10 Make-Ahead Appetizers for a Streamlined, Stress-Free Holiday

Get started on a bunch of stuff now, thank yourself later—big time.

December  3, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

A few years back, I came to the realization that the star of my holiday table is not in fact the turkey, or the ham, or even the crown rib roast. Though we all ostensibly come together for the picture-perfect moment when Dad carves up the big bird, or slices up the roast, the real excitement is the flurry of activity that happens around cocktail hour. Regardless of what's on the dinner menu, everyone jumps for the tartlets, canapés, and mile-long cheese board I place out hours before dinnertime. Who doesn’t love tasting different bites of cheesy, gooey, savory snacks before all the mashed potatoes and gravy?

I also realized that as much as my guests and I love appetizers, I seem to dread my appetizer prep each year (let’s face it—making 100 of anything can be time-consuming and just a little stressful). But, knowing I couldn’t give up my favorite little bites (give the people what they want!), I thought about what I could do to get them checked off the list well ahead of the big day. It soon dawned on me: If I chose wisely, many of my cocktail nibbles could be made weeks ahead of time and stockpiled in my freezer.

The process is simple: I pick a quiet Sunday that’s two, even three, weeks out from my big holiday dinner, and prep a whole boatload of apps. Once they are ready, I arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in them the freezer until they are just-frozen, about 45 minutes to an hour. Then, I transfer these just-frozen bites into their respective airtight, labeled storage containers or bags, and pop them back in the freezer. On the day we’re ready to eat them, I just have to get the oven to temperature, fill up my sheet pans with the apps, and begin rotating them in and out of the oven. Plate them on a few fancy platters when it's time to serve them up, and a stellar spread comes together really fast.

These 10 impressive appetizers are incredible when made ahead and frozen. Let them make your life a whole lot easier and seriously wow your guests when they join your holiday table.

Best Make-Ahead Christmas Appetizers

1. Bea's Cheese And Dill Danish

One of my favorite make ahead appetizers is from Bea, a contributor to my cookbook Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. It’s a beautiful, braided bread, filled with cheese and dill, and it’s quite the showstopper on the holiday table. It also happens to freeze beautifully, which lets me do the heavy lifting weeks in advance, and simply bake it and slice the bread on the day of my event.

2. "Everything" Pigs in a Blanket

It’s no surprise that these nostalgic snacks are among the first to go in my party spread. Basically made for the freezer, these are super-forgiving when prepped in advance. I roll them up to a month ahead of time and load them up in freezer-friendly storage containers, then bake them off when party time is nigh. I guarantee when the hungry guests arrive, these piggies will not make it to market because as soon as you turn your back, the dish will be empty.

3. Nonna Gina's Stuffed Mushrooms

My mom’s stuffed mushrooms always come to the rescue when I have a swarm of people expected for a holiday dinner. I make up the stuffing well in advance and roll them into small balls, then freeze them and tuck them away until the big event. When guests are about to come around, all I have to do is pop the frozen stuffing balls into the mushroom caps and bake them off. The mushrooms are hearty and full of flavor, and worth the advance planning.

4. Brie en Croute

Store-bought puff pastry is a make-ahead superstar. Easy to roll out and manipulate, a number of appetizers are born from these butter-filled sheets. My holiday cheese board even makes use of this helpful tool, as the centerpiece is always brie en croute: a magnificent wheel of brie wrapped in puff pastry and baked, until golden-brown on the outside and bubbly and molten on the inside. Hot, gooey and delicious, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the bread, crackers, marinated olives, and salumi that lives on the board. Even better: Brie en croute can be fully assembled and placed in the freezer weeks in advance.

5. 10-Minute Parmesan & Mustard Pinwheels

Another puff pastry star is the simple and classic pinwheel. Since it's so versatile and easy to assemble, you can get creative with fillings (like the Parmesan and mustard versions below, or these ones with mushroom and thyme), and portion and freeze a bunch for when you need them.

6. Fig & Blue Cheese Savories

Speaking of showstopping cheese boards, I always pop some cheesy cookies like these in the oven to add to the spread. A few weeks (sometimes, even a month or two!) ahead, I make up the dough and tightly wrap it for safekeeping in the freezer. The morning of my event, I let it defrost, roll, and fill. With half the work done in advance, the cookies are ready for action in no time at all.

7. Baked Tofu & Vegetable Egg Rolls

On a day when meat is often the dinner star, it’s important to make a few dishes my vegetarian guests will truly enjoy. Because they are baked, there’s no need to fuss with hot oil—especially when real estate on the stove is truly precious.

8. Phyllo Stuffed with Lamb, Spinach & Feta

I love phyllo dough. It’s so versatile and good for both savories and sweets: baklava, spinach pie, or even as a creative swap for pie dough! For a make-ahead savory bite, these little lamb starters are an unexpected treat on the holiday cocktail table. Swap out the lamb for another protein if you wish, but I suggest serving them as-is for something totally delicious and different.

9. Crab Rangoon Flowers

These little flowers will be a welcomed addition to the spread. Inspired by a take-out Chinese restaurant treat, not only are these super tasty, the presentation just screams holiday merriment. Simply assemble them and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze them for about 30 minutes. Once they are fully frozen, place them in storage containers and back in the freezer they go until needed. Best yet, there is no need to defrost; just pop them back on a baking sheet, and right into the oven.

10. Date Asiago Gougeres

And finally, these savory-sweet puffs are a holiday table must. I double the batch before I freeze them because they inevitably get gobbled up before the big dinner, but people still ask for them when we're seated at the holiday table.

What are the make-ahead appetizers you turn to for a stress-free, streamlined holiday? Let us know in the comments.
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Pranita D. December 18, 2019
everything is perfect here.
Mary L. December 5, 2019
Are any of these gluten free? They all seem to have wheat.
Author Comment
Anna F. December 9, 2019
Hi Mary! You can make my mom's stuffed mushroom with gluten free crackers instead of the Ritz and they will work out just fine. I have also made them with gluten free breadcrumbs with success.
Braless C. December 4, 2019
I wrote the recipe for the gougeres years ago and had completely forgotten that I uploaded them on this site. Seeing them featured here made my day!
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Anna F. December 4, 2019
Well I’m glad that you did! What a great recipe