The Ultimate Guide to the Best Chili Bar

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Learn how to set up a chili bar for the ultimate in entertaining! Chili bars are perfect for tailgating, holiday parties, or just getting together with friends. Read on for my best tips!

We make chili a lot at my house. No matter whether I was living in Wisconsin, Texas, or Illinois, chili was always a frequent star on the menu.

Overhead of mugs of three bean chili with bread, cheese, and pickled onions off the sides.

Chili is perfect for game day, birthday parties, or really any gathering when you have a lot of hungry folks! We make it for our annual cookie party, dinner with friends, and honestly, just because sometime we want to hunker down with a warm bowl of something cozy (and maybe a little spicy).

When you’re making chili for a group, the best way to serve it is to set up a chili bar. Everyone loves to add their own spin on chili, so why not make it easier?

Chili bar equipment

You might be thinking, what do you mean, equipment? For chili? Absolutely!

From my years of planning events and serving people at buffets, one thing I know is that you need to make sure you have plenty of bowls, cups, spoons, and more. No one wants to have to leave the party to go find another ladle!

Slow cookers – No matter how many varieties of chili you’re serving, you’ll likely need at least one crock pot to keep it hot. 

While slow cookers don’t use a ton of energy, I recommend plugging them into outlets that are on different circuits. There’s nothing fun about blowing a fuse during a party!

Borrow extra slow cookers from your guests in advance. Don’t forget, an Instant Pot can also double as a slow cooker!

Bowls – Time to grab all of your bowls! You’ll want at least one bowl for each guest. If you have lots of children in attendance, consider getting a pack of disposable bowls — they’re definitely going to use more than one. 

Don’t have a lot of bowls on hand? Coffee mugs are a great alternative!

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Serving spoons – Have enough ladles or serving spoons for each kind of chili you’re serving, plus one more just in case! 

Spoons – Make sure to have spoons for eating the chili as well as for toppings. Have plenty of extras just in case.

Forks – For extra-thick chili, or for grabbing heftier toppings out of bowls.

Tongs I like having a few small pairs of tongs on hand. They’re the easiest tool for grabbing shredded cheese, lettuce, or corn chips.

Napkins – There will be messes. Trust me.

Chili varieties for a chili bar

I like to offer at least two kinds of chili when I’m serving a crowd. This is a great idea if you have pickier eaters among the group, vegetarians, or those who might not like their chili quite as spicy.

A classic ground beef and bean chili like my Christmas Eve chili is my top choice. For a lighter take, go with turkey quinoa chili. It’s full of delicious vegetables too!

For a bean-free option try bison chili. You can swap ground beef in for the bison.

Want vegetarian chili? Opt for three bean chili, butternut squash chili, or sweet potato black bean chili.

Bowl of bison chili with shredded cheese and jalapeños on top.

Options for chili toppings

There are so many ways to top a bowl of chili. You could probably choose something different on your chili every time and never have the same flavor combination!

Cheeses – Cheese is a must for our chili! We like shredded cheddar cheese or pepper jack cheese. Crumbled queso fresco or cotija are also good options.

Pickles – Add pickled jalapeños for heat, or pickled red onions for a tangy sweetness.

Fresh produce – Chop some white onion, tomato, or lettuce to add to the options. Sliced or diced avocado is a must too!

Crunchy items – Turn your chili into a Frito pie or walking taco with corn chips or flavored tortilla chips. Corn nuts are also a delicious choice!

Hot sauce – We always have a variety of hot sauces on hand, especially for chili night. Hot sauces make it so easy for guests to add as much fiery spice as they like without changing up the whole batch of chili.

Extras – Offer lime wedges, sour cream or Mexican crema, and chopped fresh cilantro.

fork holding pickled jalapeño over jar

How to set up the chili bar

You’ll want to prep ahead of time to make everything as smooth as possible. Not only does that mean making your chili, but getting the setup in order!

The layout of your house/kitchen will determine the specifics of how you set up your chili bar, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Have the bowls, spoons, and napkins in a central area. If you can set up the spread like a standard buffet line, place the bowls at the start of the line. A small kitchen island is a great place for staging the bowls and spoons. Or if you’re short on counter space and need the island for toppings, a small rolling kitchen cart is handy.

Label the chili. This is especially crucial if you’re serving guests who have special dietary needs. Note the variety of chili and any possible allergens. Be sure to attach it either to the table or the slow cooker.

Don’t cluster everything together. You want to make sure there is space for people to move down the line, allowing people to pop out if needed. This might mean having the chili in the kitchen, with the toppings arranged on a sideboard in the dining room, or on the dining table itself.

It’s equally important to have some space between the toppings so cheese doesn’t get dropped into salsa or a spoonful of guacamole doesn’t plop into the bowl of chips.

Use a table covering. Trust me, you don’t want to have to scrub dried chili off your countertops or wooden table after the guests have gone home! Disposable tablecloths or butcher paper are a must. Plus, you can write your food labels directly on them!

What to serve alongside a chili bar

Sure, you could just eat chili, but this is a party! Add a few other bites to go along with.

Air fryer tortilla chips are a great choice, especially if you’re adding dips like garlic guacamole to the table.

Speaking of dips, add on some salsa roja or tomatillo salsa. (They both make great chili toppings too!)

Chili is also great alongside warm buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins. Slather with butter or crumble for a topping!

Add a few lighter sides as well, like crunchy jicama salad or slaw.

Roasted garlic guacamole is perfect for any party, any time of year.

What are the best drinks to serve with a chili bar?

When you’re entertaining, it’s crucial to not forget the drinks! I like having a good variety on hand, but not so many options that you have to play bartender.

Soda and sparkling waters are a must. Chill them alongside your favorite beers — I love Shiner Bock with chili! If you’ve used beer to make the chili, definitely offer a few bottles or cans of the same brand for drinking.

Mason jar margaritas are a must-have for summertime. No patio is complete without a margarita!

A spicy Michelada is a great option for your chili bar, too!

My husband and I enjoy frozen margaritas with chili, and you can make a batch in advance to have at the ready. You can also make a pitcher of serrano cucumber margaritas to serve on the rocks.

Storing leftover chili

Even if you’ve got a crowd partaking in your chili feast, chances are you’ll have leftovers! The great news is that chili is even better the next day after the flavors have had time to meld in the fridge.

Store any leftover chili in an airtight container. For the refrigerator, we like to use either deli containers or glass Pyrex containers with well-fitting lids.

Leftover chili should be eaten within 3 days. If you don’t plan to eat it that quickly, freeze your leftovers!

When freezing chili, it’s important to keep in mind that freezing will cause some expansion of the liquid. Be sure to leave some empty space in your containers so they don’t crack in the freezer.

I like to freeze chili in individual portions using deli containers or silicone trays like SouperCubes. They make it easy to reheat just the amount I want.

You can store chili for 3 to 6 months in the freezer. Don’t forget to label all the different varieties!

To thaw, simply transfer the container to the refrigerator overnight. Or, pop the frozen chili out of the container and reheat it slowly in a saucepan on the stove.

Chili is one of the best ways to feed a crowd, and with these tips, you’ll have the best chili bar of the year!


About Megan

I focus on fresh ingredients and easy methods, with spins that keep meals interesting. Dinnertime shouldn’t be stressful or complicated, and I’m here to help you enjoy the time spent in the kitchen. Read more…

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