If you want the food at your holiday party or corporate event to be opulent and impressive—but still inviting—a grazing table just might be the answer to your culinary conundrum.
And as a bonus, you probably won’t even have to cook.
This hot trend in entertaining isn’t exactly new. In medieval times, palace feasts often featured tables piled high with layers of food for guests to sample at their leisure. These days, grazing tables are more likely to feature local cheeses than, say, roasted peacock. But a year or two ago, a modern take on the grazing table began to take hold in Australia and New Zealand. Now it’s taking the U.S. by storm.
What, exactly, is a grazing table?
Typically, it’s a table (although it can also be a platter, a counter, a board, or any large, flat surface) with lots of visually appealing and accessible food. Most items aren’t contained within bowls or baskets but are instead arranged in piles that lavishly spill into each other. It’s artfully disheveled. Decadent, but relaxed. It’s a really flexible concept that can work for a wide variety of events, numbers of guests, locations, themes, and budgets. In a work setting, for instance, a grazing table is a great way to incorporate office snacks you already have on hand without the need to bring in or buy a ton of serveware and utensils.
And if all that isn’t enough, one of the best aspects of a grazing table is the low maintenance set up, which allows the host to spend time with their guests. After all, parties are much more fun to throw when you actually get to join them. Interested in giving a grazing table a go? Here’s how to build your own for your next office party or gathering at home.
Planning for Your Party
The first decision to make is the shape and size of the table. Will it be large enough to hold everything you want to include? According to New Zealand caterer Sarah Jones, who was at the forefront of this trend, you can expect a table that’s one square meter (which is about three feet by three feet) to fully feed around 15 people and allow around 30 to graze. However, you can use layers to fit more food or add decorative elements to take up more surface area if the table you have is too large.
And don’t forget about location. Your grazing table should be situated in a way that makes it easy for multiple guests to access it at once, encouraging mingling while snacking. But you don’t want it to be in the way of traffic (or dancing!). If you’ll have small children or pets at the party, you might also want to use an elevated surface to keep snacks away from little hands and curious noses.
Now, onto the food!
With a grazing table, you don’t want to choose food only for its tastiness, although, that’s an important factor. You should also think about the aesthetics. Brightly colored fruit and veggies, breads and crackers with different textures and shapes, meat slices that can be folded artfully, and vibrant dips and sauces all add to the visual appeal of the table.
Be sure to pick up a variety of each type of food. For instance, when it comes to cheese, consider a soft Brie, a hard and nutty Manchego, and a sharp Cheddar—and then think about what would pair well with each type. This planning isn’t just for your shopping list, but also for your layout because you will want to make it easy for your guests to distinguish which cracker and spread complements the cheese they just sliced.
And remember, this can be whatever you want it to be, so although the cheese, charcuterie, and crudités route is a common one, you can branch out in any way you’d like. Make big, brightly hued exotic fruits the main feature, layer your table with cakes and candies, or pick a sampling of easy-to-eat snacks from your favorite tapas restaurant. Living a healthy life? You can keep it vegan, paleo, or sugar-free, no problem. As long as you fill the space with food your guests can easily enjoy, the sky is the limit.
Creating Your Grazing Table
While it may look haphazard, a well-curated grazing table is anything but. It’s vital that you leave yourself plenty of time for the set-up process alone. Rushing to add the finishing touches as your guests arrive is no way to enhance that effortlessly chic atmosphere that a grazing table provides.
Step 1: Write out a list of all the foods you want to put out
You’d be surprised at how easy it is to forget what you’ve purchased until the party is over. A list will help you in step two. Consider whether you’ll be buying and preparing each item, or if you’ll go the corporate catering route instead.
Step 2: Plot your table
Time to decide what platters and other surfaces to put your food on. In keeping with the casually decadent feel, leave your linen tablecloth in the closet and, instead, stick with the surface of a nice, clean table, or cover it with kraft or butcher-block paper.
You can use baskets and cutting boards to organize more unruly foods, and of course, you’ll need bowls for dips or spreads. Adding a big, beautiful bowl of punch is a great way to take up space and add a pop of color, and now is the time to decide where any larger containers will go. That said, resist the urge to separate everything too precisely. You’re going for organized chaos, so just this once go ahead and let the grapes mingle with the prosciutto.
If you opt to decorate with non-food items, this is also a good opportunity to set out larger embellishments. Get creative with greenery and flowers, fresh herbs, whole fruits and veggies, unscented candles, framed art or signs, vases—anything that works with your theme and adds a bit of visual interest will increase the appeal of your grazing table.
Step 3: Use layers to create height
You can use cake stands, wine boxes, or just about anything else you have handy to add dimension to your table, but don’t use everything you have. Just a couple elements should do the trick. Place larger, more eye-catching foods—such as large cheese wheels or a pile of big brownies—on raised surfaces, and spread them out around your table. If you have large amounts of one item, such as salami slices, arrange them in two or three places around the table to break things up.
Step 4: Fill it in
Add your remaining foods to the empty spaces, making a point to separate similar items from one another. Place foods people may want to pair in close proximity (you could surround a wheel of Brie with pear slices, a crusty baguette, and a jar of fig jam, for example). The ideal grazing table will encourage people to move from one end to the other, sampling bits and bites from all areas.
Once you add your main foods, fill in the remaining spaces with handfuls of nuts, dried fruit, berries, pieces of dark chocolate, or any other small foods you’d like to sprinkle throughout. You can also scatter flowers or other decorations if you have room. Though the design is completely up to you, a traditional grazing table leaves very little bare space, so don’t be shy about adding more. Abundance is a theme that’s hard to overdo.
Step 5: Take a tour
Approach the table as if you were a guest and make sure everything is accessible (can you reach for that biscuit behind the candle without burning your hand?) and inviting. Slice a corner of each block of cheese and tear off a few chunks of the baguette to encourage guests to dig right in.
Step 6: Snap a picture before your guests dig in!
The photogenic nature of the grazing table is inversely proportional to the amount of noshing that’s been done, so ‘gram it for posterity’s sake right away.