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Never arrive empty-handed: 50 ideas for side dishes, dips, and desserts to bring to a party or picnic

Updated on July 11, 2013
Pasta salad by Oyvind Solstad on Flickr
Pasta salad by Oyvind Solstad on Flickr

No matter the season or the celebration, parties require food. Instead of bringing the umpteenth bag of chips, why not bring something a bit more exciting? Everyone will thank you.

They're classics for a reason

Classic side dishes vary with the season, with lighter fare being more popular at summer picnics and heavier sides warming up guests during the winter. Some of the classics include pasta salad, fruit salad, cocktail weenies, potato salad, and chicken wings.

1. Pasta salad doesn't have to be boring. Even with classic rotini noodles, you can spice up a pasta salad with good, strong cheese like Parmesan-Reggiano, pine nuts, spinach wilted in olive oil, and roasted red peppers.

2. Chicken wings are great even if you buy them from the frozen section. Tequila-lime wings are always popular, and they're less messy than buffalo or barbecue wings.

3. Cocktail weenies are easy to make and always a crowd-pleaser. Simply put cocktail wieners in a crock-pot along with a jar of grape jelly and some mustard. The end result is tangy and sweet.

4. Potato salad can be dressed up in many different ways. You don't have to use mayonnaise. Instead, try making a German pasta salad with capers, mustard, green onion, and oil. Or substitute Greek yogurt for the mayo for a lower-fat version.

5. Fruit salad is a great way to incorporate seasonal fruits. Be sure to drizzle citrus juice over the salad when you're done chopping all the fruits: apples will brown and bananas will brown. Add cinnamon for a more nuanced sweetness.

When I dip, you dip, we dip...

If everyone is opting to bring chips, the least you can do is offer up a good dip. The world of sauces and dips goes well beyond the mass-market French Onion dip, and depending on the dip, it can be used as a side sauce to burgers, hot dogs, and other main dishes.

6. During tomato season, salsa is cheap, easy, and so delicious. You can make your own salsa free-form, or there are plenty of recipes online.

7. Guacamole not only tastes good with tortilla chips, it's a tasty burger spread. You can buy packets of guacamole seasoning dirt cheap. Two packs will make enough to serve a large party. Just add squashed avocado.

8. You can buy French Onion dip from the store, but why not make your own? This recipe from Food Network darling Guy Fieri is easy and delicious.

9. There's a reason it's called sausage crack. Mix breakfast sausage with Velveeta. Add a bit of hot sauce to taste. The combination is amazing slathered over chips.

10. Beer and cheese dip is hearty and great for heavy breads and pretzels. Just add ale to a cheese dip, and watch the magic happen. Beer pairs well with heavy cheeses.

11. Cheesy buffalo sauce is fast, easy, and everyone will be clamoring for the recipe. Mix Ranch dressing, buffalo sauce, and sour cream to make a dip perfect for tailgating.

Salads to the rescue

Even beyond the classic pasta, potato, and fruit salad, there are a wealth of side salads that defy expectations and will leave everyone satisfied. Many of these dishes are healthy and great for people with dietary needs as well.

12. Tortellini salad is pasta salad's upscale cousin: surprising and elegant all at once. Mix tortellini with green onion, tomato, olive oil, and goat cheese, and you've got a party.

13. Watermelon salad can be savory, sweet, or a mixture of both. Pair watermelon chunks with feta cheese and either mint leaves or basil for a thirst-quenching summer side.

14. Cucumber salad is refreshing and takes advantage of summer tomatoes and sweet onion. Just slice cucumber, onions, and tomatoes and mix them in a light vinaigrette. German Salata mix works even better.

15. Three-bean salad is light, but the protein makes for a hearty side. Mix canned beans with a vinaigrette, making sure to rinse the beans when they come out of the can.

16. Tuna salad, served with cracked pepper on toast, is a twist on the tuna salad sandwich. For extra decadence, melt sharp cheddar over the top and spring with parsley.

Watermelon mint salad by ramnath bhat on Flickr
Watermelon mint salad by ramnath bhat on Flickr

Going with the grain

Grain salads and side dishes are a great way to stretch your money. Even with more exotic grains like quinoa, you can buy dry grains in bulk from natural food stores or online.

17. With quinoa with dried fruit for something simple yet flavorful. Cook the quinoa per usual with either broth or water, then add chopped, dried fruit and herbs.

18. Cook quinoa with butter and garlic for a savory side. This recipe is ready in 35 minutes.

19. Couscous with apricot is another sweet-and-savory dish. Cook the couscous, then pour orange juice over the top into the couscous is lightly coated. Add diced apricot and crushed pistachio.

20. Barley. Just barley. Alton Brown, a man who needs no introduction, has a recipe for baked barley. It would serve well as a side to an otherwise saucy meal.

21. Risotto, for rice with a wow factor. This mushroom risotto won the Pillsbury Bake-Off, a hugely competitive feat.

22. Rice balls, or onigiri, are a popular Asian snack. Form sticky rice into balls and wrap with sheets of seaweed. You can even fill the rice with vegetables and other goodies.

23. Rice pudding is popular in Germany, India, and around the world. With its sweet creaminess and chewy texture, it's easy to see why.

It's the slaw

Slaw, generally short for coleslaw, is very much like a vegetable salad. Generally made with oil, vinegar, mayo, or sour cream, slaws are great for summer.

Jicama slaw by Vegan Feast Catering
Jicama slaw by Vegan Feast Catering

24. Think of sauerkraut as German coleslaw. With its fermented cabbage and blend of spices, sauerkraut pairs especially well with bratwurst, hot dogs, and hearty breads.

25. Make Southern-style broccoli slaw with a pre-shredded mix. The broccoli tastes great raw, especially mixed with carrots in a dressing.

26. Jicama slaw is Latin-inspired and refreshing on hot days. The jicama is crisp, and if you add tomatoes to the mix, the result is very much a summertime food.

7. Bean-and-cabbage slaw uses vinegar instead of mayo for a light, yet hearty, slaw. Like a three-bean salad, the beans taste lighter with the sweetness of the vinegar. Try different vinegars for a different overall flavor.

28. Roasted beets with cheese, while not quite a slaw, is a great winter side. Just roast the beets in the oven and top with goat cheese, salt, and cracked pepper.

Cucumber sandwiches by VividImageInc on Flickr
Cucumber sandwiches by VividImageInc on Flickr

The bread and butter

Bread is amazing. Both an appetizer and a side, it can be worked into all levels of a meal.

29. Toast points are basic, but they can be an amazing base for sauces, dips, and spreads. Make them a day ahead and store in an airtight container.

30. Cucumber finger sandwiches are dainty, just the ticket for a fine-dining event or a tea party. Simply spread some cream cheese onto good sandwich bread, line with cucumbers and sprouts, and cut into fourths.

31. Welsh rarebit is basically cheese bread, but this messy side is perfect for wintertime. The Pioneer Woman, a food and lifestyle blogger, gives her take on this British dish.

32. Bruschetta is simply on the surface--bread topped with a mixture of tomatoes, basil, and Italian spices--but it's satisfying and fancy. If you're baking the bruschetta topping directly on the bread, be sure to bake at or right before the party so that the bread doesn't get soggy from the tomatoes.

33. Cheese straws are what happens when crackers and cheese meld together. You can find a recipe from the Food Network here.

34. For something easy that can be entirely store-bought, bring sliced pita and hummus. Roasted red pepper hummus is always popular. If you want to make your own hummus, it's easy: just puree tahini, garbanzo beans, and olive oil in a food processor.

35. You can make homemade tortilla chips to go with your dips and salsa. The tortillas can either be baked in the oven or fried in a pan. The latter tastes very much like Tex-Mex cantina chips.

Homemade tortilla chips by jeffreyw on Flickr
Homemade tortilla chips by jeffreyw on Flickr

Eating like royalty

Perhaps you'd like to be a little fancy. Perhaps you have more sophisticated tastes just cocktail weenies. Here are some high-class eats for your next social gathering.

36. Whatever you bring, cover it in edible gold for Versailles flair. Here is an overview of gold leaf from About.com's candy page.

37. Fill endive cups with deletable dips for simple, sophisticated finger food. Simply buy a whole endive, peel off the prettiest leaves, and top with a salad or diced vegetables mixed in sour cream.

38. Caviar is the height of luxury. Although sturgeon roe is the only "real" caviar, if you're on a budget, spring for salmon roe or what the Swedes call "sandwich caviar."

39. Prosciutto-wrapped melon slices are sweet, savory, and surprising. The salty chewiness of the prosciutto pairs well with the sweetness of the melon. Although cantaloupe works best, you can also use honeydew.

40. Truffle-oil roasted vegetables are messy, but delicious. Yes, a lot of truffle oil isn't made from truffles, but if you can get the good stuff, you'll have a richly seasoned dish that will impress even a hardened foodie.

Fruit ambrosia by diettogo1 on Flickr
Fruit ambrosia by diettogo1 on Flickr

A sweet end to a party

Sometimes desserts are the only things people want to bring. Other times, the food table is nothing but savory dishes.

The key to good eating at a party or picnic is something sweet to cap off the meal. Whether you like fruit or chocolate, something healthy or something rich, there is a dessert for you.

41. Fruit, cookies, whipped cream, and cream cheese make for one sweet fruit pizza. You can buy the cookies premade or whip up a batch yourself. Mix whipped cream and cream cheese, spread on your cookies, and top with fresh fruit.

42. They say ambrosia was food of the gods, so why not bring a bit of Mount Olympus to your party? More than a fruit salad, this whipped-cream delight is a common Southern potluck dish.

43. Pretzel Jello salad may sound odd, but its sweet-and-savory flavor is undeniably tasty. Here is a link to a recipe for treat.

44. If you have access to a grill, grilled pears and mascarpone is a tempting dessert. Best when served fresh, this dessert is perfect for foodie barbecues, especially when the pear is caramelized in the flame.

45. Apples and caramel dip are simple but delicious. They're a welcome addition to harvest festivals, especially as apples come into season.

46. No matter what event you're attending, there's always a way to make themed cupcakes. Always.

47. Cake pops are cute as a button. As with cupcakes, you can tie cake pops to the theme of your party and experiment with fun flavors.

For the adventurous

You've graduated beyond salsa and chips. Your friends are food snobs, and you're a hardcore foodie looking for something new and exciting. Here are few ideas that will make you the talk of the party.

48. Miracle fruit tablets will make every dish a sweet treat. The tablets, made from so-called miracle fruit, turn everything you eat sweet and more dessert-like. Lemons become lemonade. Olives become wholly strange. The Cupcake Project has a guide to flavor tripping parties involving miracle fruit.

49. Chocolate-covered bacon! Yes, bacon has reached its saturation point. But covered in chocolate, bacon makes for a unique, fun dessert.

50. Zucchini chocolate cake. Any vegetable-based dessert seems a little strange, but the overall taste is rich and wonderful.

Potluck by Marshall Astor - Food Fetishist on Flickr
Potluck by Marshall Astor - Food Fetishist on Flickr

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    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 4 years ago from Iowa

      Great list! Very useful for all those summer cookouts and get-togethers.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i love this hub. 50 choices ! I am always shy to attend parties because I am not good at cooking. I would sure try those salad recipe ideas. Useful.

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