Food Stations: Mix and Mingle with New Ideas for Buffets

If hosting a holiday party is in your plans, you are probably planning your menu and addressing invitations already. Even if it’s tempting to pull out the grocery list from last year, why not try something a little different? There are so many new trends in entertaining, and inspiration for planning and executing interesting gatherings is everywhere—magazines (like HOME!), blogs, websites…ideas abound!

A common dilemma for a hostess is finding the right space to set up the food. If the dining room table is used, where are your guests going to sit? If a kitchen island is put to work, accessing the freezer for ice or the pantry to replenish the cracker tray might be tricky. Recently, I attended an anniversary party at a darling little country inn where space was at a premium. As I walked into the dining area, I immediately noticed that food was arranged on several tables scattered around the room. Something different was offered at each table. One held a cocktail bar with several bottles of wine in buckets next to goblets lined up on a silver tray. Cocktail shakers were nestled in tubs of ice next to martini glasses and highballs. Instead of ordering from a bartender, guests were having a great time channeling their “inner mixologist” and serving themselves. In another corner of the room, a table held steaming bowls of mashed potatoes surrounded by every topping imaginable—chives, crumbled bacon, shredded cheese, herbed butters and flavored sour cream. Next to the traditional beef and ham carving station, heaping platters of artisan breads and rolls enticed guests to create bite-sized sandwiches topped with cheese or horseradish sauce. Instead of a traditional tiered anniversary cake, the honored couple served tiny sweets atop glass cake stands of different heights and shapes. Since the desserts were small, it was a great excuse to try a couple of different miniature tarts and cakes.

This fun trend of mini buffets has caught on big time as modern hostesses are looking for something to set their events apart. These food vignettes become a memorable and amusing way to get guests out of their seats and socializing without waiting for a sit-down meal to be served. You may not be hosting a wedding reception or anniversary party this winter, but you can tweak the idea of the food station to fit just about any holiday gathering. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Snack Time at the Sleepover
Teenagers and little ones alike love sleepovers, but for adults they can seem like long nights with perpetually hungry mouths to feed. If you don’t want to become a short-order cook, and ordering pizza seems too mundane, try setting up a snack bar that allows kids to be part of the preparation. Freshly popped popcorn becomes a gourmet treat when topped with flavored butters, grated cheese or candies. Purchase popcorn bags at the party store and set out several bowls of toppings, letting the guests make individualized concoctions. What a great way to satisfy those late-night munchies! Breakfast is easy too, when you have set out cereal bowls, spoons, a variety of cereals, and juice glasses the night before. In the morning, you can quickly add ice cold milk and a selection of juice to the breakfast bar and retire to the next room with your cup of coffee. Letting the kids serve themselves will be a welcome break for you if you didn’t get much shut-eye the night before!

International Night
The holiday dinner party is a great way to celebrate the season with friends. The dilemma for any host is how to get your guests to mingle, especially if they don’t know each other. Little food stations set up around your house help break the ice by getting guests moving about; chances are they will strike up a conversation as they meet at the crostini bar. Consider adding a theme to your dinner party. If you love Italian food, stock your cocktail area with limoncello, iced granites and some hearty red wines. Set up a pasta bar on your kitchen table you have moved into one corner. Fill big pottery bowls with different shapes and flavors of noodles such as spinach fettucini, peppery cappelletti or buttery gnocchi, and offer several sauces and toppings. Homemade pesto or sun-dried tomato sauce served in rustic gravy boats lend that Tuscan feel to your Italian theme. Or try an Asian menu by serving lo mein noodles or rice in hot woks and offering different toppings, such as stir-fried vegetables, and diced pork, chicken and shrimp. Mexican food adapts to the food station idea perfectly when you provide homemade tortillas and set out everything your guests will need to make the perfect personalized burrito. These little mini buffets are the perfect way to start your guests talking as they work their way through creating their custom culinary masterpieces.

Game Day
Elevate your tailgate when you provide fixings for individual kebabs made by each of your guests before the big game. Meats cut into cubes, chunks of raw vegetables and even fruits can be threaded onto skewers and grilled by your favorite grill master. Encourage everyone to enjoy a cold beverage during the pregame show, snacking on party mix that they have mixed themselves. Set out a food station with nuts, cereals, pretzels, small crackers and dried fruits or candies in apothecary jars. Provide metal scoops and encourage guests to fill team-colored paper lunch sacks with the concoction of their own making—a great way to satisfy a hungry crowd while you get the grill going!
If you are looking for some fresh ideas to inspire you this party season, provide food, fellowship and fun with these casual crowd-pleasing food stations. Your party will be a memorable event for everyone—and may just bring out the Top Chef in your guests!

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