Dining Etiquette: How to Navigate a Buffet Line

01/17/2018 11:35 am ET

There’s something about a long table full of heaping platters of food that can cause people to get a little carried away. However, it’s important to remember that at buffets, as with most occasions which involve eating with others, a few etiquette rules will help ensure a pleasant experience for everyone involved.

Whether at a social or business function, the next time you see a glorious feast, remain calm, maintain your dignity and refrain from diving in head first. Follow these few tips.

People First, Food Second

Whenever you attend a fundraiser, wedding, or business event, eat a small snack before you arrive so you’re not tempted to race straight to the mashed potato bar. Whatever the occasion, your primary goal is to enjoy the company of others, not to see how much food you can consume in one sitting.

Your Loaded Plate Should Not Resemble Mount Everest

Some people confuse “buffet” with “all you can eat,” loading up their plate with pounds of food. Show a little restraint; don’t let your eyes become bigger than your stomach. Keep in mind the food supply is not unlimited. Your hosts have prepared enough dishes for a specific number of guests and taking too much may cause them to run out before everyone has a chance to partake. If you want seconds, return only after everyone has had a chance to go through first.

Respect Others’ Personal Space

It may be tempting to reach around someone to grab a roll or to dig into the dish just beyond them, but the best thing to do is to wait patiently for the line to move rather than jumping ahead. Otherwise, you run the risk of spilling something on another diner, dropping food around the serving trays or appearing hungry and impatient. Don’t crowd other diners in line; give them plenty of space to select their items without breathing down their neck.

Leave Your Drink at the Table

It’s always most comfortable to hold you plate in one hand while you serve yourself with your free hand. It also may appear greedy to watch someone go through the line with two plates, piling on shrimp and prime rib, making the excuse the extra plate is for their mate or coworker.

Go With the Flow

Avoid going against the traffic pattern. Stay in an orderly line and refrain from cutting in for a dollop of mustard or a squeeze of horseradish before taking your seat at the table.

Don’t Graze

However tempting it may be to take a little taste as you dish up, it is not a sanitary choice, especially considering all the hands that are touching the serving utensils. Feast with your eyes while in line, then enjoy your food when you are seated at the table.

Keep Serving Utensils Where They Belong

Never use the utensil for one dish to serve yourself from another. This can lead to cross-contamination which could be dangerous for those with a food allergy. 

Waiting for Fellow Guests is Optional

Because buffet dining is more casual and your seat mates will make it back to the table at various times, it’s perfectly acceptable to begin eating when you sit down. The exception is when you are seated with several people you know and are all planning to return at approximately the same time.

Teach Your Children Well

If they are old enough to carry their own plate, they can go through the line with your assistance. If they are very young, prepare their plate first and get them situated, then go back in line to serve yourself.

Dessert is a Separate Course

There’s no need to try to fit your slice of cheesecake on the plate next to your pasta salad. The result can be unappetizing for you and your table mates. Make a separate trip with a fresh plate and utensils.

No Doggie Bags

A buffet line does not include a “to go” bag, so don’t ask to take food home. It appears greedy.

Remember to Tip

If you are at a buffet restaurant, your server is responsible for bringing you drinks and clearing your plates, so remember to tip them at least one dollar per person.

For more of Diane’s etiquette tips, you may enjoy reading Dining Etiquette for the Entrepreneur. You can also visit Diane’s blog, connect with her here on HuffPost, “like” The Protocol School of Texas on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter. Buy her new book, Modern Etiquette for a Better Life.

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