The buffet meal scene may resemble the siege of the Bastille. Somehow, ordinarily sensible people seem to think the food will be taken away before they get some or that others will take all of the food, leaving them to starve.
This irrational approach results in the two major buffet blunders: approaching the table too quickly and putting too much food on your plate.
Before piling food on your plate, look at the dining tables. If utensils and/or plates are already there, you don't need to look for them at the buffet table. Remember, if place cards are on the tables, do not shift them around to suit yourself.
Then take a look to see whether the buffet has one or two lines. If two lines are moving, you will find serving utensils on both sides of the table.
Take your place in line. Gender and status privileges do not apply in the buffet line, so don't try to get ahead of anyone and don't break up a couple or a group going through the line together.
If one item is in short supply, go easy on it. At a restaurant or hotel, it is fine to ask to have a dish replenished. At a private party, don't ask.
Use the serving spoon or fork provided for a particular dish and put the serving piece next to the platter or chafing dish when you are finished. A hot metal spoon in a chafing dish could burn the fingers of another diner.
Don't overload your dish. Going back for seconds or thirds is perfectly acceptable. Don't take platefuls of food for the table. That defeats the whole idea of a buffet, which is offering a multitude of choices for a variety of tastes and appetites.
Mind Your P's and Q's
In refusing to be helped to any particular thing, never give the reason that you are afraid of it.
—Miss Leslie, Miss Leslie's Behaviour Book, 1859
When various dishes are served at serving stations, as at a brunch buffet, remember that the attendants are limited in what they can provide. Special requests are okay if they are easily accomplished. For example, you can ask for scrambled eggs at the omelet station, but don't ask for “over easy” if no whole eggs are in sight. And only ask for ingredients in your omelet that are in sight and readily available. Similarly, don't ask for an end cut of beef if you don't see one.
In a restaurant, plenty of clean, freshly polished plates should be available, which means you should not have to reuse a plate. When you're going back to the buffet for seconds, don't hesitate to ask a server to replace a plate or silverware or retrieve what you need at the buffet table.
In a private home, use common sense to determine whether you should retain your plate or ask for a new one. In any case, never scrape and stack your plates when you're finished.
If people invite you to join their table as you leave the buffet line, either accept graciously or find a way to decline just as graciously. For instance, you could say, “I'm sorry, but I promised Tom and his family that I'd eat with them.” Even though people at your table will be sitting down to eat at different times, it's still a good idea to generally keep pace with others at the table and engage them in conversation. If you need to leave the table temporarily, be sure to place your napkin on the seat or arm of your chair.
If you're eating while standing up, it's even more important to avoid overloading your plate. That way you can circulate a bit. Indeed, one of the few—maybe the only—advantages of a stand-up buffet is that you can drift around and chat with a lot of people. For example, food at cocktail parties is often consumed while standing.
When you settle on a place to stand, make sure you are not blocking a path to the buffet table or anything else.