Chili is a popular dish for feeding a crowd and is perfect for game day, birthday parties, and Sunday night dinners. I’m sharing my favorite way to set up the ultimate chili bar. Armed with a couple of chili options and countless toppings, guests can customize their own bowl of chili however they like.

In addition to chili recipes and topping ideas, I’ll also share information on how much of everything to have on hand, how to plan and prep ahead of time, and how to keep everything hot, fresh and ready for guests.

How Many Chili Options to Have

When it comes to a chili bar, it’s always a good idea to have more than one chili option. This is especially true if you’re hosting a large event. Having different types of chili will give your guests more variety and make the experience more fun. However, if you’re hosting a smaller event, you can stick with one chili recipe. In general, having two to three different chili recipes is a good idea.

One great chili recipe to include in your chili bar is chicken chili. Chicken chili is a lighter alternative to beef chili and is perfect for those who don’t eat red meat. It’s also an easy recipe to make in a slow cooker, which is perfect for hosting a party. Try this 30-Minute Instant Pot Chicken Chili or have fun with the flavors and make this Slow-Cooker Buffalo Chicken Chili.

Another chili recipe to include in your chili bar is this Smoky Chipotle Black Bean Chili made with both ground beef and bacon. This recipe is perfect for those who love a hearty and spicy chili. We also love to make our Quick Chili because it’s easy, loaded with flavor and won’t add much work to your plate or ingredients to your grocery list.

And finally, if you have some vegetarians joining you for dinner, make sure to offer a vegetarian chili. We love this Instant Pot Vegetarian Chili because it’s absolutely loaded with flavor and texture. It will be popular all around! You could also try this Vegetarian Bean Chili or Sweet Potato Chili.

Overhead image of chili in a white bowl, one set on a wood board, the other on the counter.

How Many Toppings to Have

The number of toppings you offer at your chili bar will depend on how many chili options you have. If you’re only offering one chili recipe, you can get away with fewer toppings. However, if you’re offering multiple chili options, you’ll want to have more toppings available. In general, having six to eight different toppings is a good idea.

Toppings to Offer

When it comes to toppings, the possibilities are endless. Here are some ideas for toppings to include in your chili bar:

  1. Shredded cheese: Shredded cheese is a must-have topping for any chili bar. Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Colby are all great options.
  2. Diced tomatoes: Diced tomatoes are a fresh and flavorful addition to any bowl of chili.
  3. Sour cream: Sour cream is a cooling addition to any spicy chili. For something lighter, offer Greek yogurt.
  4. Peppers: If you like your chili spicy, sliced jalapeños or serranos are a great topping option.
  5. Green onions: Green onions are a must-have topping for a chili bar!
  6. Herbs: offer cilantro or parsley for a fresh finish to any kind of chili. Chives are also a great option.
  7. Corn: Fresh, frozen and thawed, or canned corn are all great options for topping chili with.
  8. Cabbage: Shredded cabbage (or Mexican Slaw) is a great addition to any chili bar. You can leave the shredded cabbage raw, or dress it lightly with olive oil, lime juice, and salt.
  9. Avocado or guacamole: Avocado adds a creamy texture, healthy fat and fiber to the chili bar. Our easy guacamole is a reader favorite and can be served as a side dish as well.
  10. Cornbread: Cornbread is a classic side dish for chili. It’s also great for soaking up all the delicious chili flavors. Plus, it can be crumbled over top of the chili.
  11. Tortilla chips: Tortilla chips are a great topping for chili. They add a crunchy texture and are perfect for dipping.
  12. Fritos: Fritos are a must for any great chili bar. They add a salty, crunchy bite and can be used as a dipper (not just a topping).
  13. Salsa or hot sauce: Both are a great way for guests to increase the spiciness of the chili to their liking.
  14. Canned beans: If your chili recipes don’t have beans in them, offer some beans as a topping. Black beans and kidney beans are both great options.
  15. Red onion: Minced red onion adds a punch of fresh flavor.
  16. Lime wedges: Offer lime wedges at the end of the chili bar so guests can squeeze them over top of the chili right before enjoying.
pot of chili on a blue table with toppings set around it in small bowls

How to Set Up a Chili Bar

Keep the Chili Warm

It’s important to keep the chili warm in slow cookers or in pots on the stovetop over low heat.

Keep the Cold Toppings, Cold

The intention with a chili bar is to have it set out for a while so guests can eat at their leisure. For food safety reasons, it’s important to keep the chili warm and the cold toppings cold. Place any cold toppings like sour cream or Greek yogurt over ice (just place the bowl or container inside a large bowl filled with ice).

Make an Assembly Line

Organize the chili bar to encourage efficiency. Set the bowls at the beginning of the bar followed by the chili, sour cream, veggie toppings, cheese, chips and finally the herbs. End the chili bar with spoons and napkins.

Plan Ahead

Have Enough Bowls

Do a quick inventory on how many bowls you have—make sure you have enough for serving each guest plus enough for holding each topping.

Make the Chili Ahead of Time

Make the chili ahead of time! Most chili recipes are actually better after a day or two in the refrigerator. You can make the chili up to 3 days ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator. For longer storage, store the chili in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Prep Toppings Ahead

A chili bar is very easy to set up thanks to many of the toppings being unfussy. Shredded cheese, chips, sour cream, salsa, and canned beans can be dumped into bowls right before serving.

Here’s what I recommend for toppings that require a bit of prep work.

  • Scallions, onions and peppers can be sliced, diced and chopped up to 1 day ahead of time. Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Cornbread can be made up to 2 days ahead of time. Cover tightly in plastic wrap and foil and store at room temperature.
  • Avocado should not be prepped until right before serving. Guacamole can be made about 30 minutes head of time.
  • Cabbage can be shredded and slaw can be made up to 1 day ahead of time. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
chili in a brown bowl topped with sour cream and shredded cheese

What Kind of Event to Set Up a Chili Bar For

A chili bar is a great idea for a variety of events. Here are some events where a chili bar would be a perfect fit:

  1. Game day / tailgating: A chili bar is perfect for game day or tailgating. It’s an easy and casual way to feed a crowd.
  2. Birthday party: A chili bar is a fun and unique idea for a birthday party. It’s perfect for both kids and adults.
  3. Chili cookoff: A chili bar is a great idea for a chili cook-off! Invite friends and family over and have everyone bring their favorite chili recipe to share. Have each guest cast a vote for their favorite chili and see who wins the crown!
  4. Fall gathering: A chili bar is a great idea for a fall gathering. It’s warm and comforting and perfect for a cozy night in.

Side Dish Ideas

When it comes to serving chili, there are plenty of great side dish options. Here are some ideas for side dishes to serve with your chili:

  1. Salad: A fresh and crisp salad is the perfect side dish to serve with chili. It helps balance out the richness of the chili. We like to serve our Celery Salad or Mexican Coleslaw.
  2. Cornbread: Cornbread is a classic side dish for chili. It’s easy to make and the perfect complement to a hot bowl of chili. Make our Healthy Skillet Cornbread, or if you need it to be gluten-free, make our Gluten-Free Cornbread.
  3. Baked potatoes: Baked potatoes are a great side dish for chili. They’re hearty and filling and can be customized with a variety of toppings.
  4. Mac and cheese: Mac and cheese is a great side dish option for those who love a little extra comfort food with their chili. Try out Healthy Mac ‘n Cheese.

Drink ideas

When it comes to drinks, there are plenty of options that pair well with chili. Here are some ideas for drinks to serve with your chili:

  1. Beer: Beer is a classic drink to serve with chili. A light and refreshing beer like a lager or pilsner pairs well with spicy chili.
  2. Wine: A bold and full-bodied red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel pairs well with chili.
  3. Sparkling water: flavored sparkling water is a great non-alcoholic option to serve with chili.
  4. Margaritas: a sweet-tart margarita is the perfect pairing for a bowl of spicy chili. Try our Tommy’s Margarita or for something a little smokier, try our Mezcal Margarita.

When planning your chili bar, don’t forget to have fun and get creative! The possibilities are endless when it comes to chili recipes and toppings, so don’t be afraid to try something new. With these tips, you’re well on your way to hosting a memorable and delicious chili bar that your guests will love.

How to Set Up a Chili Bar

5 from 2 votes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield 8 +
Category Dinner
Cuisine Amercican


Set up the ultimate chili bar with this simple guide on how to set it up including 3 chili options and 20 toppings ideas.


Topping Options

  • shredded cheese
  • diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
  • sour cream or Greek yogurt
  • diced peppers
  • sliced scallions
  • chopped cilantro
  • chopped chives
  • corn
  • shredded cabbage
  • avocado
  • guacamole
  • cornbread
  • tortilla chips
  • corn tortillas
  • fritos
  • salsa
  • hot sauce
  • canned beans, drained
  • minced red onion
  • lime wedges


Days Ahead of Time

  • Cook the chili according to recipe instructions, allow to cool completely then store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 1 month.

Day Before

  • Prep most of the toppings and store in airtight containers or bowls covered in plastic wrap. (Wait to prep the tomatoes, herbs, avocado and guacamole until an hour or so before serving.)
  • If chili is frozen, transfer chili from freezer to refrigerator and allow it to thaw overnight.

Day Of

  • Reheat chili on the stovetop over low or in a slow cooker on low setting.
  • Set up chili bar by placing serving bowls at beginning of bar followed by slow-cookers of chili (unless you are keeping them warm on stovetop). Following the chili, set out the sour cream, veggie toppings, cheese, chips and lastly herbs. End chili bar with spoons and napkins.


Dutch ovens
small serving dishes
serving bowls


Keep cold ingredients cold and warm ingredients warm. Keep the chili hot in either slow cookers or on the stovetop. 
Keep cold toppings like sour cream and Greek yogurt cold by placing the bowl or container of sour cream inside a larger bowl filled with ice. 


Like this? Leave a comment below!I love hearing from you and I want to hear how it went with this recipe! Leave a comment and rating below, then share on social media @zestfulkitchen and #zestfulkitchen!
pot of chili on a blue table with toppings set around it in small bowls

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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine,,, and more.

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