The menu for an appetizer buffet depends on the type of event you plan. Keep the menu light if you plan to serve a main course following the appetizers. If the appetizers are the main event, include heartier appetizers so that guests can make a meal of them, if they choose. A make-ahead menu saves time in the kitchen on the day of the party and allows you to spend more time with your guests.
Food writer Gillian Duffy says the secret to executing an appetizer party without being overwhelmed is to plan a menu of foods that can be prepared in advance and need only simple assembly and reheating in the oven before guests arrive. Offer guests a well-rounded menu of six to eight appetizers with a variety of flavors, textures, colors and shapes. Plan for three appetizers per person before a meal. Allow for eight or nine pieces per person if appetizers are the meal.
Light appetizers do not fill guests up before dinner and balance heavier appetizers served at cocktail parties. Fresh or lightly steamed vegetables served with a light, creamy dip or olive oil seasoned with coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper make a colorful and healthful display. As an alternative to fresh veggies, serve a platter of marinated artichoke hearts, mushrooms and roasted red peppers.
For a sweet counterpoint to savory appetizers, offer a platter of fresh fruit arranged on skewers or served with toothpicks. Effortless nibbles such as nuts and olives go well with cocktails before dinner. For added pizazz, toss the nuts with sugar and spices and bake until crisp. Marinate olives in olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic and herbs a day or more before your event.
If you are not serving a main course, plan to offer a few heavy appetizers to keep guests satisfied. Protein-based appetizers and miniature versions of lunch or dinner items are more filling than nuts or crudité. Consider skewers of marinated grilled chicken or shrimp, or make black bean quesadillas with low-fat cheese and cut into small wedges. Pizzas made with refrigerated dough and your favorite toppings make hearty finger food when cut into small pieces, perfect for the youngest guests.
For a more elegant appetizer, fill ready-made phyllo cups with small cubes of cheese, diced apples or pears and a sprinkling of nuts. Pop them in the oven right before guests arrive.
Dips are quick to prepare and easy to garnish with a sprinkling of chopped herbs or a drizzle of olive oil. Dips made with pureed canned beans, light cream cheese or light mayonnaise combine easily with a variety of seasonings and additions. Add spicy ingredients, if you know guests will enjoy them, or keep it simple with a packaged ranch dip mix. Make dips a day in advance; a rest in the refrigerator melds and intensifies the flavors. Simple, healthful dippers such as sliced fruits and vegetables, baked tortilla chips, pita crisps or whole grain crackers arranged on a platter around a serving bowl of dip makes a quick, casual and attractive appetizer.