How to plan a low-waste holiday cocktail food spread

No more buying apps just to dump half of them again.

No more buying apps just to dump half of them again

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Abundant cheese boards, charcuterie spreads and appetizer towers look plentiful and impressive at a cocktail party, but the excess food leftover that's been sitting out all night usually heads straight for the garbage. There's a better way to entertain this holiday season: the low-waste way. And you can still serve up classic crowd-pleasers. Here's how to make small swaps to reduce food waste at your cocktail party this year, without sacrificing any festive feel. 

Cheese board

A variety of cheeses in all shapes and sizes from around the world presented on a large platter is, no doubt, splashy, but it's usually a big offender during the holidays in terms of food waste. Don't skip the spread altogether — there's a more environmentally sound way to present a festive cheese board that's just as beautiful and delicious.  

How to make it low-waste: Don't overshop, keep it simple with just 2 to 4 cheeses in popular varieties and save the experimental flavours for another day. Similarly, buy just what you'll need from a cheesemonger or deli counter, instead of a pre-packaged, predetermined size for less food waste and less plastic packaging. You'll only need about 1 to 2 ounces of cheese per person if you're serving other appetizers. Fill out the cheeseboard with nuts from the bulk bin (and bring your own container), whole grapes, crackers and crostini, which are perfectly edible after a few hours at room temperature. Present cheese in stages, adding more from the refrigerator as needed, not all at once — it's okay to replenish as the night goes on! If you offer a few local plant-based cheeses made of seeds and nuts instead of an all-dairy spread, those will keep well at room temperature for longer than their animal-based counterparts. Compost any cheese you have to throw out.

Charcuterie board 

Meat, in general, has a larger environmental impact than plant-based food. And even cured meats can't sit out hours on end without refrigeration before spoiling, leaving you no choice but to toss them by night's end. Luckily, this popular cocktail party spread can be done in an environmentally conscious way with a few twists to the traditional. 

How to make it low-waste: Present the charcuterie board on a plate or platter that can sit on top of a baking sheet full of ice to keep the food chilled at a safe temperature for longer. Encourage guests to eat all of that charcuterie up by laying out a DIY mini sandwich or bun bar next to the board, with bread, pickles and mustard — the more you jazz it up, the more will get eaten. As with the cheese, only buy what you think you'll need, about 1 to 2 ounces of charcuterie per person if you're serving other appetizers, and buy in bulk from a deli counter or butcher to avoid excess plastic packaging. Again, if you add some plant-based options like vegan sausages and mini veggie burger bean patties, these will keep better and are safer at room temperature for longer. 


The always-popular crab dip and cheesy artichoke dip come out bubbling hot and appealing, but become lukewarm and greasy as the night continues. No one will be eating a room temperature seafood dip, meaning you'll be tossing it when the night is over. Give your dips a low-waste makeover with these easy transformations. 

How to make it low-waste: Choose meat-, fish- and dairy-free dips like hummus, salsa, muhammara and vegan mushroom pâté that can sit out at room temperature and still taste fresh hours into the night. Buy only 1 to 2 (250 mL to 500 mL) containers of dip if you're serving other appetizers, and complement the dips with a variety of raw vegetables, crackers and sliced bread, which keep well without refrigeration. To refresh raw vegetables that have been sitting out all night, store in a container full of water in the refrigerator — they'll be crisp and crunchy by the next day. 

Hot pastry appetizers 

Hot, buttery pastry appetizers come in all shapes and sizes with fillings to please any partygoer. However, the second they go cold, no one is touching them, leaving you with a mountain of food waste. Thankfully, there's a better way to present the bites this season.

How to make it low-waste: Keep it simple with a 1 to 2 varieties, counting on 2 to 3 hot appetizers per guest if you're serving other food. Bring them out hot at the very beginning of the party as guests are more likely to be hungry upon arrival and eat them all up. Opt for veggie versions of these flaky appetizers like potato samosas, spanakopita and vegetable spring rolls instead of meat-filled, which will remain safer for longer if they drop in temperature.  


Sliced fruit does look beautiful, but the moment it's cut, the produce begins to weep, losing moisture, flavour and that crisp, refreshing texture. At the end of the night, your melon platter isn't sticking around for breakfast the next morning. But you can still have your party fruit and eat it, too, with these quick adjustments.

How to make it low-waste: Avoid high-moisture and tropical fruits such as melon, banana, mango and pineapple, which don't keep well when sliced after sitting out all night at room temperature. Instead, choose whole (not sliced) fruits that taste great at room temperature and can be saved for another day after the party is over, like grapes, figs, fresh apricots, fresh currants and berries. Don't forget dried fruit, which won't spoil on you and pairs beautifully with cheese. 

Cocktail meatballs 

Little meatballs on a skewer go over so well at cocktail parties because they're saucy, substantial and fun to eat! But if you've left the meatballs sitting out all night, you won't be keeping any of that leftover, room-temperature meat with dried-out sauce. Lucky for all meatball lovers, there's a quick trick to keep these morsels out of the bin.  

How to make it low-waste: Keep the meatballs and sauce in a slow cooker (on low) on your food table so they'll remain warm, appealing and at a safe temperature until you're ready to store any leftovers. (Bonus: they will make the room smell amazing!)


You can't throw a low-waste cocktail party without the right serveware. Single-use plastic and paper may be easier, but they always end up in the landfill. Here's a better way.  

How to make it low-waste: Rent real plates from a party rental store instead of using plastic, or use your own if the party is smaller — you don't need to apologize for mixing and matching!

  • If you're looking for minimal cleanup, choose biodegradable and compostable dinnerware and utensils, now readily available online and in stores
  • If the drinks you're serving require a straw, make it a reusable metal one
  • Instead of water bottles, fill a large pitcher up with water and have glass cups at the ready
  • Use real cloth napkins over paper napkins, which you can wash and reuse again and again after the party

Allison Day is the cookbook author of Modern Lunch. Find her online at and Yummy Beet, and on Instagram @allisondaycooks


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