One of our favorite ways to feed our guests is through a food bar. A food bar is a lot like a buffet where you offer ingredients and toppings and the guests choose their own combination to build their perfect dish. There is a reason why guests enjoy this method: they get to customize their dish to their own preferences and dietary needs*. Because of this, food bars are a crowd pleaser AND a fun, creative activity.
*It helps to know your guests and what their dietary requirements are, but, even if you don’t, you can still plan for it. The most common requests we’ve received are for vegetarian, low-calorie, carb-free, peanut-free, and / or glucose-free. A lot of times some of the options can do double-duty, which helps keep your costs down; for instance, vegetarian options usually are low-calorie and carb-free has a lot of foods in common with glucose-free.
Planning for a Great Bar
Food bars are like any other part of your party: you can be elaborate and spend a lot of money or you can be frugal and still impress your guests. In either case it is a good idea to create a budget and stick to it. Also make sure you price out all of the items you need so there are no needlessly overpriced or unexpected expenses.
- Setting: You will need a table, a countertop, or an accessible flat surface to display your food bar. Something long and narrow works well so your guests can walk down the line and serve themselves more efficiently, just like they would at a buffet restaurant. It provides a good flow and keeps people moving.
- Dishes: It’s best to start the food bar line with your plates / bowls / etc. Make sure your dishes aren’t just good-looking or thematic; they’re also functional. For instance, if your food bar involves a hot food like baked potatoes, chili, or hot chocolate, you will want dishes that can hold up to the heat without wilting OR burning your guests’ hands. If you aren’t sure, do a trial run on a smaller scale beforehand.
- Serving Sets: Does your food need to be kept hot? Cold? Is it dry or liquid? Knowing your food will help you decide in what dish to serve it. You will also want a serving utensil – spoon, fork, ladle, tongs, etc. – for each dish. Otherwise using the same utensil for different dishes can cross-contaminate (“Why is their cheese in the sour cream?”) and slow down your line while people wait their turn. Keep it quick and clean with a 1:1 ratio for serving dish and serving utensil.
- Food Layers: Most food items that do best served as bars and are ones that have layers, i.e. a base + toppings. Below are some ideas for different foods that work well for this. When putting your food out, start with your food base at the beginning of the line and then follow with the food toppings. Doing it in this order allows guests to build their dish from the bottom up.
- Utensils: Now that your guests have their dish finished, the last item in line should be their utensils and napkins. This way they can put the utensils in their dish and napkins in their pockets. The end of the line also makes it easy for guests to go back if they need more napkins.
Food Bar Ideas
Now that you know what you need, it’s time to plan your dish! Our featured image is a yogurt bar for a child’s princess birthday party (we used disposable, plastic champagne glasses for their wide opening and glamorous feel), but you really can go crazy and theme it to your event. Keep it fun and your guests will be talking about it for a long time to come.
TIP: If it applies to your dish, try to offer a variety of toppings for a variety of tastes. In the yogurt bar we offered both salty (pretzels, nuts, cereal, and granola) as well as sweet (fruit, chocolate chips, honey, and sprinkles) toppings. Our guests enjoyed trying different combinations. We even had different bases by offering plain or vanilla yogurt, as well as light versions of each for the calorie-conscious adults. It was a hit!
- Baked Potatoes
- Chili / Soup
- Coffee / Hot Chocolate / Tea
- Grilled Cheese
- Hot Dogs
- Candy Mix
- Trail Mix / GORP
- Fruit Juice / Smoothies
- Ice Cream Sundaes
- Yogurt Parfaits
See also What is a Favor Bar?