I'm the food manager at a student cooperative residence with 140 residents. A cook crew of 5 residents cook dinner every night, and usually 60-100 people attend dinner on a given night. Right now, people line up to serve themselves from a large table that has all the dishes. This method is very slow and it can take 30 minutes for someone at the end of the line to get food.

Since we are a cooperative community, we need a method that is equitable to residents. Our current method is accessible, but not time efficient at all.

In comparison, a different house but of similar size to ours uses a "mad rush" method to serve food, which essentially results in residents forming a mob and grabbing the food until it runs out. In this method, the food is usually distributed unevenly; some residents get more popular food items, (such as meat) and some get very little or none of the popular items at all. This method privileges members that are physically stronger and bigger and is very obviously not accessible to residents with physical disabilities or residents that are claustrophobic/have social anxieties. Their method is very time efficient though, with food being served in under 5 minutes.

I am looking for any ideas (no matter how novel) on how to serve food to the house, as long as it is accessible, equitable (all residents get a fair share) and time efficient.

Edit: To clarify, we usually have ~4 dishes per meal and served in steel insert pans (or if it is a soup, straight out of a pot). Meals consist of at least one starch item, one vegan protein, and one vegetable dish. Meals may additionally have a meat dish, a soup, a dessert or additional starch/vegetarian dishes.

  • Could you please describe what kind of dishes / combination thereof you typically serve? And welcome to Seasoned Advice! Let me encourage you to take the tour and visit our help center to get good introduction to how this site works.
    – Stephie
    Jan 2, 2016 at 21:38
  • I'm confused how your method ends up equitable - surely you'd have the same problem with popular things running out before people at the end of the line get any?
    – Cascabel
    Jan 2, 2016 at 21:48
  • @Jefromi if the line is extremely long, people at the end may not get the popular items. However, in the "mad rush" method people end up taking unfair servings (serving sizes that are pretty big) versus in the line, since people are serving themselves in a slow and orderly fashion, they are more likely to self-regulate in portion sizes so the popular items end up being served to more people. also the mad rush method promotes a "fend for yourself" attitude that causes people to not really care about equitable portions.
    – Meow Meow
    Jan 3, 2016 at 2:40
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    @Stephie Thanks for the welcome! Meals usually consist of 4-5 dishes-- at least 1 carbohydrate/starch dish, 1 vegan protein, 1 vegetarian dish (usually a salad). In addition, there may be a meat dish, a soup, or a dessert.
    – Meow Meow
    Jan 3, 2016 at 2:45
  • Status quo looks like the classic "3 quality attributes... you can have any 2" dilemma. I agree with comments below that talk about a wait staff and family style serving. Maybe have wait staff keep the family bowls full.
    – Paulb
    Jan 6, 2016 at 18:42

6 Answers 6


Seems like a good use for "family style". Bring platters or bowls of each dish to each table. Then at that table expect decent behaviour such as passing the platters around so everyone gets some. It shouldn't take long to fill and distribute bowls or plates of things. Carving meat into slices might take a while but would have to be done even if people were lining up to get their individual portions.

If some people weren't good sharers you could use assigned seating and put the non sharers at a table that gets its platters last.


As Kate said, "family style" seems ideally suited to this situation. The problem with "family style", though, is that you need a lot of serving dishes. If you have 8-person tables (which tends to be the standard), for ~100 people you need at least 12 tables. Multiply by 4 dishes per meal, and you're at almost 50 serving dishes (and the same number of serving spoons), which all need to be acquired, filled, distributed, and then washed.

If you don't have the resources to accomplish that, the other option is to scale it back a bit: have multiple serving stations, just not quite that many serving stations. Even just utilizing both sides of the serving table (either with identical but separate dishes and spoons on each side, or just orienting the larger hotel pans crosswise and putting spoons at either end) should cut your serving time almost in half. Oddly enough, the biggest problem with this is training people to actually use both sides of the table, especially if they've been used to the one-sided method.

If you add another serving table, again using both sides, you will have theoretically cut your serving time down to 7 or 8 minutes - not quite a 5-minute free-for-all, but way more equitable. "Two tables, both sides" can be achieved with 8 hotel pans and 16 serving spoons, which ought to be well within your resources. The drawback is that you now need to have two queues, and you can end up with one table running out before the other one does, and other such "messiness".

One trick that can be used no matter how many serving stations you have is to not put all the food out right at the beginning. Instead, periodically replenish the serving dishes as they start running low. People are less likely to take more than their share if doing so makes a noticeable dent in the amount left in the pan. This way, even people at the end of the line will have a chance at the desirable items, and there may even be food left for second helpings.

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    Also worth mentioning for buffets is that the order of stuff can affect the speed of the lines : plates, food, condiments, utensils & napkins, drinks. Too many people put utensils first, so people are fumbling with them while they're trying to serve their food. And until they get their food, they don't know what utensils they're even going to need. And if you can, move drinks (and possibly condiments) elsewhere, so one slow person doesn't hold up the rest of the line.
    – Joe
    Feb 3, 2016 at 22:37
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    Oh ... and I always try to put the food for vegans or other restricted diets after the other food ... as people are more likely to take stuff from the first dish, no matter what it is. (which might make the vegan dish run out before the actual vegans get to it).
    – Joe
    Feb 3, 2016 at 22:39

two ideas come to mind.

  1. I dont know how many dishes get prepared, but if it's a limited selection, perhaps you can have someone prepare plates and people just have to come up and pick up a plate rather than standing there and picking up individual items.

  2. can you create a 2nd serving area? If you can have two tables where people help themselves instead of one, should cut the time in half.


Since it is a cooperative, could you devise a plan for a rotating cooking/plating/waitstaff?

  • Would discussing what you want (no beans, please!) be faster than self-service? And plating without "customer input" may lead to more food waste.
    – Stephie
    Jan 2, 2016 at 21:41
  • The waitstaff would not take orders, but simply bring plated food to the table. A basic menu could be devised, and a process of "ordering" ahead of time for people with dietary restrictions, could help. Could be accomplished online, even.
    – moscafj
    Jan 2, 2016 at 21:52

Unless the "more popular" items are all more expensive to make, why not make sure that roughly the right amount of each dish is prepared in the first place, taking popularity into account? If "food runs out", take note and prepare more next time, if there are significant leftovers, prepare less of that item next time... "Fair share" sounds elusive with perishable food since what people want is the amount of each preparation they want to eat that day. A "fair share" distribution would be more applicable if you gave them universally useful materials or money...


The more I think about it... wait staff is your answer.

Example: West Point Military Academy feeds 4,000 in one sitting. They do it with wait staff.

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