Dinner Ideas for Unexpected Guests


Did you always want to be that cook who is ready for unexpected guests? It's not such an impossible feat. With our ideas, you can magically lay out beautiful meals at a moment's notice.

Where I live, being ready for guests comes naturally. "Stay for dinner!" is a common invitation when visits linger a little longer. Soon, you will be ready for those surprise drop ins, too.

First of all, at the minimum, you probably have one hour to bake a meal during the time you are visiting. This is totally do-able to come up with a last-minute meal idea and have enough time to cook the food. Even with 30 minutes or less, you can put some cold cuts out and drinks, ready to entertain in no time.

Best advice: keep a cheat sheet of meals that you can have ready for drop-in guests. For some reason, my mind seems to go blank with the sudden realization I have to feed someone I wasn't planning on!

What do you serve to an unexpected guest?

Feeding an unexpected or out of town guest is easy if you are prepared. Sometimes a short visit turns into inviting guests to stay for dinner. Here is a list of ideas to serve to unexpected guests when you don't have time to plan:

  • Meat, cheese, fruit and vegetable tray
  • BBQ
  • cold/hot sandwiches
  • soup
  • frozen food
  • casseroles
  • skillet meals
  • food wraps

PRO LAST-MINUTE GUEST TIP:

Clip pictures out of magazines or save images online for presentation and ingredient ideas. Often, there is no recipe needed, just substitute what you have and make it just as pretty as the picture!

What are some light refreshments?

Light refreshments are beverages, snacks and small servings of food that are not intended to be a full meal. These are often fed to guests, both in the home and at events for socializing and to keep people comfortable when a full meal isn't offered. Light refreshments are also offered out of polite etiquette.

Light refreshments include:

  • beverages such as coffee, tea, juice, soda/pop
  • chips, nuts
  • crackers and cheese
  • cut vegetables or fruit
  • cookies or snack bars

What is a light meal?

A light meal is a small meal that is easy to digest. It is more than snack food, but less than a full-course meal.

In terms of unexpected guests, a light meal is simple to prepare and not an extravagant affair. It would not involve a long time to cook. It should be easy and quick to prepare.  Here are examples of light meals:

  • soup with warm bread or crackers
  • cold cuts on a sandwich and chips on the side
  • tuna or chicken salad served on a bun
  • light salad with meat
  • grilled cheese and chips
  • meat and cheese tray with crackers
  • cut vegetables and fruit with dipping sauce

Plate of salad with radishes served with fresh bread.

Healthy and easy meal to feed surprise guests.

What to make for dinner

Perhaps you are looking for something a little more substantial than refreshments or a light meal. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be complicated. With today's convenience foods, it's easy to have a frozen entree in the freezer that's ready-to-bake for drop in guests.

Here are easy meals to make for dinner and recipes you can serve unexpected guests:

  •  Frozen entrees - prepare and serve with fresh salad on the side. FYI, the Schwan's Food company is a home frozen food delivery service that excels at making yummy frozen food entrees. There a little more expensive than what you find in the store, but you can feel confident that are serving guest-worthy food.
  • Baked potatoes only take 4 minutes in the microwave! Make a potato bar by popping open a can of chili, setting out toppings like shredded cheddar and sour cream.

Presentation and making guests feel welcome

Serving last minute guests doesn't have to lack a nice hostess touch. My friend who wouldn't dream of laying down a cheerful tablecloth first for guests. I invested in nicer "one step up" plates and glasses that are simple, elegant, and coordinate with everything. Take a look at your serving vessels and trays. Maybe it's time to go shopping and add a few attractive pieces to your dinner table.

I've filled in my serving utensils over the years because presentation matters. In the summer, I clip fresh flowers and add them to the table. If it's an evening meal, a candle is added for ambiance. I feel personally uplifted to glance over a table that was quickly put together and it sings "welcome to my home, glad you're here!"

One more thing to add, play some neutral, soft music in the background. It can fill awkward silence, but there probably won't be any. Music has an affect that relaxes people and contributes to a pleasant dining experience.

PRO LAST-MINUTE GUEST TIP:

Smart hosts have favorite go-to recipes for drop-in guests. In addition, they keep a few pantry staples that are perfect for quick and delicious meals.

Other ways to make guests feel welcome

Make sure that your guests know where the bathroom facilities are ahead of time. Using phrases like, "if you would like to freshen up, the restroom is over here" helps remove the awkwardness of them asking.

This may seem an odd thing to add, but think about pets - yours and your guests. If you have a pet in the house and it usually has free roam, remove it from the dining room. If a guest brings a pet (and more do these days), offer water for the pet and show consideration for its needs. Pets are like family and rude treatment towards the pet can offend your guest. 

At the same time, it's OK to set boundaries and plan a spot where a pet can stay while the meal is eaten. It's rude for pets to be present at meals (or be on laps when other guests are eating). I have a rule where our dog can and cannot go in our house, and it applies to guest pets as well. All you have to say is "Sorry! No pets in the living room/dining room, but here's a spot where he can feel comfy!"

Don't forget dessert!

Are you wondering what to serve guests after dinner? Lucky for you, quick desserts excel because guests are not expecting anything made from scratch on short notice.

Here are some fast and easy ways to serve a perfect after dinner treat:

  • Fancy cookies. A box or tin of these on hand is a nice touch. Fancy cookies come in pressed patterns, shapes, flavors. They may even have cream fillings or a glaze of chocolate. Set the cookies on a beautiful dish for serving presentation.  Pssst, I have been known to setup Girl Scout cookies in a pinch!
  • Fancy chocolate. My husband and I both like good quality chocolate (who doesn't?). With new flavors being paired with chocolate, it becomes a tasting adventure! Ever have chili chocolate, orange flecks, or rasberry filled chocolate? Truffles candy also makes guests feel special.
  • Instant pudding. If you have sundae glasses, layer the pudding with whipped topping. This can be made before the main meal is served, just pop it in the fridge and it will be set in time for your after dinner treat.
  • Ice cream. Pull a gallon out of your freezer and scoop individual servings into pretty dishes. If you have syrups or toppings such as sprinkles, you have an instant ice cream bar.
  • Frozen pie. My mother-in-law was the "ready-for-unexpected-guests" queen. She always made homemade pie crusts and stuffed them with apples off the apple tree, laden with sugar and cinnamon. Who wouldn't stick around for dessert when they could smell the delicious aroma wafting from the oven while the main meal was eaten? These days, a pie from the frozen food aisle can be a good substitute.
  • Cracker crumb pie crusts/frozen pie dough. The first option doesn't require refrigeration and can store in the pantry, ready to take out and fill with a pudding mixture. I can't believe what good textures frozen pie dough has these days (I'm a purist and make all my pies from scratch). Store a few canned pie fillings and, voilà!
  • Cake mixes. You would be surprised how many desserts can be morphed from a humble cake mix. Angel food cake can be topped with berries from the freezer. A "Buster Bars" cake can be made with chocolate cake mix, smeared with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. Don't forget brownies from a mix, which can be served with a scoop of ice cream on top.
  • Fancy liquor or after dinner drink. A fancy drink after a meal may be an ideal "dessert." This is a nice way to set the stage for relaxed, after dinner conversation.

    I would ask my boss when she brought brownies to the office if I could have her recipe, which turned out to just be a boxed brownie mix!
Easy layered desserts in assorted glass sizes.

Easy layered desserts in assorted glass sizes.

Beverages for unexpected guests

A beverage for guests can be as simple as a glass of water. In particular, water should always be offered on hot days, to the elderly and to pregnant women especially. For my European guests, I have purchased carbonated water for them, much to their delight.

Lemonade is often a safe favorite of many people, so it's good to have around. Powdered beverages make it convenient to whip up a pitcher of a flavored beverage and always good to have in the pantry.

Coffee and tea always bring friends together and it's easy to "put a pot on" for guests. Carbonated beverages (pop or soda pop) are nice to have on hand too, but not necessary to buy special if you don't consume it yourself.

In some cultures, it is expected that wine or beer would be served. It's more difficult to anticipate the palette of a guest when you don't know them well. If you want to go with wine, select one that is not too sweet or too dry.

What to stock up for unexpected guests

Stock up on food that is quick to prepare or set out. Here is a list of foods that you can stock up on in your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer that will help you be ready for drop in guests.

During the holidays

Pantry

  • crackers
  • nuts, snack mixes
  • chips
  • rice/noodles
  • pickles
  • powdered drink mixes
  • cake mixes
  • canned tuna, shrimp

Refrigerator

How do you stock a refrigerator for guests?

  • eggs
  • cheese
  • cut vegetables
  • lunch meat
  • Wine

Freezer

  • ready-bake chicken
  • microwaveable vegetables
  • pre-baked rolls
  • buns
  • canned juice
Friends having a light meal.

Friends having a light meal.

Must-have appliances for quick meals

Consider buying small appliances that would speed up meal preparation. I bought an air fryer for my family during a time I was away caring for a sick parent. It turned out to be an amazing addition to our quick meals arsenal.

Here is a list of appliances that speed up cooking when you have short notice guests are coming:

  • Instapot
  • air fryer
  • toaster oven
  • microwave

What to serve overnight guests

Feeding overnight guests can also be an easy endeavor. First, find out if your guests are early risers. If they get up before you, set out covered pastries and show them where glasses and juice are so they can help themselves. If you have a single-serve coffee machine, make sure the guests know how to use it before going to bed or pre-program your coffee machine to turn on for a welcome fresh pot of coffee. Be sure to set out tea bags and hot water options if guests prefer tea instead.

Some guests will not eat breakfast, or just a light breakfast, or need to take off early. You can honor light breakfast requests with cold cereal, breakfast meats, cut fruit, toast, or yogurt and granola.

This content was originally posted on EverythingPantry.com. If it appears on a website other than EverythingPantry.com, it is a copyright violation owned by EverythingPantry.com.

If you're like me who is from the Midwest, and only knows how to make big, hearty farm breakfasts, I suggest a breakfast casserole. This is a meal made in a 9x13 pan with layered bread, onions, green peppers, breakfast meat of choice, and a mix of beaten eggs and milk poured over and sprinkled with cheese. Takes 15 minutes to make and 1 hour to bake.

Instant waffle and pancake mixes are an easy and fast way to serve breakfasts to overnight guests. Turn it into a gourmet adventure with choices of fruit toppings (can be frozen, in a can, or fresh - this works with oatmeal, too), chopped nuts, and maple syrup and whipped cream. Serve breakfast meat on the side, or pop open a can of peaches for an additional side.

Other American favorites for breakfast are American fries or grits. American fries are just baked potatoes that are sliced and fried (preferably with onions). Scrambled eggs are another meal that cooks up quickly. If you have ham in the fridge or freezer, it can be tossed in for a more complete meal.

If you have a regional favorite breakfast, show it off! Maybe there is a popular bakery that makes the best stuffed long-johns around. Short cuts are allowed here!

Misc. questions about serving unexpected guests

What do you serve mid morning guests?

Coffee, tea. or orange juice are usually served to mid-morning guests. Any type of pastry, sweet rolls, or donuts makes a nice addition. At some public functions, fruit or yogurt may be offered, especially as a healthier alternative.

What do you serve guests in the afternoon?

Guests may like a carbonated beverage in the afternoon. Nuts, mixed snack mix, or chips are acceptable. 

What do you ensure guests feel welcome while waiting?

Always offer guests a beverage after the initial greeting. It's perfectly fine to visit with guests while preparing food. In fact, that is more desirable if you want to make the guests feel comfortable. Guests can become part of the meal preparation if you know them well enough or they offer to help with the meal.

I hope this article helped you to come up with some ideas to feed your drop in guests. Even if it's a casual get together, you can feel like a confident host or hostess knowing you have on hand what you need for unexpected guests!


About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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