A buffet is a dinner or lunch where several courses are available at a table at the same time. Guests serve themselves. Follow the buffet etiquette rules for serving or eating at a buffet.

What buffet etiquette is

Buffet etiquette is the set of rules to properly set, serve, and eat at a buffet. Such rules help avoid behaviors that can disrespect and irritate hosts or guests.

If you are hosting, follow buffet etiquette to properly set and serve the buffet.

If you are a guest, respect buffet etiquette rules to properly eat at a buffet.

Buffet etiquette rules for serving a buffet

1) Logistics is key in buffet etiquette

Logistics is key in organizing a buffet.

Set buffet tables to allow plenty of space for guests to move and serve themselves. Place the serving dishes so that they are easily accessible to the guests.

Plan for plenty of plates, cutlery, glasses, and napkins, as guests usually take multiple servings.

When setting the table, follow the general etiquette rules.

2) Provide food and beverages variety

You should offer a minimum of variety. In general, plan to serve at least 8 or 10 dishes. In a buffet, a dish is a full course. Single ingredients, such as one type of cheese, do not count as a full dish.

Offer at least two wines, one white and one red. Serve at least 3 or 4 soft drinks, including water.

Serve each food in its own serving dish. Serving dishes must have abundant food to allow a full serving for every guest, plus some second servings.

Present each serving dish with its own serving utensils.

A buffet must allow plenty of space between tables

3) Place beverages and desserts on dedicated buffet tables

Beverages should be abundant. Check them regularly and refill them when needed.

Ideally, you should place the beverages on one or more dedicated tables. This way, you can divert traffic away from the food tables and avoid congestion.

Present fruit and desserts once the guests have finished eating the savory courses. Place them on a dedicated table if available. Guests usually eat fruit and dessert at a more relaxed pace. Thus, you may keep them available for a longer time.

4) Clear used dishes, glasses, and utensils

To keep the buffet neat, clear the tables on a regular basis. Remove empty serving dishes and used dishes, glasses, and utensils. Follow the general table clearing etiquette rules.

Rules for properly eating at a buffet

Buffet etiquette rules for eating at a buffet

5) Orderly leave and return to your table

A formal buffet has a seating plan. Guests from each table will be invited to go to the buffet and get their food. Be patient and wait for your turn. Do not approach the buffet unless you are invited to do so.

When you leave your table to visit the buffet, place your napkin on your seat to signal that you are coming back.

When you return to the table, you can start to eat your food. However, when you are returning from your first visit to the buffet, it is polite to wait for the other guests at your table to return.

Informal buffets may or may not have a seating plan. If there is no seating plan, you can seat at any table. However, ask the other seated guests if you can join their table.

Keep the buffet line moving

6) Keep the buffet line moving and respect the distance

Spending too much time at a buffet table is against etiquette.

Keep moving following the flow of the other guests. Do not move in the opposite direction or cut the line.

Do not stop to make conversation with other guests, as it will slow down the flow.

Keep a minimum distance between you and the other guests. Do not cross guests that are serving themselves.

Do not stuff your plate full

7) Do not be greedy with food

Fill your plate, but do not over-stuff it. Allow some empty space on your plate. Do not stack food.

Do not take an excessive quantity of a single type of food. It is not polite to take the last serving from a plate that might not get replenishment.

It is appropriate to visit the buffet table for a second serving. Three or more visits to the buffet table may look greedy.

Taking food to go is against buffet etiquette. Doggy bags are not allowed at a buffet.

Do not mix serving utensils

8) Follow buffet hygiene etiquette

Wash your hands before eating.

Take a clean plate every time you visit the buffet table. Do not reuse the same plate.  

Always use the serving spoons and forks. Do not use your cutlery to serve yourself food.

With each food, use its serving utensils. After serving yourself, place the serving utensils back in their serving dish.

Do not touch food with your hands or with your cutlery. If you touch food, put it on your plate.

Never return food back from your plate to a serving dish. Once you serve yourself food, you should keep it on your plate.

Do not sneeze or cough close to the buffet table. If you need to sneeze or cough, move away from the table and cover your mouth. 

Avoid the most frequent bad table manners.

9) Help other guests

Offer senior guests to serve them. Visit the buffet table on their behalf and bring them food.

Gentlemen can offer female guests to serve them beverages and desserts. 

Parents must watch their kids

10) Watch your children

Kids must follow the same buffet etiquette as adults.

Parents must watch their children. Prevent them from touching food or stuffing their plates.

buffet etiquette mistakes

Buffet etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst buffet etiquette mistakes. 

  • 9/10. Not respecting the line.
  • 9/10. Putting food back on a serving dish.
  • 8/10. Being greedy with food.
  • 8/10. Staying too close to other guests. 
  • 8/10. Touching food with your hands.
  • 6/10. Using the wrong serving utensils.


  • Slim by Design: Serving Healthy Foods First in Buffet Lines Improves Overall Meal Selection: nih.gov