha Stewart Living suggests using a festive copper bucket to hold your chilled offerings like Champagne, excellent white wines or even spritzers. Glasses should be next to the wine bucket. This will allow your guests to serve themselves and for the bubbly to stay cold. A similar set-up works well on a stand-alone drinks table. Be sure to include non-alcoholic options.

Do you find that there are gaps in your display? Not to worry! Assorted small, round dishes of nuts are always enjoyed, and they can fill any holes in the presentation.

Final Tips

Your buffet food ideas and décor are ready to thrill your guests. Don’t be afraid to set the mood with some light music, and avoid heavy floral arrangements that might clash with the aromas of your buffet. Prepare and cook as much of the buffet in advance as possible so that you are not feeling rushed before guests arrive or working too hard to have fun at the party. Above all else, relax and enjoy a wonderful holiday buffet with friends and family.

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