Party trays can make a host's life much easier, especially during gatherings where socializing is more important than impressing guests with a five-course meal. Party trays can function as an appetizer smorgasbord or a serve-yourself (and serve yourself again) dinner. The trays are easy to replenish during long parties and are fully customizable. You can make party trays as gourmet as you desire with high-quality and unusual ingredients but the food will disappear just as quickly off of a classic party tray.
Make a list of all of the ingredients you would like to include on each tray. Vegetable trays typically include carrots, celery, grape or cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower and broccoli. Other options include asparagus and red, yellow and green peppers. Vegetable dip is usually a ranch dressing or a variation of one; consider using hummus or a spinach dip.
Cold cut trays include any of the following, plus whatever else you'd like: turkey, roast beef, ham and salami. Choose domestic or imported cheeses, or a mix of both. Cheeses that aren't too strong in taste are a safe bet for a party tray, such as cheddar, provolone, Gouda, Havarti and mozzarella.
Fruit trays rely on what's in season, but don't choose fruits like apples, which, when sliced for presentation, will brown as they sit. Classic fruit trays include cantaloupe and honeydew melons, green and red grapes, strawberries and pineapple. Fruit dip is optional; a sweet-tart yogurt-based dip is a nice accent if you use one.
Buy enough ingredients to fill your platters to heaping; if you expect a lot of guests or a lengthy party, double your purchase so you can replenish each tray at least once.
Wash the vegetables and prepare them for their tray. If you have precut carrots, you needn't prepare them further. Cut long carrots and celery into spears, cut broccoli and cauliflower florets from the stalk, slice cucumbers and cut peppers into rings. Place the vegetable dip in the center of the tray, and lay a row of carrots in one quarter of the plate, radiating out from the dip to the edge of the plate. Lay a second section of carrots directly opposite the first. Do the same with each vegetable around the tray, resulting in an alternating pattern.
Prepare the fruit tray. Wash any fruit without rinds. Keep grapes in bunches rather than taking them off of their stems. Keep the tops on strawberries to help them maintain their freshness as they sit on the tray. Deseed melons; cut them into small wedges or use a melon baller to make little balls. Cut pineapple into spears. Put the fruit dip in the center of the tray and arrange the fruit around it in an alternating pattern, as you did with the vegetables.
Prepare the meat, cheese and olive tray. Cut cheese into slices or cubes, depending on your personal preference. Roll cold cuts into a cigar-like shape. Place the olives at the center of the tray. As with the other trays, alternate meats and cheeses until the platter is heaping full.
Put the trays out with plates, stacks of napkins and containers of toothpicks near each one. Lay two tongs on each tray. Put spoons into the fruit and vegetable dips to encourage your guests to put them on their plates.