The Well-Stocked Kitchen: Our Essential Serving Dishes

We received a question from a reader asking about the most useful and essential serving pieces. Carrie said that she just inherited a set of fine china, but the set (as well as her everyday Fiestaware) has no serving pieces. If you're in the market for serving pieces, like Carrie, what should you get? Here are our picks for the most useful, basic, and essential serving dishes, and we'd love to hear your take on this as well. I have to preface this list with a disclaimer: I adore servingware. I have far more cake plates than I will ever need (bad habit, that) and I always look longingly at the platters, bowls and footed stands on sale at every home store I walk into. So perhaps my few essentials here are still more than you would need, but I did pick them with an eye to adaptability, versatility, and practicality. And there's nary a cake stand among them!

This list doesn't cover serving utensils; we'll cover that some other time. These are just the dishes. Also, I decided not to give you fancy and practical versions of the same things. I feel that, depending on your entertaining style, if you choose classic-enough serving dishes they're equally as good for an outdoor barbecue as for Thanksgiving dinner. And of course adjust for your own style; these are mostly basic, classic whiteware; you may want serving pieces with more flair and color!

• 1. Several small to midsize serving bowls - These can actually be the cereal bowls in your china set, although I feel that midsize pasta bowls are the perfect thing for serving a lot of food at the table. They're not huge, and they hold plenty of rice or pasta for a dinner party of three or four. They are also good for bread; fold in a nice towel over half a loaf of sliced bread or a dozen biscuits. Source: Large Bistro Bowls, 8" diameter. $5.95 each at Crate & Barrel.

• 2. Large serving bowl - Along with your smaller pasta-sized bowls, I find that it's helpful to have a large bowl for when your main dish is something that needs to be served in a bowl, like a mixed pasta or a big salad. Source: Bistro Serving Bowl, 11.75" diameter. $14.95 at Crate & Barrel. The companion serving bowl to the Bistro Bowls above.

• 3. Oversized and dramatic serving bowl - One more bowl! I often use three bowls for dinner: A smaller soup or pasta bowl with bread, then a large serving bowl with salad, then a big centerpiece bowl with a mixed pasta or grain salad. Source: MUD Nest Bowl, $100 at Horne. This is an expensive piece, I realize, but I included it because I feel that this big, centerpiece serving bowl is the place to perhaps spend a little more. I love organic, asymmetrically shaped bowls like this one. But look at the sale shelf at Anthropologie, as well as at discount stores like TJ Maxx. Those are great places to find both basic and unique servingware.

• 4. Square platter - A square platter (or two) is good for serving dessert, like cake or cookies, as well as some main dishes. I find that a square platter is a little more versatile than a round one. Source: Chelsea Serverware, $42 at Williams-Sonoma.

• 5. Oval platter - A good platter for serving a whole chicken, a mess of asparagus, or any other big meat dish or roasted vegetables. Source: Italian Whiteware Oval Serving Platter, $32 for the largest size at Sur La Table. This is a little deeper than the type of platter I have, but that might add to its versatility.

Just to repeat: All of these items are for example; you can probably find much better deals and prices at Target, IKEA, and TJ Maxx and other discount stores. But these were pretty good representations of the pieces I use every day for serving food.

This list also doesn't include the everyday items that I often use for serving at the table; I reuse a lot of cookware and baking dishes when entertaining. For instance:

• A nice big cutting board doubles as a cheese board and appetizer platter.
Ramekins do double duty as prep cups and individual dessert cups.
• The red or black Dutch oven is always handsome enough to bring to the table.
• As mentioned above, soup bowls and other small bowls are always handy for serving fruit, rice, and vegetables.
• Plain white gratin dishes can be pressed into service too.

OK, those are my own basics, and all of those are quite close to things I actually own. What about you? Any total essentials for entertaining, dining, and having dinner with friends?

Related: Coveting: Antipasti Platter from Jamie Oliver

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