how to have a chili bar feature

Watching the game, the premier of your favorite TV series or a movie with friends? We show you how to have a chili bar and make it a party.


When it’s that time of year you crank up the heat, it’s time for hearty and heart-warming food like chili con carne. Why not make your pot of chili a party?

Chili Bar Food Ideas

how to have a chili bar

The Chili con Carne

Create a chili bar with one or more different kinds in a slow cooker to keep warm and everyone can come and go and help themselves. It can keep warm for hours!

Choose a couple of contrasting chilis based on your guest’s preferences:

  • classic ground beef chili is a must
  • chicken chili
  • white chili
  • vegan chili
  • 5 alarm fire chili
  • Southwest chili with corn & sausage
  • Pulled pork chili

If you want to make several different kinds, create them in advance and refrigerate them a couple days in advance. They always taste better after absorbing the spices anyway!

Or make them weeks ahead for less party stress, freeze them, and then the night before your chili party put them in the fridge to defrost. A couple hours before you set up the chili bar, put them in a slow cooker on low to reheat. Leave it on low for the duration of the party.

The Toppings

The day before the chili bar party you can prepare the toppings and put them in zipper bags or storage containers in the fridge.

Set out bowls of toppings so everyone can individualize their chili:

  • Rice first for those who may want to put chili on top
  • Shredded cheese – serve different kinds
  • Sour cream
  • Hot sauce
  • Salsa or pico de gallo
  • Jalapenos – whole and/or sliced
  • Green onions
  • Chives
  • Olives
  • Diced avocado or guacamole
  • Diced tomato or cherry tomatoes sliced
  • Diced green onion
  • Diced cilantro
  • Bacon bits
  • Queso fundido or nacho cheese in a fondue pot or small warming pot
  • crushed tortilla chips or Fritos

Side Dishes

Also include side dishes that compliment the chili:

  • cornbread mini loaves or muffins
  • corn chips
  • tortilla chips
  • baguette slices
  • salad
  • coleslaw
  • spinach dip
  • hot dogs for chili topping
  • tatertots – can put chili on them, put them on the chili or eat them as a side

Desserts

Hand-held desserts are the best option.

  • brownies
  • cookies
  • ice cream sandwiches served afterwards to cool things down

Beverages

Beverages can be at the end of the buffet table, but it’s better for them to have a serving area where everyone is seated so they can help themselves to more than one serving or selection.

Keep chilled beer, wine and cold water or soft drinks in a large container of crushed ice to keep them cold.

  • beer
  • wine
  • 2 types of soft drink (ie: cola and sprite)
  • bottles of water or pitcher of infused water
  • apple cider and/or mulled wine for hot beverage choice
  • coffee or tea

How to Set Up Your Chili Bar

At starting end of chili bar:

Buffet tables are usually arranged from left to right, unless your room arrangement calls for it to be different.

  • big bowls for the chili are always first
  • plates for those putting chili on rice or hot dogs, if an option
  • slow cooker(s) with chili, ladles in spoon rests
  • hot dogs, if serving

Toppings:

Toppings for the chili are placed directly beside the slow cookers.

  • serve cold items like sour cream and shredded cheese in container of crushed ice to keep them cold
  • serve hot items like the rice or tater tots in a slow cooker to keep them warm
  • serve the queso fundido or nacho cheese in a fondue pot, slow cooker or small warming pot (my electric potpourri pot has a ceramic insert and is just the right size and temperature for melted cheese – requires a baby-sized ladle)
  • serve tater tots with the toppings
  • put a separate serving spoon for every topping

Section for salads & coleslaw:

Set this up as a free-standing section because there may be some who don’t want to line up for chili. It’s a good idea to set salads in bowls in larger containers of crushed ice to keep them from wilting.

  • small plates
  • veggies & dip with serving spoon
  • salads & coleslaw with serving tongs (easier to use with plate in hand)
  • dressings if you didn’t put it on the salad
  • croutons (can also go on chili)
  • garlic cheese baguette slices
  • forks
  • small napkins

Last items on chili bar buffet table:

These are ready to grab and go, no decisions or prepping necessary. Stand utensils in glasses to make them accessible or wrap them in a large napkin. (But make more napkins available too because chili con carne is one of those dishes that needs lots!)

Or . . . put these on the dining table or coffee table in the eating area to make it easy to have more than one.

  • spoons
  • lots of big napkins (make sure paper ones are colorfast)
  • rolls & butter dish with knife
  • cornbread
  • tortilla and corn chips
  • spinach dip

Beverages:

Beverages can be at the end of the buffet table, but it’s better to have a serving area near where everyone is seated so they can help themselves to more than one serving or selection.

Keep chilled beer, wine and cold water or soft drinks in a large container of crushed ice to keep them cold.

It’s a good idea to offer a hot beverage choice like apple cider or mulled wine. Keep it in a slow cooker with a ladle on a spoon rest. Put mugs and garnishes like cinnamon shaker, dried apples, cranberries or anise stars in a bowl and cinnamone sticks standing in a glass with it. Small napkins are a great idea too, and don’t have to match those at the chili bar so you can use ones left over from another party.

More Chili Bar Tips

Let your guests bring something:

Don’t feel that you have to do it all yourself. The great thing about a chili bar is it’s simplicity. You want to have control over the main food items like the chili and the toppings so it’s a success, but here are somethings guest can bring.

  • beer or wine
  • soda or bottles of water
  • brownies, cookies or other desserts
  • buns
  • appetizers for guests to enjoy while they wait for everyone to arrive (a simple veggie & dip platter is perfect, or spinach dip)
  • snack items like chips, crackers or corn chips
  • ask vegans to bring some snack items they enjoy
  • bowls or small plates & utensils so you will have enough for everyone
  • borrow a slow cooker for additional chili

Decorations:

  • use Mexican decorations you have on hand
  • if you’re using heavy duty disposible bowls, plates & utensils, make them festive
  • have napkins festive or match your color theme for the chili party

{Go Big} Turn it into a chili taste testing party

have a chili cook off

If you are serving several different kinds of chili, instead of requiring guests to choose, use small serving dishes so they are free to take a little of each one. You know they’ll want to anyway!

Decide if you want them to return to the chili bar to try each one separately – different ones may require different toppings, so this can be the best choice. If you want it to be a true “taste test” you may want to serve them together so they can compare.

Serving dish ideas:

{Keep it simple} Use a chili dinner board

Sandy at The Reluctant Entertainer is famous for The Big Board – a themed serving board that keeps a party simple.

Her chili serving board is a great way to serve chili to your family or crew of friends in front of the TV.

Great for watching the big game, the premier show or season finale of your favorite TV series or on movie night.

chili board

Want more? See all of our chili recipes.

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