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Why you should be serving meals on boards — beyond charcuterie and cheese

A board life is never a bored life.

One of the most fun things about charcuterie and cheese boards, other than what’s on them, is the casual serving style that encourages people to gather around the table. They can linger over a board, pick and choose what they like, make some small talk and go back for more. While this serving style is not new, I make the argument in my latest book "Boards & Spreads" that they can go beyond these wonderful meat and cheese situations and work for everyday meals, from breakfast to dinner, during the weeknight or when having friends over.

Hear me out.

Using this board serving style takes the pressure off of the cook for a couple of reasons, makes it more fun (and slightly educational) to eat and is beautiful, simply because of the colors and variety of dishes.

Boards as a serving style

By setting the food out on a board rather than making a finished dish, it’s less work for the cook as each person can make their own plate and season it as they like. This way, the cook doesn’t have to cater to different food preferences, picky eaters or even dietary restrictions. For example, if someone wants something more spicy versus mild, then they can load up on hot sauce, red pepper flakes or pickled jalapeños. Olive lovers can fill their plates and maybe even their cocktails with these briny, meaty bites, while those who think they contaminate everything they touch can skip right over them. If you have friends who love to sprinkle feta on everything they eat versus ones who avoid dairy, then the feta-obsessed can hoard all of the soft, crumbly and tangy chunks for themselves. By setting all of these toppings out, each person can season and finish their plate as they like, skipping over what they don’t, so the cook doesn’t have to worry about accidentally sprinkling cilantro on someone’s plate who thinks it tastes like soap. And, it saves time by just putting it all out there, setting it up on the board you used to cut your vegetables.

A crispy snack tortilla board.
A crispy snack tortilla board.Courtesy Julia Gartland

Plus, it’s a great exercise in having people figure out what they like and don’t like. Do they want a little bit of finishing salt? A final squeeze of lemon? It’s figuring out what actually tastes good to them versus just eating what someone puts in front of them. (Yes, it’s a gift to be cooked for, and we should always appreciate that, but I think there’s also something about knowing what you like and don’t like, both in food and in life.) It’s a way to make eating a chance to experiment with food, figure out your food tastes and have fun with it all, while making it easier on the person cooking.

For a weeknight dinner, just setting out some olive oil, cut lemon wedges, salt, pepper, some fresh herbs and condiments still in the jar can be enough for people to finish it how they’d like, alongside any vegetable sides set up directly on a large cutting board or on a plate. If you’re having friends over, you can increase the amount of seasoning options — maybe put the dips and condiments in bowls, add some vegetable side dishes and salads and so on to make a larger spread, but all in this self-serving and seasoning style. Making dishes like these crispy chicken bites with crunchy slaw-like cabbage salad and different dipping options lets everyone fill their plate as they’d like. Setting up a bloody mary bar is also ideal or making a big pot of chili with a toppings bar (think cheese, avocado, scallions, jalapeños and so on) can be fun for a Sunday hangout or supper.

This Top-Your-Own Chili Board is perfect for game-day entertaining.
This Top-Your-Own Chili Board is perfect for game-day entertaining.Julia Gartland

Just by making these boards and spreads, you’re creating something beautiful and inviting. There’s something about seeing a colorful table full of food that makes me hungry and excited, and I’m pretty sure anyone who is lucky enough to have you cook for them will feel the same.

If I’ve successfully gotten you on-board (get it?) with this serving style, then please scroll down to check out my tips on what types of boards to buy and how to take proper care of those boards.

A bloody mary bar with all the fixings.
A bloody mary bar with all the fixings.Courtesy Julia Gartland

Boards to buy and basic care tips

About 10 years ago, my sister gave me a beautiful end-grain wooden cutting board for my birthday from Brooklyn Butcher Blocks. The workmanship is so lovely that I couldn’t bring myself to use it for the first few years because I didn’t want to ruin it (I now realize how silly that is, it’s meant to be used and will last), but this fear stems from board trauma in my early 20s. I had a pig-shaped cutting board that I loved dearly and found while in Napa Valley after a friend’s wedding. But, mostly because of lack of knowledge, I did not take care of it, and, eventually, the wooden planks cracked and split apart. It was a sad day, and it took me quite a few years to find one to replace it with.

Please learn from my mistakes and take note of the following tips:

Board starter kit

If you’re interested in a board “starter kit” then I recommend choosing one small square or rectangular wooden (or plastic board, if you prefer to cut meat on that) and one larger wooden board of the same shape or a butcher block in the wood color/variety that you prefer for your kitchen. If you want to add one more, a large round wooden one is both pretty and convenient. I happen to have an affinity for animal-shaped boards (the afore-mentioned pig on and a fish-shaped one) and collect those when I travel. These smaller boards are helpful when you’re prepping something small as they are easier to clean, when you’re arranging smaller portions of food or if you need to bring a board to a picnic. If you’re someone who hosts a lot and also happens to have ample storage room (lucky you!), then you can expand to marble, slate and other types of boards, depending on your needs, but one large board and one small one are all you really need.

A chicken-feta slider board.
A chicken-feta slider board.Courtesy Julia Gartland

Board materials

For wooden boards, hard woods, such as maple, walnut, teak and cherry, are the best choices as they are thick and less water-absorbent, and thicker boards are less prone to warping and cracking. There are a lot of wonderful boards online, but you can also find ones in your local stores to support someone nearby.

On washing

After every use, I first wash the board with a gentle soap, then wipe the board dry with a clean kitchen towel, and finally stand it upright to air-dry completely. Any water or moisture that gets trapped in there can warp the board or make the wood come loose, so you don’t want to put them in the dishwasher or leave them soaking in water. (Plus, cracked boards can harbor germs and increase the risk of food-borne illness, so even better to follow these rules for that reason.)

Long-term care tips

As a general rule, you should ideally do a care day for your wooden board(s) once a month — though that depends on how often you use it, too. It’s kind of like giving your board a moisturizing facial, which will keep it looking and operating at its best. This can include treating both sides of a clean, dry board with a mineral oil followed by a food-safe wax. Admittedly, I cut corners by using a blend of mineral oil, carnauba wax and natural food-safe beeswax to clean my boards for a two-in-one action. Sometimes I lose track of time and do this every two to three months, so don’t worry if you haven’t been doing it or forget from time to time. A well-cared-for wooden board will ideally last a lifetime, so it’s good to get on some type of routine or whatever is recommended for your board.