Hostess 911

In this week's edition of What's Cooking, a reader from Lima, Ohio wanted some help with the following dilemma:

I find I am hostessing parties that feature "buffet spreads" about six times a year. These are casual parties ... book clubs, Bunco groups, football games. However, while they are casual, I feel my serving ware isn't making the grade. I use a lot of mismatched platters, serving dishes, etc. While I don't care for "matchy matchy" items, I do like an overall feel of cohesiveness.

I like pottery mixed with stoneware mixed with different tiered racks for height, etc. I'm ready to start upgrading. While I don't think these parties warrant silver and chaffing dishes, I do feel they need a classier feel.

How would you suggest I start my collection? Do I start with a color scheme? A variety of shapes/sizes? If you advise that I just "buy what I like" I'd respond by saying that is how I got here... with my hodge-podged effect. I need a plan!

As a veteran of the garage sale dishware club, I had difficulty answering this question, as I too could benefit from some help in this department. Over the past few years, I have upgraded to Crate & Barrel Outlet in Alexandria, Va., where I've found not just plates but serving dishes, pasta bowls and platters.

My preference for mix-and-match pieces stems from my artistic, antique-collecting mother, whose multi-colored dreamcoat sensibilities (there was a pink piano in the dining room) are forever ingrained in my housekeeping DNA (I too find myself getting on all fours to wash the kitchen floor, just like she did when we were kids).

When it comes to a color scheme, I take a more holistic approach -- how does my motley assortment of plates mesh with the table runner or fabric I've laid on the table... or do I have a really cool platter that ties everything together. I am getting better about incorporating neutrals with brights rather than a crazy-patchwork quilt of dishware on the table -- so now I do look for whites and bamboo, which also are great for bridging the gap between casual and more formal gatherings.

So, I'm with you, Lima, I need a little help building an entertaining tool kit. Thank goodness several readers (and one expert) have chimed in, offering a variety of suggestions on bridging the color scheme gap.

On neutralizing brights:
A few pieces of Corning Ware French white has been a good solution for me. I incorporate it on the table with some of the colored platters and it seems to come together nicely. I try to get the colored ones on the table to be of a same color scheme. And use a nice white tablecloth as a ground. This works well for me because I cannot stop buying beautiful stoneware, pottery, etc.

Hi neighbor, I'm just down I-75. I find that on the buffet table itself, I want plain colors to show off the food. Plates and saucers can be patterned.

Color scheme or theme?
Matching the type of serving dishes is a good way to go -- do all china, or all stoneware, or all artisanal pottery -- the pieces themselves don't have to match, although it is nice to get colors that go together (like the earthy family of red, brown, grey, etc), but you don't need them all to look the same.

Janet Bennett, who oversees Home, Fashion and Beauty for, added her useful two cents: "I think it's important to have a color scheme in mind when you build a collection. Think about what colors mix well with your décor. Some variation in shape and size is good, but don't go too wild, because you'll wind up with too haphazard a look -- just what you want to avoid."

Beyond color: Shapes, sizes, height:
You ought to be able to hit the flea markets and still find decent Depression Glass pieces, which make great serving dishes for small things -- spreads, dips, butter. Square platters and plates are nice if your buffet table has limited space.

Long ago, a friend used to use glass blocks that can be found at home improvement stores to stagger heights of things -- they can be stacked, are affordable, and fit a variety of styles.

"Even though these parties may not warrant silver chafing dishes," says Janet Bennett, "a little silver (candlesticks, for example.) goes a long way to flattering any table. In lieu of a tablecloth, try a piece of coordinating fabric as a runner."

Whew. I feel better already. Lima, how about you? Let's keep the momentum going and the ideas flowing, in the comments area below. Calling all home entertainers! How do you keep your serving ware collection from looking like a patchwork quilt?

By Kim ODonnel |  February 7, 2007; 10:40 AM ET Entertaining
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I have a favorite Pfaltzgraff pattern that I use and add on to. The investment is worth it.

Posted by: MoCo | February 7, 2007 12:03 PM

I think it is always great to have a few pieces of Wilton or some other fridge to oven to table, mixed in with the stoneware, etc. They go with anything and are so useful.

Posted by: jp | February 7, 2007 12:39 PM

I use white for my basics and most of these are square stoneware. I think this style is most appropriate for informal things. I mix the whites with the pieces I have purchased on clearance in a variety of shades and patterns. I also love to pick up a piece of pottery when on vacation to use on my table.

When I set up the food I can pick a few non-matching pieces of similar shape or color and mix it with the whites to end up with a cohesive feel.

I also have some non-tarnishing silver like stuff and some glass or crystal that is a little chuncky in nature so it can mix with the whites or with my china for a more formal affair.

I can also turn some of the square white bowls upside down and place plates on top to vary the height.

I also have a variety of appetizer type plates, dishes that I inherited or were given as gifts. Most are seasonal in nature and blend well with some green depression lunch plates that I inherited and would blend with whites as well. This is the purchase I have been eyeing lately.

I have some basic restaurant white napkins and table cloths that can be dolled up with table runners or paper (clearance scrapbooking paper is a favorite)or placemats.

So I stick to neutral pieces (white, silver, glass/crystal) and compliment those with my not matchy pieces. Fortunately, since cooking and entertaining are my main hobby much of this stuff comes as gifts. And the recent kitchen remodel provided enough space to store it.

Posted by: Late to the Party | February 7, 2007 12:39 PM

so my brother's girlfriend's mom was about to throw out new or barely used silver chafing dishes and my brother knowing that i am (1) into all things cooking and (2) have a serious addiction to collecting material items (you should see how many nail polishes i have!) decided to save them from the garbage for me.

so ive read online descriptions but am still not 100% sure how to use. am i allowed to use them for food, or can they only be used under another plate? i dont have serious entertaining parties that much and they're never that fancy, so i'm hoping i can actually use them to put food on and not just to decorate another plate. he has them in NJ so i havent seen/felt them yet, nor am i sure ive taken notice to them before at some other party for ideas.


and thanks kim and kim followers! totally addicted to the chats/blog.

Posted by: new to entertaining | February 7, 2007 1:32 PM

I prefer a more eclectic approach. I am partial to clear serving dishes. They don't have to match as much as white or other colored and patterned dishes do. They clear glass unifies each piece without detracting from what I am serving. Go on Ebay, search thrift stores and Craigslist to see what's out there. From the traditional to the quirky, there's something out there for everybody. Just let your own style and taste shine through.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | February 7, 2007 1:32 PM

I do the color scheme thing. I started with some blue glass plates that my mom gave me over 10 years ago. Maybe 8 salad plates and two dinner plates. I bought a plate stand at Target and use the salad plates for that. The dinner plates are used as platters. Then I added a blue and green glass platter from an outlet store and a blue-based square platter with a large red Gerbera daisy on it. For Christmas, I have a blue tray with snowmen on it and a frosted glass one with embossed poinsettias that I received as a gift. I then have a large, nice aluminum bowl that coordinates with all so I'm set for all seasons.

Posted by: DC Girl | February 7, 2007 1:46 PM

I have collected a lot of plain white and ivory pieces -- platters, casserole dishes, serving bowls that go together. Also some very basic wine glasses. Change the color scheme with table cloths, napkins, runners, candles, flower arrangements, or extra pieces of pottery in the same color as the linens.

For spring buffets, I use pastel or bright colors. For Christmas, green and red. For fall, brown and tangerine. Using the same basic white/ivory plates, you can change the mood with the linens. I'm also a collector of Depression glass and use some of those as serving pieces that match the color scheme.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | February 7, 2007 2:08 PM

As an apartment dweller, I've had to face the reality that I will just never have the room for all the dishes I'd like to have (nor all of the dishes that I DO have). I really have to restrain myself when looking at housewares because it's almost to the point that I have to get rid of something if I want to buy something new, and whenever I do have a party it gives me an excuse to scour the shelves at Home Goods or TJ Maxx! It means I've had to avoid the urge to buy holiday pieces and that's a good thing!

I honestly don't think that people notice mismatched service pieces as long as the food looks appetizing and it's attractively garnished. There has to be some unifying theme like color, season, decor, etc. but generally the food served dictates the dish to be used so versatility is key! That all being said, I've been highly influenced by the Barefoot Contessa, who favors serving everything on white. There's no doubt that the appearance of the food is only enhanced when served on white and it can match any tablecloth, runner, napkin, etc. in any style.

Posted by: Sean | February 7, 2007 2:35 PM

Kim, when do we get a wedding update?

Posted by: DC | February 7, 2007 2:57 PM

totally not related, but I need help - baby artichokes arrived in my CSA box yesterday (YEAH YEAR-ROUND CSA!). Needless to say, I am thrilled. Still unpacking my cookbooks though, so looking for a great way to make use of these gems.


Posted by: happy for my CSA | February 7, 2007 3:01 PM

To new to entertaining:
I think what you are describing are actually called chargers. They are supposed to be used under a plate and are left on the table through multiple courses and different plates are placed on top. I personally wouldn't put food directly on them - they aren't supposed to be used as plates so they might have some materials/finishes that are not safe to eat off of. Maybe they would be okay if you put drier foods like cookies on them that wouldn't absorb anything. I do think they are kind of silly, for this very reason.

Posted by: Rosslyn | February 7, 2007 3:17 PM

to CSA person, a search for "fresh artichokes" on Epicurious yielded this:

Posted by: DC | February 7, 2007 3:29 PM

those 166 from and here are more artichoke recipes:

Posted by: DC | February 7, 2007 3:31 PM

I too am just starting out my collection. I've found that I am naturally attracted to brightly colored pieces, though no particular color scheme, so I'm just going to run with it! My fiancé and I are planning on getting some simple white/taupe china and some bright and fun oven-to-table dishes and pots to coordinate with what we already have.

I like the idea of simple neutral dishes and a mishmash of bright and colorful serving pieces (mostly solids) to go with it. I'm attracted to too many different colors to have a matching table (ala Sandra Lee). I think having pieces that 'go' rather than match is easier to maintain and work with for the long run.

Posted by: jess c | February 7, 2007 3:50 PM

From the title of this, I thought someone was having a Twinkie emergency. (I prefer the orange cupcakes myself.)

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2007 5:29 PM

Here is the thing I like most about my white stoneware. It goes in the dishwasher. My pieces, even the clearance sale stuff, says it is not dishwasher safe. I enjoy cooking and entertaining but cleaning up is not a favorite passtime so I appreciate the quick clean up of dishwasher safe.

Posted by: Late to the Party | February 7, 2007 6:24 PM

I personally feel you do not have to match.I use black cat plates from the WHITE DOG and mix them with beautiful colored plates. I top it off with a truck and horse trailer salt and pepper set.Napkins never match and I use a bedspread for the tablecloth. It looks great. Kim I know you know how to do this so do not go Miss Perfect on me.

Posted by: mary susan | February 7, 2007 6:37 PM


Mary Susan is the real "McCoy". She wouldn't hesitate to use one of their planters as a gravy boat or Pez dispensers as place card holders. Follow her lead; the focus is always on her guests, not the plates she chooses.

Posted by: Nancy Susan | February 7, 2007 10:01 PM

Ikea white. I swear it's the best think you'll ever get. Or mix it in with glass. I have a collection of $0.50 (yes, read right) plates, bowls, etc - a full service for a lot of people for very little. They've lasted 3-4 years already.

Posted by: Columbia Cook | February 8, 2007 9:15 AM

thanks for the links - I will get to looking

Posted by: CSAgrl | February 8, 2007 2:26 PM

I've become even more of a convert to white, white, white for serving. I've learned to make the food to be in brilliant colors that set the mood you want to create: festive, tropical, subdued/sophisticated, classy/lush, spicy (in look as well as taste with fire-y colors).

I let me girlfriend get some appropriate napkins for the occasion (doesn't matter to me - all about the food)

Posted by: GMo | February 8, 2007 2:32 PM

Clear glass additions to whatever you already have works well. Clear (tempered) glass plates can be used to serve or to cover bowls until serving time (thus avoiding the use of plastic wrap)
Clear glass tempered plates go into the freezer and can be used in the microwave. If you can't find flat plates, pie plate would be a good substitute.

Posted by: glass fan | February 8, 2007 5:33 PM

If the person with the chargers is still reading this, may I suggest that you combine the chargers with clear glass plates. The plates will protect the finish, while letting people admire the charger itself.

Posted by: WMA | February 9, 2007 10:53 AM

thank you for the tips

Posted by: new to entertaining | February 13, 2007 6:05 PM

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