The Downside to Family-Style Serving We Hadn't Thought Of

July 14, 2016

The first wedding I attended where the dinner was served family-style was in January 2010. Big bowls of vegetables and small plates of meats were passed around between friends, the whole experience feeling quite like a cozy dinner party save for the fact that we were decked out in tuxes and gowns. There's human interaction baked into eating family-style: You pass to or serve your neighbor, whether you've known them your whole life or just for ten minutes. It's chatty. Relaxed.

Thankfully, the trend caught momentum and I, for one, have loved seeing it opted for more often, especially at weddings. So when I was talking to the event designer Ron Wendt, who was telling me all the who-knew's of fancy wedding design, I was surprised to hear that he felt reluctant to agree.

We'd been talking about tabletop design—he thinks using silver is a little "too much" for a wedding in the Hamptons, and that glass containers are "so right" for summer—when I asked about the trend towards serving food family-style. The pause that followed sounded quite a lot like it accompanied a frown. "There’s something inelegant about seeing a bowl with partially-served food inside it," is how Ron carefully phrased his thoughts on the matter, going on to explain that you also need to leave big blank spaces throughout a tablescape for the platters to be placed—a real bummer for designers, brides, and grooms who are prone to feeling that more decoration is, well, more.

And if you are looking for your wedding to be a very zipped-up, fancy-pants, or otherwise high-design affair, you'll probably agree: Half-eaten platters of salad and salmon are neither cute nor appetizing. They will not photograph well. And by factoring them out of the overall table design, you'll gain back real estate for more flowers and candles and family silver. (You'll also want to un-invite me to your wedding, if such untidiness displeases you, because I can't eat a meal without leaving a disaster zone of crumbs and spills and creases in my wake.)

But if happy chatter and the idea of easy-access second helpings matter more to you than tightly wound decor, the downsides of opting for family style are few. (Or if mingling is the primary aim, as it is at many events we throw in our office, an out-of-the-way buffet makes its own case.) It's all about how buttoned up or undone you want the evening to feel. Plus, as it turns out, your wedding decisions are yours to make).

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“In China, everyone ALWAYS eats "family style", but with NO SERVING UTENSILS, other than a large spoon for the soup. I have even been to grand dinners where someone will eat from the family soup bowl WITH THEIR OWN SPOON.”
— Lance

Family-style, buffet, or table service: Which is your favorite? Tell us in the comments.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


Lance July 22, 2019
In China, everyone ALWAYS eats "family style", but with NO SERVING UTENSILS, other than a large spoon for the soup. I have even been to grand dinners where someone will eat from the family soup bowl WITH THEIR OWN SPOON.
Lance July 22, 2019
You are excessive to call a bowl of food "half-eaten". It is merely half-served. Also, the situation has a lot to do with how you react to family-style. With four people at the same table in a restaurant, I find it acceptable, other than the fact that most folks prefer to choose their own food. If family style ever were initiated on an airplane flight, I'm sure almost no one would accept it.
Cathryn Z. July 14, 2016
A large party of somewhat unfamiliar people Family Style allows cordial interaction. Smaller parties 8-10 I think requires serving (unless they are, or nearly are family). However recently I hired a caterer to execute a traditional lobster party and opted for treaditional family style. They came with one huge casserole of gratin for 16 people as if 16 people could reach for the same gratin. Other things were missed too but it made me rethink the family style for the meal. I had thought since lobster can be messy and single focus that family style allowed guests to taste at their desire. Wrong...or maybe wrong caterer.
AntoniaJames July 14, 2016
There is something so fundamentally satisfying about sharing food, which is what happens, unwittingly perhaps, when people at a table pass serving bowls and plates to one another. The guests are more involved with what's being served, they get to see it better, and yes, they call it family style for a reason - you feel like you're with family when you're passing plates. Doesn't that trump whether a table could be more beautiful because more flowers could be placed on them? I'll take what sharing food does to a group of people any day over precious "tablescapes" or "elegance." I'm probably one of the most formal, button-ed up members here when it comes to tradition and taste, but seriously , if people are having a less than perfect experience because there is a serving dish that proves that food is being enjoyed, or if it really matters that what's happening at dinner doesn't photograph well, well, what does that say about your party? ;o)
P.S. If half-served dishes don't photograph well, then take your photographs, if you will, before putting the food on the table! If the serving dishes on the table create that much havoc for your photographers, well, maybe you need more talented (or perhaps intelligent) photographers. They can move the darn serving dishes if they absolutely must, focus on the people and not worry about "tablescapes." Are they moving the plates in front of the guests because those plates aren't elegant? Am I the only one who finds all this fussiness / fears just a bit over the top?
caninechef July 14, 2016
Please refer to this article by Sarah Jampel from 7/12...I'm Tired of Being Told to Be the Best Possible Cook. Plates messing up the tablescape falls into the same category to me.
AntoniaJames July 14, 2016
Don't get me started on the business models of consultants of this ilk (and what this discussion reveals about their clients). ;o)
Lance July 22, 2019
I'll have to look up tablescape.