These Casual Appetizer Recipes Will Get Any Party Started

aged-cheddar and beer dip
Photo: Ryan Liebe

From make-ahead dips and crunchy shrimp fritters to our signature deviled eggs, these light bites are sure to delight your crowd.

01 of 16
skillet chili nachos
Justin Walker

Casualness is relative, especially as it regards cooking and entertaining. Some choose to avoid the idea of "entertaining" altogether, insisting instead that cooking for others who you invite into your home is nothing more than "having people over." Anything more formal sounding than that can send both the inexperienced and seasoned host into a state of fear and anxiety. And since we know that one home cook's idea of a relaxed, carefree menu might strike another as woefully challenging, we decided to put together a lit of so fuss-free appetizer recipes that are so easy prepare that you'll actually have time to tend to other matters (like shaking up a cocktail or setting the table). As the precursors to dinner, these bites are meant to tide guests over and whet their appetite for the meal to come.

What follows is a collection of recipes that fall within that general description, each designed with the home cook's efficiency in mind, and it all starts with the Skillet Chili Nachos pictured here. As a hearty, dig-right-in way to start the meal, no guest will ever turn down a perfectly balanced nacho.

There are also make-ahead dips ranging from rich sour cream and onion to aged Cheddar and beer, as well as some healthier options. Our Crunchy Shrimp Fritters are made at the last minute, but guests can play a hand in their creation. Another good option? Our Ham and Cheese Flatbread. It's sure to disappear fast, and no plates are needed to enjoy this bite, which is good news for whoever will be cleaning the kitchen at the end of the night.

As you'll soon discover, the goal with these recipes is to keep things casual, for host and guest alike, and to offer something so undeniably delicious, so pleasing to the palate that no one could dispute it's appropriate to the evening at hand. With party starters this tasty, your guests won't realize that they were chosen specifically to make your life a little easier.

02 of 16

Herby Shrimp-and-Feta Bake

herby shrimp-and-feta-bake in skillet
Johnny Miller

Casual hosting means setting out one easy dish that your guests can dig into rather than assembling individual snack-size bites. Case in point: A pound of shrimp, tossed in a quick marinade and then slowly baked to perfection while you greet guests and pour drinks.

03 of 16

Creamy Corn-and-Onion Dip

creamy corn-and-onion dip served with radishes
Kate Sears

There's no bigger crowd pleaser in the world of pre-dinner snacks than sour cream and onion dip. Tasty as it is, its richness can fill you up quickly, diminishing your appetite before you even get to dinner. Try this smart update on the classic: Replace the sour cream with strained yogurt, and bulk it up with fresh corn cut straight from the cob. The result is a fresher, lighter, super seasonal appetizer guaranteed to draw a whole new crowd without weighing them down.

04 of 16

Roasted Tomatoes and Cheese with Thyme

roasted tomatoes cheese thyme
William Abranowicz

Here's a fresh take on the baked brie appetizer popularized in the 1980s (by Martha herself). Rather than baking a wheel of rich, creamy cheese in puff pastry or topping it with caramel and pecans, try baking it in a bed of roasted cherry tomatoes and herbs.

05 of 16

Cheater's Deviled Eggs

devil-ish egg bites
Raymond Hom

Deviled eggs are such a casual party standard that there are whole plates and platters designed to hold them. But let's face it: Eating one at a party can be a little awkward, especially when you're holding a drink with the other hand. Here, we've done deviled eggs one better with an easy makeover. All the classic components are there—mayo, mustard, dill, and ground paprika—in one easier to manage but just as tasty bite.

06 of 16

Crunchy Shrimp Fritters

crunchy shrimp fritters served with tartar sauce
Johnny Miller

One way to keep things casual and fun when you're hosting a few friends is to offer an appetizer that lets everyone have a hand in preparing it. This elevated seafood shack plate provides one such opportunity for group assembly. Put someone in charge of poaching the shrimp, another on mixing the batter, and a few others on the frying station. When it's time to eat the crisp, crunchy, salty, sweet snacks, there's no need to assign roles. These fritters are sure to please everyone in equal measure.

07 of 16

Loaded Baked-Potato Dip

game day appetizer loaded potato dip with chips
Kana Okada

Loaded baked potatoes, but make it chips and dip. The winning combination of tastes in the topping—cheese, bacon, scallions, sour cream—is here, but potato chips stand in for the baked spuds. It's a party-friendly riff on a game day classic.

08 of 16

Mixed Olive Tapenade

mixed olive tapenade
William Abranowicz

It's one thing to buy a bunch of olives at the store and dump them from the package straight into a serving bowl. Anyone can do that. But in less than ten minutes, you can dress up that same batch of olives with a few flavor boosters, including capers, garlic, anchovies, and fresh thyme. The result is a cocktail hour snack that tastes like you went to a little bit of trouble, but not too much.

09 of 16

Ham-and-Cheese Flatbread

alsatian flatbread topped with flat-leaf parsley
Gieves Anderson

A store-bought flatbread gets you more than halfway to a tasty, versatile, easy-to-serve appetizer. The topping for this one takes its flavor cues from Alsace, a region in France. The only time-consuming part is caramelizing the onions, which you can do ahead of time if you wish. Spread those onions and some ham and two cheeses onto the flatbread base, bake for less than 15 minutes—et voilà—your starter is served.

10 of 16

Greek Layer Dip

greek layer dip
Pernille Loof

Consider this a mashup of seven-layer dip and Greek salad. All the great flavors of the latter are included—tomatoes, cukes, olives, and herbs—and served over a creamy base of white bean yogurt puree. Pita chips replace the corn chips, and the whole appetizing platter comes together in a matter of minutes.

11 of 16

Marinated Peppers with Mint and Sesame

Marinated Peppers With Mint and Sesame on blue cutting board
Lennart Weibull

Marinated peppers are often served on a big platter of Italian antipasto, where they can get lost in the shuffle of cheeses, cured meats, and olives. But there's no reason not to let them shine all on their own as a casual vegetarian appetizer, served with little more than crostini or breadsticks. These are flavored with fresh mint and sesame seeds, a nice twist on the usual basil and garlic.

12 of 16

Quick Shrimp Relish Tray

Shrimp Tray
Alpha Smoot

There's something liberating—for guests and host alike—about setting out all the fixings for a favorite appetizer and then letting everyone customize them as they like. Such is the case with this Relish Tray 2.0, laden with quick pickled shrimp and a few crunchy, savory, fresh-tasting accompaniments. Keep it in mind for big holiday dinners or any time you want to keep things cozy and super casual.

13 of 16

Aged-Cheddar and Beer Dip

aged-cheddar and beer dip
Ryan Liebe

Don't wait until Oktoberfest to try this deeply delicious, decadent dip that brings to mind beer halls and Bavarian cheer. Serve it with pretzel rods (or other shapes), crunchy celery stalks, and more beer.

14 of 16

Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Melon

Marcus Nilsson

Prosciutto and melon is one flavor combination that delivers more than the sum of its parts, a match made in salty-sweet heaven. Its coolness is also a big part of the appeal. But if you're already grilling dinner, consider wrapping melon wedges in prosciutto and threading them onto skewers. Just a minute or two on the grill and you have a whole new taste sensation. Salty, sweet, smoky, sublime!

15 of 16

Martha's Classic Guacamole

marthas classic guacamole
Chelsea Cavanaugh

In its most classic form, guacamole is made from avocado, chiles, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. The formula is simple, but takes well to variations of all sorts. Lots of versions include tomatoes, too. Martha's version, served with plantain chips in place of fried corn tortillas, features hard-cooked eggs. It makes a deeply flavorful start to dinner or, depending on appetites, a hearty dinner itself.

16 of 16

Creamy Artichoke Ranch

Creamy Artichoke Ranch
Petrina Tinslay

Ranch dressing, but make it a dip. And make it Mediterranean. Here, we take the epitome of casual comfort food itself—ranch—and update it with a few new ingredients, including fresh parsley, artichoke hearts, anchovies, and thick, strained yogurt.

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