The holiday season is full of entertaining and parties and some of the very best ones are those impromptu get-togethers that happen spur of the moment but... how do you feed those unplanned guests?? It's easier and less stressful than you think and it doesn't have to crush your holiday budget! Lisa Bolton is back with tips for feeding last minute guests.
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The season of entertaining is nearly upon us! It won’t be long before calendars book up, open house invites go out and you start planning all those holiday get-togethers.
There's no doubt when cocktail parties and formal dinners are planned in advance, it's so much easier to put together a food and drink offering that guests will love.
But what about those unexpected and spontaneous last minute get-togethers? You know the ones - where friends text and ask if they can pop by to drop off a present. Or a long time, out of town friend asks if you're free for the evening? Or your partner invites all the soccer parents round after practice for some festive cheer?
While I truly feel like spontaneous gatherings turn into the best experiences, the last minute decision of “what can I throw together to feed people?” can be stressful! Well, stress no more, we have you covered.
With a little advice and imagination, you'll be surprised at how beautiful and delicious a board can be just from what you already have at home.
Here are my top eight tips for throwing a board together for an impromptu evening with friends and loved ones.
1. Dig Out A Large Board or Platter
Pull out a big, food safe board or serving platter that will work. A large wooden cutting board can do in a pinch. This will be your base. Boards are great because they keep all the food in one place, they draw people together and you can pull a lot of different foods together and turn them into something cohesive and attractive.
Most of the time, I have an opportunity to plan my board well in advance. I can perhaps pick a theme and then shop for exactly what I'm envisioning. And while I LOVE being able to create a planned board, what happens if the only shopping you have time to do is through the shelves of your own fridge or pantry?
How on earth are you going to put together something pretty and delicious?
2. Keep Some Extra Pantry Basics On Hand Over The Holiday
You don't have to break your budget stocking up on food for the holidays "just in case" but having a few extras of everyday pantry staples on hand can be a big help. None of these need to be fancy or expensive and you don't need all of them:
- citrus fruits for drinks, garnish and adding to a last minute dip
- something salty: pickles, olives or salted nuts will do
- something sweet: jam, jelly or dried fruits
- crackers, chips, tortilla wraps, popcorn or sliced bread
- canned proteins like tuna or salmon, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, lentils for making dips & spreads
- mayo, cream cheese, cashew cheese (vegan friendly) or sour cream for making dips or spreads
- if you have the budget, a nice cheese that will keep in the fridge for a few weeks
- some raw veggies or fresh fruits - ones that you would eat anyway
- cocoa powder, a case of sparkling water, some fruit juice for whipping up drinks
Now if you've been caught at the tail end of your grocery shopping cycle, here's a few tips for stretching out what you have:
3. You Don’t Need Enough of Every Food for Everyone:
One of the secrets, I believe, to a beautiful board is the variety. A little bit of a lot of things.
This is where fridge foraging begins. Open those crisper drawers and pull out anything that can be enjoyed raw on its own or in a dip. Only have two carrots and three pieces of celery left? That’s okay! Slice them up thin.
Mix veggies together and split them amongst different parts of the board. The variety in color and texture will create visual interest:
- Cauliflower, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini are all beautiful raw on a board
- Broccoli benefits from a quick steam or blanch followed by an ice bath to just take the edge off
- You don’t need to have enough of any one particular thing so that everyone gets one
- Don’t forget to leave some of those greens attached to carrots and celery for an instant garnish.
PRO TIP: take the time to make an extra slice in that carrot or celery - err on the side of thin. No one wants to feel like a rabbit taking a big hunk of carrot.
4. Open Your Pantry
Every board needs at least a bowl or two – ideally one to hold a brine (for example olives or pickles) and one for a dip. Open your pantry and start shopping. I tend to carry a few extra jars of pickles or olives for times like this.
In my experience, any can of protein can become a flavourful dip. Choose a can of kidney beans, chick peas or black beans and blend them in a food processor or blender with some garlic, salt and drizzle of oil or water and you have a great homemade hummus or dip for a cracker.
Canned tuna becomes a hearty spread when pulsed in a food processor with some mayo or cream cheese, some herbs (dried are fine!), salt and a little green relish or pickle juice.
Now is also a great time to pop open a jar of a jam or jelly. If the jar is pretty enough, place it directly on the board, otherwise put a little into a smaller dish, maybe next to some cream cheese, and you have sweet and creamy dollop just waiting for a cracker.
5. No Crackers? No Problem!
Are there people who live in your house who like to put the crackers back with three left and maybe some crumbs at the bottom of the box? If you go to lift that cracker box and find it a little too light, don’t fret! If you don’t have crackers for the board, a lot of other things can act as a vessel for that pantry-foraged dip you just whipped together.
If you have sliced bread, cut the crusts off, cut it into triangles and place it on a baking sheet. A quick drizzle of olive oil and under the broiler for a couple minutes and you have yourself crostini!
A few leftover tortilla wraps can also be cut into triangles and baked to become homemade chips ready for a piece of cheese.
5 Minute Easy Cheese Crackers
And if your bread basket is also depleted, you can make your own crackers in just a couple minutes. Grate small piles of parmesan cheese onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Into the oven at 400 degrees for 3-5 minutes and you have perfect little cheese crackers – and they are even gluten free!
Even a bag of apple, potato or tortilla chips can look beautiful in a pretty bowl sitting next to a gorgeous board! And you can pop a bowl of fluffy popcorn in just a few minutes for extra snacking.
6. Check the Freezer
Still not feeling like you have enough on your board? Don’t be afraid to add a hot element!
Look for frozen pizza, dumplings or shrimp in your freezer. It's perfectly okay to mix hot and cold. Instead of cutting the pizza into triangle slices, cut it into rectangles and put it in various spots around the board, maybe with a small dish of marinara sauce for dipping that crust.
A small cast iron pan can be put on the board as a placeholder for a hot appetizer like shrimp or gyoza or any other easy “dump-on-a-sheet-pan-and-into-the-oven” treasure you may have on hand.
PRO TIP: Remember the key to a beautiful board is breaking up like ingredients and similar colors.
Just because you're throwing this board together last minute doesn’t mean we skip the garnish!
I always say the garnish on the board is like accessorizing the outfit. The outfit itself can be beautiful but it’s often that last piece of jewellery or accent that really makes it pop. No fresh cut flowers sitting around the house? No problem! Mother Nature makes the best accessories so:
- look to whole fruits (a small apple or orange) as decorative element. Limes or lemons offer beautiful pops of colour too.
- Do you have any neglected herbs in the yard that have gone to seed or flower? They are not only pretty but add a lovely fragrant dimension to the board.
- Don’t be limited to the board itself. My favourite way to decorate a board come winter is by snipping a few small branches from an evergreen holly tree along with some pinecones and tucking them on the coffee table or countertop around the board.
8. Don't Forget The Drinks
If your booze cabinet is running a bit low don't panic!
Make up a batch or two of flavoured simple syrups - they're so easy to make, keep in the fridge for weeks and can turn almost any beverage into something festive. Make a big batch of hot cocoa and let guests add a spoonful of their favourite syrup or, if your booze cabinet is in good shape, let them add a shot of something stronger.
Keep an extra case of sparkling water on hand over the holidays. It's easy to pour into pretty glasses and with a spoonful of syrup and you have an instant, flavoured sparkling beverage. Garnish with some lemon, lime or even mandarin orange slices.
There you have eight simple tips for throwing together a last minute holiday get-together! And remember, it’s always about the people around the board, the conversations that unfold and the real life connecting that will be remembered about the evening – not the board. But with these tips, I think your last minute guests just might be talking about that board on the way home too.
Need More Help?
Here are some more of our holiday entertaining posts for tips and inspiration when you want to be the host with the most!
- How To Feed Vegetarian and Vegan Guests
- Creating A Vegan & Allergen-Friendly Holiday Appetizer Board
- Throwing a Holiday Cocktail Party on a Budget
- Make Ahead Brunches Ideas For Holiday Entertaining
- 6 Tips For Making A Cheeseboard
There's even more holiday entertaining ideas and solutions here!
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Lisa Bolton is food stylist, recipe developer and creator of beautiful food boards. You can find her work at lisadawnbolton.com. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC. Her first cookbook, On Boards, (affiliate link) by Appetite by Penguin Random House is available in stores and online now! You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.