Ordering Catering

Individually-Wrapped vs. Buffet Style - What's the Best Catering Option?


Written by Pierce Lydon • August 16, 2022

Individually-Wrapped vs. Buffet Style - What's the Best Catering Option?

The “sad desk lunch” has been a staple of the American office. It’s the concept of eating a less than extravagant, mostly unappetizing lunch alone at your desk - the same place you work.

It’s convenient, cheap and easy. The concept has inspired timelines, think pieces, a dedicated Tumblr and much more.

It’s time to end the sad desk lunch after all.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing food from home here and there, but a top-notch catered lunch delivers happiness to your office.

As an office manager, there are two choices to consider before you order: individually-wrapped or buffet style (aka family). Here’s a 10-category breakdown with the pros and cons of each style to see how they stack up.

Culture Building & Communal Sharing

Communal good vibes are a clear benefit of buffet style eating. Sharing food builds trust. Studies show it can improve our well-being - especially in work settings. Researchers point out that communal eating acts as a “social glue” for coworkers.

You’re still sharing food in an individually-wrapped eating session, but it’s not as intimate as sharing plates and bins. Many employees are likely to head back to their desk for a snazzy version of a sad desk lunch. In France, they made an actual law preventing desk lunches. For culture building, buffet style has an advantage.

Verdict: Buffet style

The Right Amount of Food

You rarely see the bottom of every pan at a buffet-style spread. There’s usually an ample amount of food, and leftovers to boot. Buffet-style meals can lead to over-ordering to accommodate different levels of hunger. Conversely, individually-wrapped meals might be too light for those with a big appetite.

While buffet-style meals deliver a lot of food, it’s not always the right mix. Sometimes the best option runs out quickly as the word of mouth spreads. In this sense, individually-wrapped meals are ideal.

Verdict: Tie

Food Temp

Do you know why aluminum keeps food warmer longer than plastic? Science! It’s not as straightforward as you might think as aluminum (and metal) is a better heat conductor, aluminum has a thermal conductivity of 205 W/(m/K), while most plastics have an average thermal conductivity of 0.02-0.05 W/(m/K).

However aluminum is less malleable with a shiny outer surface that reflects heat. Aluminum is a winner, but a non-clear plastic container will do a bang-up job as well.

Verdict: Buffet style

Hygiene & Food Safety

Despite COVID-19 being mostly an airborne disease, it heightened our collective sense of food safety and cleanliness. A minor blessing in disguise perhaps.

For this category, individually-wrapped food is the clear winner. Buffet-style meals require shared utensils. Plus, containers and bins get left out for an undetermined amount of time, leading to potential bacteria growth.

Verdict: Individually-wrapped

Food Consistency

A hiccup with buffet-style food revolves around meal consistency. The best caterers might be able to avoid this but people will go for the best parts of any meal. The end of the Tikka Masala might be missing chicken, the salmon linguine missing salmon, or the pizza selection finale is the disrespectful plain cheese.

Additionally, there might be consistency issues with the amount of food delivered, i.e. how big each bin is, fill level, etc.

Individually-wrapped meals can face similar challenges to food consistency. Hot and cold foods in the same container can ruin the texture or temperature. On this front it comes down to the individual caterer.

Verdict: Tie

Clean Up Factor

Say a prayer for all the office managers that get stuck cleaning up after a big buffet-style dinner. There’s bins, plates and silverware everywhere - not to mention some spills and smears.

Individually-wrapped meals take the cake here as they’re 100% self clean-up. There might be slightly more waste depending on group size, but it’s always a cleaner situation.

Verdict: Individually-wrapped

Meal Variety

When it comes to catered lunches, we want to try things we don’t try often. Putting together a plate that would take a small army to cook at home is one of the joys of the office. Not to mention the option to sample on something like a BBQ feast, and the opportunity for a second plate depending on group size.

Individually-wrapped meals simply don’t compete in this field. You have to pick one option, and grabbing a second box doesn’t have the same feel as a second plate.

Verdict: Buffet style


Leftovers are a cornerstone of any food preparation scene, whether it’s at the office or at home.

Buffet-style dining might deliver more volume of leftovers, but storage isn’t easy. Lids pop off and bins take up way too much precious fridge space. Aluminum bins might not get fully sealed, allowing air to enter and potential bacteria like staph and Bacillus cereus to grow.

Meanwhile an airtight plastic Tupperware container would keep food fresh and warm. Individually-wrapped meals offer the perfect leftover solution. The extra units are hauled home undisturbed, unopened and sealed for freshness.

Verdict: Individually-wrapped

The Pick and Choose Principle

One of the bonding experiences of food is discussing what’s good and getting everyone’s favorite choices. As buffet style adds variety to the meal, there’s an opportunity for everyone to pick and sample various things. This appeals to picky and adventurous eaters alike.  

Individually-wrapped meals leave little possibility for sharing, trying different options or discussing the variety of food available.

Verdict: Buffet style

Group Ordering

Group orders allow each team member to select their own individualized order. Obviously, group orders are individually-wrapped as everyone picks out exactly what they want, making this category a clear winner for individually-wrapped meals.

Verdict: Individually-wrapped

As you can see, there’s a lot to love about both of these catering options, and it’s a tough decision to make which one to go for. Your supervisor might make the decision, or you as the office manager will need to decide what’s best for your team. Whether your team goes for a buffet style extravaganza or a fully customized and personalized group order of individually-wrapped meals, you can find reliable, quality catering from different restaurants through CaterCow.