Apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin spice cake, and graham bars—there's never a shortage of desserts, if you have room.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Whether for a ladies' brunch or family dinner, a holiday buffet is both casual and cozy.

It would be wonderful if we all had a butler like Carson from Downton Abbey to oversee our holiday dinners. Instead of fretting over the exact placement of the silver or whether or not to print individual menu cards, decide this year to host a casual holiday buffet. With these simple guidelines, you can host a fabulous Thanksgiving buffet that will leave even the Dowager Countess speechless.

Heirloom Sideboards Are Nice, But Not Necessary

When setting up a buffet table, the prime consideration should be location and traffic flow. Placement should allow easy circulation by guests before, during, and after the meal. If possible, arrange your buffet on a dining room table or large kitchen island, which will allow circulation on both sides. You can also utilize several smaller tables, even separate rooms, for the various components of the meal, i.e. entrée and sides on one table, beverages on another, dessert in the den.

Add some color to your table(s) by using festive tablecloths or runners. Intersperse floral or candle arrangements amongst the dishes, just don’t let them interfere with a guest’s ability to reach the food. Add height and visual appeal to the array of food; place small serving plates on tall cake stands and serve salads from footed trifle bowls. Don’t be afraid to mix modern serving bowls and platters with your cherished heirlooms. Make sure you have enough serving pieces, and place them on colorful napkins so they will stand out.

Where Will Everyone Sit?

The beauty of buffet meals is that they can be super-casual, even cozy. Your guests can fill their plates and wander into another room to eat and watch the big game. Make sure there is a moisture-proof spot for them to set their drinks so your furniture isn't ruined. Another option is for your guests to dine at a table that is fully set except for the dinner plates, which are always stacked at the beginning of the buffet line.

Now For The Food

When setting out the food, follow a logical flow and start with salads. If the main dish is to be served over something like rice or pasta, then that dish goes next, then the main dish, followed by the sides. Cornbread dressings, sauces, and gravies should be placed close to the dish they complement. Serve foods such as quiche, ham, and lasagna pre-cut in manageable pieces. Identify dishes with place cards, especially if you are hosting a potluck, i.e. Aunt Susie’s Famous Green Congealed Salad. Follow the US Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines on food safety: Discard any perishables left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, unless you’re keeping it hot or cold.

Where Are The Forks?

Flatware can be rolled into napkins and made available with the plates at the top of the buffet line. If your guests are to be seated at a pre-set table, however, the flatware will already be in place. Beverages can be placed on a side table or served from a tray after the guests have been seated. You can place desserts at the end of the buffet or arrange them on a separate table, even in another room with coffee, if space dictates.

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When dining from a buffet, it is not necessary for all the guests to be served before those already seated start eating. If guests were seated in a casual, set-where-you-want arrangement, they should thoughtfully take their dirty dishes to the kitchen instead of leaving them on the coffee table or front porch.