How to Serve an Elegant Family-style Dinner

Family-style dining is enjoying a renaissance, and caterer Nicky Major offers advice on how to keep a communal meal sumptuous and sophisticated

Williams-Sonoma’s yellow Scallop earthenware is perfect for a family-style dinner

Communal dining and family-style dinners are surging in popularity for dinner parties. But there’s an art to sharing food around the dinner table

To some people, family-style dining means big homestead dinners at a communal table where platters of food are passed around. To others, this type of group gathering has become a fashionable way to host dinner parties and cultivate friendly rapport (even fine dining restaurants are following suit) since food is shared rather than simply plated and served to each individual guest. 

Though it’s a quintessential part of Greek, Chinese and Italian dining, other cultures are discovering the appeal of family-style dining. While a formal meal can have a conversation-ending “I’ve got my food and you’ve got yours,” by the very virtue of sharing the same meal, guests can make an instant connection through what’s on their plate. After all, as that old chestnut goes, food brings people together.

How to Present an Elegant Family-style Meal

The challenge with this eating style, though, is presentation. The bounty of food served can get unwieldy and become a collective free-for-all of digging into platters. How do you arrange a table for family-style dining and plan a meal that still has some level of sophistication? 

Nicky Major, owner of Major the Gourmet Catering and Special Events, admits that the downside to family-style dining is that food inevitably looks messy after a few servings. She remedies the presentation dilemma by opting for elegant one-pot meals such as beef bourguignon or French country slow-cooked chicken with vegetables (and perhaps a salad plated on the side). 

Major also suggests choosing a cultural theme to bring some order to the table without quashing the convivial atmosphere. A Chinese feast can be served on a lazy Susan; an Italian dinner can be served in three courses on platters; and an Indian meal may have a trio of curries passed around with one large bowl of rice. 

Organizing the Tableware and Timing

When serving, consider timing. For example, bouillabaisse can feature types of pre-grilled fish grouped on a platter that is first passed around to fill small bowls; then broth is ladled from a large bowl into the smaller ones to cover the fish. Major says to keep the presentation and table setting simple. You won’t often have room for extra plates and flatware associated with formal dining, but a selection of condiments should be on the table. 

The number of serving dishes depends on the number of guests and table size. On a long table, you may divide the same type of food into two plates to reduce the mass on one platter and allow two people to serve themselves simultaneously. 

Monelle Totah, VP of product development for Williams-Sonoma, says chargers are a nice touch to keep family-style dining special. “I was told that a guest should never have an empty spot in front of them,” she says. Napkin rings take up little space and mixing woven materials in napkins and linen can combine informal and formal styles. 

Totah also suggests mixing and matching dinnerware: combine solids with patterns to give a fresh pop of colour; mingle old with new; and mix formal and casual pieces such as crystal with earthenware, which makes a formal dining room feel relaxed. Williams-Sonoma’s white Le Vigne or yellow Scallop earthenware comes in solid colours for everyday appeal but features gracious 18th-century European-inspired fluted and scalloped borders. 

Don’t be afraid to use your best pieces: pair a fine linen tablecloth with casual French porcelain, or silver flatware and striped napkins. Just remember that taking helpings while caught in conversation is part of the experience, so make sure your linens are washable.

Platters become a tabletop focal point, so it’s best that they don’t match, says Totah. It’s preferable to mix large serving platters and bowls featuring colourful images and borders with white or solid coloured pieces.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.