Essentials like crackers, pita chips, chickpeas, olives, gherkins, nuts, chocolate bars, jams and jellies should be in your pantry to keep your prep time down.
Keep a simple guide on hand with pictures of trays you've thrown together before. It can be easy to allow yourself to get frazzled with "pop-in" guests, so having a handy guide to remind you of which platters and items worked in the past can be a real blessing.
Of course, the accompaniment of a few cold items from your refrigerator can really pull a tray together. Keep a variety of cheese on hand that can easily be added to a tray. Try maple bacon onion jam served on salt and pepper crackers, topped with baked figs and brie!
You can never go wrong with the classic combination of butter crackers topped with cream cheese and red pepper jelly, either. Spread bruschetta with fig and walnut butter and top with crumbled blue cheese. With a little tahini and chickpeas, you can whip together a scrumptious hummus to serve with olives and pita chips.
Add something sweet to your tray like strawberries and bananas with bittersweet chocolate sauce for dipping. For a more modern tray, drizzle balsamic glaze over strawberries and chiffonade fresh basil to garnish over the berries. Break up an intensely dark chocolate bar and add dried apricots, cashews and fresh raspberries to the tray. Place a block of blue cheese on the tray and top with pecans drizzled with honey. Yum!
Keep an assortment of wine and sparkling water in your pantry and refrigerator so that you can quickly pair them with your tray. Keep notes in your binder of pairings that you and your guests favor. Do not forget the cocktail napkins. If you are not using linens, kitschy paper ones can be fun, too.
Now sit down and enjoy your guests and remember, wine just takes it up a notch.