I love a buffet. When I arrive at a wedding reception and see that dinner is being served buffet-style, I feel instantly giddy. I know that I can slip off during the first dance and serve myself an extra helping of garlic mashed potatoes or braised short ribs, and no one will be able to judge me. At a restaurant, buffets offer the fun challenge of eating enough to really get my money's worth, while also allowing me to curate plate after plate with endless combinations. Then there's Thanksgiving. Here, a buffet may symbolize sharing the bounty of the season, but more specifically, they allow me to avoid the cranberry sauce and ambrosia without questions from whichever family member was responsible for making those particular dishes. In 2020, though, the concept of a buffet introduces a different feeling. I'm not giddy thinking about them. Instead, I'm queasy.
Coronavirus has made us hyper-aware of germs. We may no longer be Cloroxing every Amazon package or grocery item before putting them away, but even the knowledge that the virus is less likely to be spread through objects doesn't change the fact that buffets — once a Thanksgiving staple — feel the opposite of on-trend this year. But it turns out, whether or not buffets are still a safe option for holiday gatherings may be a moot point, since gatherings themselves are dangerous.
"The issue is more, what's the size of the celebration you're having and is it indoor or outdoor? I think that the idea of a buffet for a large group of people from outside your family circle is not advised because of this fundamental guideline that if you are dining inside, it should be kept to who's in your pod, your family," says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. Because buffets are an efficient way to serve a large group — thus why they're often a popular choice for events like weddings and holiday parties — you may think they're not worth messing with for the more advisable immediate family and pod gatherings that will hopefully be the norm in 2020. Efficiency, however, isn't the only reason to choose buffet-style.
"We have been huge fans of the buffet for a long time," shares Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and co-president of The Emily Post Institute. "Buffets are a fabulous way to allow people to take what they like or to portion for themselves so they don't feel like either they didn't get enough or they've been served too much and are wasting food. They are a comfort zone for many American families, especially around the holidays."
Even though I'll be dining with a much smaller group this Thanksgiving, I still want to double-up on helpings of cheesy mashed potatoes and avoid the ambrosia, but how can I also avoid the queasiness that comes with worrying if a buffet is safe in the age of COVID-19? According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence that people can contract the virus through eating or handling food, but it may be possible to get it through touching a surface or object, such as a food package or dining ware that has the virus on it then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. While this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, it's still a potential concern for those who will be dining together in small groups this holiday season, especially if a buffet with shared platters and utensils is involved. Feist says there are some ways to reduce these risks.
"One method for serving buffet-style within your own family would be to have everybody have their own serving spoon for a dish. This eliminates the need to share serveware," she explains. The same solution could be applied to kitchen towels or other serving elements that, in other years, may have been shared. "It might be a really good year to simplify your meal and only stick to the simpler basics so that one, you're not exposed to so many trips to the grocery store and two, you make the whole process of preparing the meal and serving it simpler," Feist adds.
The Partnership of Food Safety Education has a lot of advice that it emphasizes every year around Thanksgiving. For example, handwashing is always extremely important when gathering together and sharing food. "Another tip that I always like to give around Thanksgiving is to limit the number of cooks in the kitchen," the executive director says. "For some people, the Thanksgiving meal is a big production relative to their day to day meals — not all families, but many. The more different hands and cooks you have involved, the more risk. That's true not just during COVID."
Due to the nature of buffets, food may be sitting out in the open for extended periods, thus increasing the potential for foodborne illness. Because of all the talk of germs we've done over the course of the past eight or so months (and because none of us wants to deal with a case of food poisoning on top of everything else that's been lobbed our way in 2020), you may want to take extra precautions with your buffet this year. "You have about two hours for perishables in a home setting. Food should not be left out for more than two hours," says Feist. "You should also keep hot food hot. It should retain a temperature of 145 degrees or above. That's where the risk with using chafing dishes comes in. Someone might think because they have a chafing dish warming the food, they're in the clear, but if it's actually being held at a temperature of 120 degrees, they're creating more risk because it's nice and warm but not warm enough."
In addition to regularly checking the temperature of the hot dishes on your buffet, chafing dish or not, you should pay attention to the chilled foods. For these, Feist recommends preparing two or more smaller serving bowls of the chilled dish instead of one large one. This allows you to have one out at a time and backups in the fridge. After about an hour, you can swap in a fresh, chilled one for the one that's been sitting out.
If all that sounds like a lot to keep up with in order to make sure your buffet is safe, there are alternatives. One may be to go to a restaurant this Thanksgiving. Seeing as many of us have not eaten out at all since March, this may not seem like a safe option at all, but Larry Lynch, vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association begs to differ. "I think what's interesting right now is public health officials are actually pointing to much more of a spread taking place in social gatherings in people's homes," he says. "People are tired of this, they want to get together, and I hate to say it, but Thanksgiving is probably a great example of that, where people will let their guard down." Because restaurant workers are already used to following food safety protocols, like having employees regularly wash their hands and keeping dishes at the right temperature, and most restaurants are strictly enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols like social distancing, small party sizes, proper ventilation, and mask-wearing, Lynch argues they may actually be less risky than hosting Thanksgiving at home.
The National Restaurant Association has also been working with restaurants that offer buffet service to adapt them for the COVID-19 era. "I don't know if we're going to see the end of buffets, but I do think it's definitely gonna be a struggle as long as we're in the pandemic," the VP shares. "One of the things that we have advised and continue to advise for people who are in the buffet business is to shift to a more cafeteria-style buffet service. Distance the customers in line and have a staff person who is wearing proper protective gear like gloves, a mask, and so forth actually putting the food on the plates." This solution means that only one person is handling the utensils, which has the same outcome of Feist's personal serving spoon tip.
Giving control over the various meal safety protocols to a restaurant may be appealing to some because the workers are well-trained and highly regulated, but it might be more stressful for others because you'll be exposed to other customers who might not follow the guidelines in place. Lynch acknowledges that it does come down to compliance. The decision on whether you feel safer eating at a restaurant buffet or a home buffet will likely be based on your level of comfort and where you are. "It's such a mixed bag because there are so many different levels of openings around the country and descriptions of what restaurants can and can't do," he says. "I think people get social distancing. Where they were struggling was with face coverings, but we are seeing a higher adoption level on that. ServSafe, our training brand, developed a course specific to reducing conflicts in a restaurant should someone need to talk with a customer who is arguing about face-coverings." Perhaps you feel more comfortable having a trained professional explain to your father-in-law that he must wear a mask while in line at the buffet so that you don't have to. Of course, outsourcing that conflict may be an ethical line you're not willing to cross. If it is, please make sure to tip handsomely for the extra trouble.
If you simply can't take on the extra stress of a safe buffet inside or outside of your home this holiday season, ditch it. "A good alternative if the buffet is out this year is having a central place where people's plates are filled and handed out or placed," Feist recommends.
Though etiquette experts are as big a fans of buffets as I am, Post agrees there are perfectly acceptable alternatives. "Hosts have options in how they want to serve food and what's going to be best based on their circumstances. If you'd like to serve a plated meal where you bring out everything plated just like a traditional restaurant does and set it down for your guests, that's a beautiful way to host," she says. "Just to be clear and consistent with the food serving method you choose."
But, if the most beloved aspect of buffets is that they allow the diner to decide exactly what and how much they want to eat, choosing to serve a meal a different way this year means we have to all agree to leave judgment at the door. Of course, the good news is, with smaller parties with our chosen pods, that might be easier than ever before.