11 Ideas for Build-Your-Own Dinner Nights

Suzanne Cowden

Every time I set up a dinner bar for my family, I promise myself to do it more often. Not only is the preparation super-easy, Build-Your-Own Dinner Nights are incredibly versatile, and this is a definite a bonus if you have picky eaters at your house. Better than that, though, dinner bars turn meal time into an art project of sorts, which adds fun and engagement to family meal-time. You simply need a blank canvas, in the form of baked potatoes or tortillas, pasta, etc. to decorate with various toppings, like cheese, vegetables, sauces, etc.

Aside from family meals, dinner bars add something special to parties of all kinds. My sister-in-law set up a pasta bar the last time we gathered at her house. It made preparing dinner for a crowd super simple, but the resulting dinner felt anything but simple. She set out bowls of pasta, various sauces, cheeses, and other toppings, along with French bread and Caesar Salad. This perfect meal reminded me, once again, of the virtues of the dinner bar idea.

And here’s the very best part of the dinner bar meal concept: it doesn’t require recipes or any elaborate preparations (unless, of course, you’re feeling super-ambitious and want to hand make sauces or other ingredients). Aside from preparing your base and toppings and setting them out in a self-serve buffet, there’s really nothing to it. So relax and let your family and friends get creative as they prepare their own meals. Everyone gets what they want, so everyone will be happy!

Use the following ideas as starting places to help you plan some awesome spreads that are bound to become the most requested meals in your household.

10 Ideas for Build-Your-Own Dinner Nights
Rice Bowl Bar

Rice bowls are easy to prepare, but why limit yourself to plain rice? Try using quinoa, couscous, or barley to mix things up a bit. Topping ideas include cilantro, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, grated cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped red pepper, roasted vegetables, beans or chili, steak, grilled chicken, and salsa. Or you can go for Asian fare with a variety of roasted veggies, chicken, shrimp and a little teriyaki to top it off.


Tortilla Bar

Tortillas come in many forms. Use corn tortillas to make tacos or tostadas, flour tortillas to set up a burrito bar, or corn chips to make nachos. (Here’s a tip for the nacho bar idea: give each diner a piece of parchment paper. Spread chips over the paper and add toppings. Slide the parchment paper onto a baking sheet and warm under the broiler until cheese is melted.) Also, it’s also easier than you think to make tortilla bowls, which your kids will love using these:

However you set up your tortilla bar, here are some topping ideas that work with all of them: chopped chicken, steak, or pork, roasted vegetables, chopped fresh vegetables, black, pinto, or refried beans, grated cheese, chopped cilantro, various salsas and hot sauces.

flatbreadMediterranean Flat Bread Bar

Soft, chewy flat bread makes a perfect meal base. Create taco-like sandwiches to hold fillings or tear the flat bread into pieces to scoop up your food. You can even toast pita wedges or buy pita chips to create nachos with a Mediterranean flair. Toppings ideas include hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant dip), falafel, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, chopped tomatoes, chopped cucumber, chopped mint and parsley, chopped chicken, lamb, or beef.

potatoesPotato Bar

With the right toppings, potatoes make for a hearty meal. Prepare baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, oven roasted fries — or a combination — for your diners to customize. Topping ideas include sliced green onions, chopped chives, grated cheese, diced tomatoes, corn, roasted vegetables, chopped bacon, chopped ham (or chicken, or steak), beans, chili, barbecue sauce, salsas, Tabasco sauce, butter, and sour cream.

pastaPasta Bar

Depending on the size of your crowd and how elaborate you want to get, you can prepare one type of pasta or serve a variety – spaghetti, penne, fusilli, or other fun shapes.  Prepared marinara sauce, pesto, or meat sauces are easy to heat and serve in large bowls. Grated Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, fresh mozzarella, and feta cheeses work well.  Other toppings include chopped chicken, meatballs, roasted vegetables, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and chopped basil or other herbs.

saladSalad Bar

Most people don’t think of salad as a main meal, but with the right toppings, a salad bar is both hearty and fulfilling.  Include a variety of fresh lettuces — romaine, baby greens, spinach, or arugula — either in one bowl or separate bowls, and offer chopped grilled chicken or other meat, hard-boiled eggs, grilled vegetables, chopped cheese, and grains like quinoa or barley, along with chopped fresh vegetables to make your salad bar meal-worthy. The addition of sprouts, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, olives, marinated artichoke hearts, chopped herbs, croutons, goldfish crackers, and diced bacon, along with several dressing choices, will enable people to customize to their hearts’ content.

sandwichSandwich Bar

Who doesn’t love a sandwich with all the right fillings and spreads? Since everyone’s idea of the perfect sandwich looks different, creating a sandwich bar ensures that everyone gets that perfect sandwich. Set out rolls or bread (or both), a variety of cold cuts, sliced cheeses, along with sliced tomatoes, sprouts, shredded carrots, sliced avocado, chopped red onion, thinly sliced cucumbers, chopped lettuce, as well as marinated vegetables like pickles, pepperoncini, or sauerkraut to give people plenty of choices. In addition to standard sandwich spreads like mayonnaise and mustard, include hummus, cream cheese, tapenade, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, sriracha, or barbecue sauce as well.

pizzaPizza Bar

While creating a pizza bar with homemade dough is a fun treat, it’s easy and delicious to use toasted French bread, English muffins, or prepared Boboli pizza crusts to simplify the pizza bar concept. Including marinara, pesto, barbecue, and hoisin sauces to spread on the crust opens up all kinds of flavor possibilities. Topping ideas include a variety of chopped fresh vegetables, artichoke hearts, black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, choppped herbs like basil, parsley, or cilantro, meats like pepperoni, chopped chicken, diced bacon, barbecued pork, or chopped ham, as well as fruits like pineapple, sliced stone fruit, or dried cherries. If you like, include a variety of cheeses in addition to mozzarella and Parmesan, like cheddar, feta, or Gruyere. For a fresh twist, include fresh arugula or spinach to add on top of the pizzas after they come out of the oven.

bloody-maryBloody Mary Bar

If you’re hosting brunch anytime soon, consider trying out a cocktail bar so everyone can craft their own perfect Bloody Mary. In addition to vodka, include plenty of tomato juice or V8, and provide Tabasco, sriracha, horseradish, mustard, fresh lemon and lime juice, vinegars, Worcestershire sauce, mirin, and ponzu sauce for mixing. Let people round out the flavors with cracked black pepper, fancy salts, and even soy sauce or fish sauce for adding an interesting salty edge. For garnish, include a variety of fresh vegetables like carrot and celery slices, cucumber wedges, radishes, and cherry tomatoes, as well as pickled veggies, like pepperoncini, pickles, olives, onions, baby corns, and capers.

ice-cream-sundaeIce Cream Bar

This idea is bound to become the most popular food bar idea of all. Offer several ice cream flavors, along with hot fudge, caramel sauce, chopped strawberries, bananas, and other fruit, as well as marshmallows, chopped nuts, chocolate chips, and other small (or chopped up) candies. Don’t forget the whipped cream and cherries for the top, and if you want to be a true hero, include as many choices of sprinkles as you can.


Once you get started thinking about ways to let diners prepare their own meals, it’s hard to stop. Other great, but slightly more involved ideas include omelet bars, sweet or savory or crepe bars, and even burger bars.

Why not brainstorm food bar ideas with family members? You’re sure to come up with some creative new approaches to the bar concept, like the one my genius kids thought of on our last camping trip — the Hot Cocoa Bar!

hot-cocoaHot Cocoa Bar

Why settle for cocoa with marshmallows when you can add colorful sprinkles, chocolate sauce, caramel, a cinnamon stick, a candy cane, AND whipped cream? Little shakers with espresso powder, cocoa powder, and ground cinnamon are great for garnishing, as is fresh nutmeg or a bar of dark chocolate with a small grater. Most importantly, though, why let the kids have all the fun? Let’s add options for grown-ups like Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, and Peppermint Schnapps. Cheers!


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Easy dinners when you have guests over or for your own picky eaters! These build-your-own dinners can be whipped up in a flash.

 This post was written by Suzanne Cowden exclusively for BonBon Break Media, LLC.

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Suzanne Cowden focuses on food as centerpiece for both everyday routines and special occasions. Each recipe featured on Flour Arrangements, from simple loaves of bread to fondant decorated birthday cakes, comes with a story that blends life with cooking. Suzanne lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughters.