If you keep a bunch of finger food items on hand with different flavors and textures, you can have friends over for an evening of grazing without having to cook an entire meal. Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Oliver

It might be for a picnic, drinks on the porch or an easygoing lunch alone or with a friend. You can take it with you to work or in the car on a trip. Have friends over for an evening of grazing without having to cook an entire meal.

The idea is to have a bunch of different flavors and textures and be able to eat it with your fingers or minimal utensils. You can even purchase a lot of the meal and keep it on hand so all you have to do is assemble it.

It ought to be lovely to look at, fun to eat, and as wholesome as you can manage — perfect for anytime you need a few bites to get you through to the next meal without having to resort to fast food or snacking on junk.

Because I am an omnivore, I like having some meat like salami, prosciutto, ham and summer sausage, plus soft cheese like cream cheese, blue cheese or brie, along with fish like smoked salmon, trout, oysters and mussels. Add olives, pickles and crudites, too.

For spreads or dips, you can make your own dip like hummus or the classic spinach and artichoke combo or tzatziki made with cucumbers, yogurt, sour cream and garlic or buy them ready-made. They go down deliciously with crackers, breadsticks, pita or bagel chips, all of which you can buy. You can also purchase toasted baguette slices or make your own. If you feel like taking an extra step, you can turn the toasted baguette into crostini by adding chopped tomatoes, avocado, or crab meat. Crab salad or, if you can swing it, lobster prove a great treat.

This doesn’t have to go high end. If canned tuna is what you have, turn it into salad, and if you want to, make little tuna melts. When I don’t feel like messing with chickpeas and I don’t have canned ones to make hummus, I can toss some other bean like pinto, or black beans or canned cannellini into a blender, whirl it up adding salt, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, or cumin or chili powder to make a dip. Basil pesto stirred into mayonnaise for another dip is delicious.

Cream cheese is a must-have, a chunk on a plate spread with chutney, or jam, or savory jelly like garlic or onion jam. A little cream cheese spread on celery sticks proves very easy and cheap. Speaking of celery, if there are youngsters, put peanut butter in the celery grooves and add a few raisins on top for Bugs on a Log.

You can make your own tapenade — finely chop black olives, capers, garlic and anchovies into a paste with olive oil, lemon juice and basil — or buy it. You can keep it in the pantry or fridge for quite a long time. Look for small savory items like this to keep on hand for surprise company or a spontaneous spread of little treats.

Depending on how ambitious you feel, deviled eggs are a great addition, and I don’t know many people who won’t hoover up a couple or three. Hot hors d’oeuvres take the next level of energy beyond assembling, purely optional depending on your time, ambition and whether you are serving this repast at home or not.

For a sweet to go with this, keep it simple. Fruit like grapes, clementine slices, strawberries, pineapple chunks and banana slices go nicely, and if you feel like putting a few on a skewer, that makes them easy to eat and look gorgeous on a plate. Cookies, bars or even chocolate bon bons or truffles work as well.

Stock up on a few basics, like olives, pickles and jarred spreads. Keep a couple of boxes of your favorite crackers on hand all the time. Dried salami keep for a long time in the fridge, even after you begin to cut into them. Slice them and hard cheeses for easy handling.

Entertaining in summer ought not keep you in the kitchen every minute. This spread, highly transportable, works indoors and out. It’s fun to eat in winter, too. You can pile it on, or select just a few favorites. Give your guests a small plate that they can heap up with their choices and come back for more. Then stand back and listen to your family and friends say, “Mmmm, mmmm.”

A Variable Veritable Feast

Pick something from each category to taste. Add anything you like.

  — Meat: salami, prosciutto, ham, thinly sliced roast beef, kielbasa, summer sausage

  — Fish and shellfish: smoked salmon, trout, oysters, mussels, crab, tuna, lobster salad, shrimp

  — Vegetable crudites: carrots, cucumbers, celery, fresh green or red peppers, endive, blanched broccoli, cauliflower, green beans

  — Cheese: a hard cheese like cheddar, jack, gouda; blue cheese or gorgonzola; soft cheese like brie, cream cheese, goat cheese

  — Pickles and olives: kalamata, green stuffed with pimiento, pepper or jalapeno; pickled onions or garlic, pepperoncini; roasted red peppers, cucumber, dilly beans

  — Bread: crackers of any kind, including rice crackers, pita chips, flatbreads, bread sticks, corn chips

  — Homemade or purchased spreads and dips: tapenade, tzatziki, hummus, artichoke and spinach, mayonnaise with mustard or pesto, aioli sauce, ranch dressing, salsa, sour cream, Boursin, sour cream and horseradish

  — Fruit: slices of apple, pear, banana or clementine sections, strawberries, chunks or slices of pineapple, melon, kiwi, star fruit, grapes (both green and red)

Simply assemble these on cutting boards and platters, with bread and crackers in a basket, dips and spreads in small bowls.

If time and energy permit, consider assembling a few on crackers or toasted bread rounds and garnishing with parsley or chives to make crostini or bruschetta; or more simply, spread cream cheese on a few crackers, add dab of chutney or jam. Fill some celery with cream cheese, garnish with chopped olive. String some fruit on a small skewer for easy eating.

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...