When the hordes are hungry, a few bags of chips and a case of soda won't cut it. A big crowd calls for a big menu, and that can mean a serious investment of time and money. Win over your guests by serving snacks with varying textures and flavor profiles -- but don't go overboard. Some of the simplest and most affordable snacks are often the biggest hits.
Small, Light Bites
Some occasions -- such as hot summer weather and after-dinner parties -- call for light fare. A popcorn bar is a quick and a cost-effective way to feed a crowd. Air-pop huge bowls of popcorn and season each individually. Serve the basic butter-and-salt variety alongside recipes your guests might never have tried. The Popcorn Board suggests flavoring popcorn with rosemary, garlic salt and Parmesan cheese, or make pesto popcorn using butter infused with basil, garlic and pine nuts. Bake savory miniature muffins ahead of time and freeze them until the day of; a cheese-and-herb recipe will please the masses. Or jazz up a basic fruit salad by creating kebabs featuring chunks of fresh fruit.
If your gathering's happening near mealtime, expect big appetites. Prepare sandwiches and protein-packed items to fill up the guests. Set out a vat of vegetarian chili next to bowls of shredded cheese and sour cream, or cook a big batch of pulled pork in a slow cooker and serve it with miniature sandwich rolls. Create wraps using spinach tortillas, sliced cheeses, deli meats and vegetables, then slice each wrap into inch-thick rounds for two-bite appetizers.
Dips and Dippers
Dip is the great snack food equalizer for guests of all ages. Anyone can put out tortilla chips and salsa, so set yourself apart with some unexpected dip options. Divide pretzel twists or sticks into paper cups, and fill small ketchup cups with a variety of dips so guests can choose their own. Set out an array of mustards, in addition to dips such as beer and bacon, chocolate hazelnut, and horseradish and cheddar. In cold weather, serve a spicy pumpkin dip -- extra points for displaying it in a hollowed-out pumpkin -- with toast points and apple slices. At an adult party, try a no-fuss play on fondue by filling a slow cooker with a peanut satay or spicy cheese sauce. Set up long skewers and chunks of bread, vegetables and fully cooked meat next to the pot.
Sweet Tooth Pleasers
In a crowd, you're guaranteed to find some people who crave sweet over salty. To appease them, bake sheet pans of brownies, cutting them into bite-sized squares and topping each with a walnut half or a dusting of cocoa powder. Glaze mixed nuts with egg whites, sugar and cinnamon, and bake them until brown, or drizzle toasted nuts with white and dark chocolate and refrigerate until the chocolate has hardened. A huge trifle, made of layers of cubed pound cake, pudding, fresh fruit and whatever else you feel like adding, feeds dozens, and an ice cream bar never fails to delight a crowd of all ages. Store the tubs of ice cream in a large bucket of ice to keep them frozen.
Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.