Who doesn’t love to share a meal with friends and loved ones? Coming together to break bread is so essential to human cultures everywhere. It can be a little tricky these days, though, when there are so many eating styles, and we want to have something special for everyone.
When I graduated from high school, my mom was faced with the challenge of hosting a party that would treat my friends and family and still respect my vegan diet. She decided to do a salad and sandwich bar. She laid out a long table, full of plates of interesting ingredients, like different veggies, pickles, spreads, breads and dressings, and let everyone create their own meal. It was untraditional in our family, but everyone, from my teen friends to my grandparents, loved it. Over the years, I’ve realized the wisdom of this idea and riffed on the endless possibilities of “the bar”’-- sandwiches, burritos, pizza, baked potatoes, tacos, tostadas…any meal that can start with a simple base and allow guests to build their own plate works great. Dessert bars, like sundae bars and cupcake bars, work every time.
Most of the the food can be made ahead of time and pulled out the fridge just before serving. For example, to serve a baked potato bar (a favorite with the catering team at Amy’s), you can prep ahead by making dishes of condiments, like chopped green onion, olives, and veggie “bacon bits,” as well as sour cream and grated cheese (in both dairy and non-dairy options). Pre-wash your baking potatoes and have them ready to go in the oven (wrapping them in foil, if you like). At Amy’s we like to serve our vegetarian chili to top potatoes (hint: this is delicious!)--the chili can go in a crock pot earlier in the day, so it’s hot and ready to serve. Just remember to start baking the potatoes an hour before meal time and put out your bowls of condiments while they bake. Then sit down and enjoy.
The best part is that the bar gives everyone the freedom to create their own meal, so they can make sure it’s just perfect for their diet. I like to put out bowls of simple, whole ingredients (like individual bowls of chopped vegetable) instead of prepared foods (like pre-mixed or dressed salads). This makes it much easier for everyone to know what they’re eating without having to ask about ingredients. (Cheers from the vegans and paleos!)
I’ve found this serving style also reduces waste, because people take only as much as they want. And the leftovers are great to use as meal starters for cooking for the days after the party. Whole ingredients are versatile, and they also tend to stay fresh longer. Think of it this way -- you’ve basically got a fridge full of ingredients, prepped and ready to cook with. That’s a lot nicer than having, say, a mixing bowl full of leftover potato salad.
Research has shown that sharing food helps build community. It not only supports the well-being of the recipients, but it also makes the giver feel a sense of well-being and joy. Of course, that's no secret. And, thankfully, there are lots of simple ways to nourish guests while still honoring their own unique diets.