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Family-Style Plating

The joyful scene is reenacted countless times in movies, TV shows and magazines. The extended Italian family sits around a country table under a shady grape arbor. As abundant bowlfuls of pasta, salad and other dishes are passed around, young and old alike eat, laugh and make memories.

It's easy to create a welcoming table like this. Here's everything you need to know to pull it all together.

What Is Family-Style?

Family-style is a casual way to serve and share a meal. All the food is contained in big bowls or platters set in the center of the table. Each diner takes a portion of a dish and then passes it to the person on their right.

Why Serve Family-Style?

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  • The visual abundance of foods in a grouping is visually irresistible. Everyone will want to gather around the table.
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  • It's less labor intensive for the host, who actually gets to sit down and eat when everyone else does.
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  • It allows diners the freedom to choose as much or as little of each dish as they want.
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  • Youngsters can be included, as the setting makes it easy for parents to help serve them.

When to Serve Family-Style

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  • When the occasion is more kicked-back than dressed-up. Think: your best friend's birthday as opposed to inviting your boss for dinner.

How to Serve Family-Style

Advance planning is the key. Take into account the menu, the guest list and the mood/style you want to create.
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  • Select sides that require little, if any, last-minute hands-on attention. These include salads, vegetable trays and bread or rolls with olive oil dip.
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  • Leave the delicate china in the cabinet. Chunkier pieces of colorful stoneware set a more laidback tone. Serve the food in oven-to-table stoneware or enameled cast-iron cooking pots that are pretty enough for guests.
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  • Have a rehearsal. Mentally block off the area in the center of the table that will be available after dinner plates, flatware and glasses are in place. Select the appropriate number of serving dishes for the menu and set them in the space. Do they all fit comfortably? If not, reconsider the amount of food you're serving or combine two or three courses on one platter and replenish as needed from the kitchen.
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  • Consider the weight of the platter with the food. If a laden platter can't be comfortably balanced in one hand, make sure there's space to the left of each place setting to rest it so diners can serve themselves.
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  • Is your dining table made of fine wood? If it needs protection from heat or moisture, make sure to have pads, a tablecloth, place mats, trivets or heating trays. Or, consider investing in a Lazy Susan, which makes passing the bowls around easy because they don't need to be lifted.
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  • Set out the serving implements for each dish before the food is cooked so you're not searching for them at the last minute.

Think Big for Garnishing

Platters heaped with lots of food call for accents that match in scale. A dusting of paprika may enliven a chicken breast, but won’t have much impact on a mound of baked chicken.
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  • Scatter quickly blanched frozen baby peas or lightly sautéed red pepper chunks atop a meat or poultry stew.
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  • Often combining two courses on one platter works artistically. Mound pieces of baked chicken in the center and surround it with a medley of colorful root veggies, rice or mashed potatoes.

Above all, the main ingredient in family-style serving is a relaxed chef. So with a little prep, you can sit down at the table with your family and friends and enjoy the meal together.