UnderCover Waitress: How to Hold a Tray

Monday, December 26, 2011

How to Hold a Tray

An excellent question has come my way:

This is embarrassing; I have worked in a total of 4 restaurants but honestly never really learned how to hold a heavy tray and then distribute the food! (a lot of the time I was working at a pub sort of place or somewhere I didn't have to do this-)
---Now that my seasonal job is probably ending soon, I'm thinking I will probably take up some form of waiting job. 
Do you have any tips for this semi-silly question of mine?  

Thanks a bunch :) 

There is nothing silly about the question, and please do not be embarrassed! Truth be told, I hate big trays with an unholy passion. One of these years, I am going to bring a bunch of restaurant trays to a Winter Solstice bonfire, and rid the world of their scourge.

Until then, however...

Ironically, it is easier to carry a tray with one hand underneath. It seems intuitive that using both hands would be more stable, but reality is one hand is best. You may already know this if you have carried bar trays full of drinks. The counter-intuitive physics remain the same when the tray gets wider and heavier.

The first rule to remember is to load the heaviest items in the middle of the tray, and put the lighter (well, less heavy) items closer to the edge of the tray. May sound like a no-brainer, but when servers are busy and feeling rushed they may end up not following this rule; results may be disastrous.

Best practice is to hold a tray balanced on your palm, wrist straight, and part of the tray over your forearm. This is easiest with bar trays full of drinks. The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety page has a good illustration depicting how to carry drink trays.

Larger trays filled with plates full of entrees must be carried higher. Best practice is to have your open palm under the center of the tray, and rest a side of the tray on your shoulder. You must bend your wrist so that the tray is on your flat hand; if you support the tray with the tips of fingers, you may hurt yourself. The Free Hotel Management Training Blog has a picture of a waiter holding a tray on his shoulder, but it is laughable. He is holding a bar tray with three beverages on it. If only life were so easy.

Regardless of the size, consider the tray an extension of your body. Move your body and the tray as a unit, meaning do not swing the tray around your body while you stand still. Instead, turn your entire body with the tray. Move as close as possible to the person you are serving, and transfer the plate from the tray to the guest.

Restaurants that require waitresses to carry the biggest trays also often provide little fold-out stands. The waitress carries the tray on one side of her body, and holds the little stand with her other hand. Smartest restaurant managers will stash the little fold-out stands in convenient spots in the dining room. This way, waitresses leave the kitchen with their "free" hands available to help hold the tray steady. When I had to carry these trays, I sometimes placed the fingers on my other hand on the edge of the tray. Anyway, the waitress grabs the little fold-out stand with her free hand, places the stand on the floor and rests the tray on the stand. Now, she is ready to serve the plates.

Most important when using this method is to bend at the knees. Do not bend over at the waist while lowering the tray onto the stand. Bending at the waist will cause back strain. Just like when lifting heavy stuff, bend at the knees.

Smaller restaurants may eschew the large trays altogether. In a smaller space, it is just as easy to make two trips. So, now we must consider the skill of carrying multiple plates at a time.

Had a manager once try to teach me how to carry two plates with one hand. It has to do with balance and where you place your fingers and thumb. I got quite annoyed, because she had huge hands and I have especially small ones. I figured out how to do this with appetizer plates. I still think I would drop heavy entree plates if I tried it with them, however.

I have colleagues who can balance plates on their arms, no tray. I find it quite impressive. They seem to think I'm silly for being so impressed, and they probably wonder what is wrong with me that I can't carry four entree plates on my arms. But I can't.

If carrying multiple plates, please do not rest them against your body. In all seriousness, it is unhygienic. I say that not because I am a germaphobe (which I am) but because it is bad form, and looked down upon in decent restaurants.

I sincerely hope this helps, and I wish you the best of luck! Thank you so much for Asking the Waitress.


  1. I say...1st: stuff a pillow under your shirt so you look pregnant. 2nd: Bring one entree out at a time and blame it on the baby...

  2. Why didn't I think of that?!? Lolololol!

  3. No offense, Fitra, but it's not really "quid pro quo." I check out other blogs all the time, and comment when I have something to add to the conversation.

  4. Thank you, I appreciate the detailed help!!

  5. I've had that before myself, Under Cover. I just delete them.

    I've never done waiting work... but I've had enough time in restaurants watching servers to be amazed at how they keep balance... not to mention avert disaster.

  6. @William & Norma: ROFL! :-D You see, I get comments via email. When I first read William's comment (before coffee, hope that is a good excuse,) I thought, "How do you delete a tray?!?"

  7. I work as a server for a banquet room and we carry trays with 8 or more entree plates at a time and I find it best to take my tray and hold the edge rather than the center with the other side rested on my shoulder. Also make sure to balance your trace, carrying isn't as much about weight as it is balance. Like many others have said make sure you lift with your knees. Hope this helps!

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  9. What do you think is fair to receive if a waiter drop an empty serving trays on your head? The manager just wants to take 10 percent off the bill.

    1. I guess it depends upon the situation. A small bar tray that tapped your head, ten percent of bill seems to be a nice gesture. If you were hurt in some way (but not injured) I might think you should dine for free that night. Some places, if it was a small, empty tray would likely apologize and offer free dessert. If there were things on the tray and you got wet or stained, I would think they should do more.


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