Centerpieces & Meal Service

By Kate Riley October 6, 2011

Oh we love our tablescapes during the holidays don’t we?  I know I do.  Most of the year, you’ll find a simple bowl of fruit and some fresh flowers on our dining room table but during the holidays, like many of you, I set it with a pretty centerpiece.  Friends appreciate it, and an attractive centerpiece on a dining room table is a great way to creatively get into the spirit of the season. 

bhg fall centerpiece

Better Homes & Gardens

Beckie from Washington sent me this email with a great question about what to do with decorative centerpieces when you’re serving guests a meal:

“Hey Kate. This is one of those questions that I think a lot of people (ok me) have always wondered how to do gracefully but seem too afraid to ask. Real life just doesn’t work the way you see it in a magazine, so here goes.

You go to all the trouble and creativity to set a beautiful table for a special occasion, you set up a nice well thought out centerpiece and you bring out your best dishes and set up the place settings and your nice stemware and everything looks perfect . . . You’ve cooked your meal and now everyone is sitting at the table ready and waiting with baited breath, but wait… there is nowhere to put the food as you have filled your table with beautiful things. How do you deal with that?

Do you set up a buffet?  Remove the centerpiece? Fill each plate and serve each person like a waiter? Am I the only one who doesn’t know how to do this right? Awaiting you answer for the holiday season.  ~ Beckie”

Hey Beckie, great question! I don’t believe there is any one way to “do it right”. There are several ways to work around your table decorations during a meal, it just depends on your preferred method of serving guests.

When it comes to how to serve your meal and where to put the food, you have a few options. You can clear your centerpiece and make room for the food on the table, family style. You can set up a location for the food elsewhere such as a sideboard, and serve buffet style. Or you can choose the formality of serving your guests on a plate one by one. 

Personally, I believe in keeping holiday entertaining with a meal as simple and casual as possible. I find that’s far more welcoming approach than elaborate rituals, but that’s me. What to do with a seasonal centerpiece doesn’t have to be complicated at all with some simple planning ahead. As long as you decide how you’re going to serve the food in advance, the style of your table decor can follow your lead. 

Here are a few tips for planning your centerpiece around the meal:

1.  Keep it Simple and Low.  The easiest way to set a seasonal table for a meal is to keep your décor simple and your arrangements low. In fall, scatter some seasonal pumpkins or gourds, a few votive candles or small hurricanes, and/or some petite floral arrangements in between. These smaller items can be moved to the side to make room for plates or platters on the table when the meal is served. 

low tablescape good housekeeping

Good Housekeeping

low table centerpiece martha stewart

Martha Stewart

2.  Make A (Moveable) Statement.  If you’re in the mood to make a statement with your centerpiece, choose something large scale, or layer a collection of seasonal items.  

bhg fall leaves centerpiece

Better Homes & Gardens

cornucopia centerpiece bhg

Better Homes & Gardens

However, if you’re planning on using your table for placement of food, it’s essential that your statement centerpiece be easily movable to make room for platters, and also to allow for conversation among guests.

When guests sit down to eat, keep in mind their line of sight across the table. Any centerpiece that fills the air space between 8” and 24” above the table impedes your guests ability to see and speak to one another. These vases and branches below make a stunning centerpiece, but they will get in the way of comfortable conversation, so in my house, they’d be moved off the table during the meal.  

pumpkin tree decor

Better Homes & Gardens

A single tree branch like this one is less likely to interfere with placement of plates and guests ability to talk to one another, so it is perfectly fine left on the table. 

fall leaves and flowers bhg

Better Homes & Gardens

3.  Strategize with a Sideboard.  Whether your dining space is formal or casual, having a sideboard or buffet makes food service much easier. Platters and warming trays can keep the meal close by and allow more room for decorative displays to remain on a table. 


Southern Living

fall buffet table bhg

Better Homes & Gardens

dessert buffet table pottery barn

Pottery Barn

Don’t have a sideboard?  Use your kitchen counters or island as a buffet for your meal instead.  Even a folding table covered in a tablecloth acts as a temporary buffet when entertaining guests.


4.  Fahgetaboutit.  Preparing a meal for guests can bring its own anxiety, so who says you have to fuss about a table centerpiece at all?  Consider skipping the table entirely and choose a different location for your seasonal show. 

bucket of fall leaves bhg

Better Homes & Gardens

Layer your holiday decor in other areas of your home, whether on your mantel or on a side table, and don’t worry about additional accessorizing on the table. Choose instead some nice dishes and cloth napkins and a few candles and call it a day. 

The most important thing when serving guests a meal is the company shared. Beautiful table décor is a wonderful way to celebrate the season, but it should take a back seat to the food that is prepared and the warmth of the friends and family around the table.

I hope this answers your question Beckie!  What about all of you?  How do you decorate your table for the holidays?  Do you prefer large scale centerpieces or simple smaller seasonal touches?  What’s your best tip for transitioning table decor when the meal is served? 




  1. Great advice. I changed my tablescape for fall to three small mason jars, votives and some woven pumpkins when I was serving food. There is nothing worse then smelly candles while you are eating.

  2. I keep it low and simple on our table, and I decorate the sideboard with anything bigger and higher than can fit in the centre of the table. One of my pet peeves is a centerpiece you can’t see across.

  3. Kate! I had so much fun being apart of all the linky parties! Every other year my family would have Thanksgiving together… I have a huge family. If we all manage to get every one together there would be over 30 people at the table! My mom has always decorated the table incredibly, she would have the table set with all the dishes, soup terrines, and turkey plates prior to the dinner ever being done. Cake stands and candle holders were all set in and around the dishes, it was always a beautiful sight. Some years she would put small pumpkins or gourds on the dishes and cake stands then take them off as she was placing the food dish or pie. I just love all the ideas you have given!

  4. THanks for the tips Kate and such beautiful tablescapes. And good question Becky. I have the same concerns too, especially during the holidays. This year I have my centerpiece on a silver tray and simply picked it up and moved it to the side board when we ate dinner with friends last weekend. We usually buffet off the kitchen counter no matter what the centerpiece is, but my favorite way to share a meal with family and friends is “family style”. Nothing says home to me like passing your plate around your table for scoop of this and that.

  5. I usually serve it buffet style, which also covers another need: how to serve people at multiple tables. Like most people, I have an average-size dining room. This means some will sit there, and others (usually the kids) will sit in an adjoining room – nearby, but separate enough that passing bowls and platters is awkward. When I do serve at the table for smaller groups, I keep the centerpiece from taking over the whole space, so there’s room for food. Also, using cake stands and other means of elevation, you can lift decor over the food or vice versa, nearly doubling your space – just watch the overall height.

  6. Kate, I always know that my daily stop to your blog will be fabulous! I have used so many tutorials of yours and your advice is always spot on. I have another question about holiday hosting. This Thanksgiving we will be hosting my Husbands entire family (and some of mine) for the first time. We have lived in New York and Taiwan most of our married life and finally live close enough to host with everyone now in Florida. We will have about 22 people (which includes 10 children). I plan on setting up multiple tables in the dining room, kitchen, family room, etc. Any ideas on how to navigate multiple tables? I plan on serving buffet style from the kitchen island and sideboard. Thanks so much for your time and many blessings to your sweet family. I appreciate all of your advice and the daily read of course!

    • Hello Sheleah! Great question, one faced by many, including my own family when we’re all together. With ten kids, consider setting up one or two tables for them in a separate but adjacent space and make their table fun. You could layer it with art or butcher paper and supply markers for doodling during the meal to keep them occupied. Feed and seat the kids first, then have the remaining 12 adults gather at one large or two smaller tables set side by side. In the past, we’ve actually rented long folding or round tables covered also with a basic rentend linen from a party rental service to have room for everyone. Enjoy your Thanksgiving with your large family, good times!!

  7. Wow, what a great post! I’ve worried about this too, and I’m SO glad you wrote about it! I love the idea of making up a buffet, but turning it into its own seasonal statement too, like in a couple of the pictures you included. The idea of putting a “centerpiece” in another place in the room/house is a great one too, then I don’t have to worry about it getting knocked over or upset somehow in the shuffle during the meal. Thanks so much for the tips!

  8. These are really great ideas. I went with old jars filled with beans and branches from the yard. But I totally agree with keeping it low so conversation can flow!

  9. Thanks to everyone for a ll the terrific answers and inspiration for this topic!! I usually do the buffet thing as well as it just seems easier, glad to know I am not alone in this.
    This post in fact, sent me out to the garden to rescue the last of my blooming flowers, hydrangeas and autumn joy, they look terrific together and I set them in three small terra cotta pots with gingham ribbon and set them on a runner. they are adorable!!
    Thanks again

  10. hey! LOVE all your ideas for fall decorating – going to get on it this weekend at my house! but i was wondering if you had suggestions for plants/sticks/leaves that are pet safe? (be it non-toxic or protected in a safe way.) my cats can’t leave anything alone….


  11. I think Beckie asked a great question, I’ve wondered about it myself, as my table is not big enough to keep everything on it at once. I was at a wedding recently and while the centerpieces were beautiful, we had to peer at each other through the branches!

  12. Hi Kate!
    These are wonderful ideas, I especially love the small pumpkins with the votives! This is such a cute idea and it looks so easy. In South Carolina we have pumpkins growing everywhere so this will be an easy and fun project!
    Take care, and sweet blessings!

  13. Great Ideas! I was wondering if you could do a post later for christmas centerpieces? I would love to see your ideas on how to decorate the table for christmas because I’m hosting this year. Thanks Kate I love your blog!

  14. Kate what great tips and great inspiration pictures as well. Gorgeous!!! For Fall or Christmas in our house, I only decorate down the center of the table and I keep it low. All of our food is buffet style and that is served on our large island in our kitchen. We have a great room, so the dining room table is right next to the island. It works for our family. They take what they want when they want it and no one has to find a place to put a dish down or ask others to pass something. Just the way I grew up. But really all the tips were great ways to handle things for the holidays. Thank again Kate. :)

  15. Great tips! Large centerpieces always look and sound beautiful, but can really get in the way of conversation, so I always feel like they’re better left to buffets or sideboards. Then again, having been raised in the south…I’m always ready and willing to put together a buffet! (btw, the very first thing I thought when I saw the first BHG photo was ‘there’s no room for the plates!’)

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