Make-ahead Labor Day recipes ensure that you get to enjoy the party along with everyone else—and that you all eat well.
Labor Day is nearly here already, and it’s the time to make the most of summer’s dwindling daylight and receding sense of freedom (oh, and the last of all that fabulous seasonal produce). One way to keep the chill of the past couple of months going before the chill of autumn steals in: Plan a Labor Day picnic that lets you have fun, without the stress of last-minute cooking. Here are 15 delicious recipes you can make ahead, then haul to the party (or just haul out of your fridge if you’re hosting…or only eating with your lockdown partners).
Slow cookers, it seems, were made to deal with something like beef brisket, simmering it slowly until it renders into something tender and luscious. In this recipe, brown sugar, adobo sauce, Worcestershire, cider vinegar, and spices give it the picnic-appropriate appeal of good barbecue. Make it ahead and reheat. Sure, it might not be pitmaster-approved smoked brisket that took 12 hours of tender loving care and attention, but in this case, well, that’s kind of the point. Get our Easy Slow Cooker BBQ Brisket recipe.
Related Reading: The Best Ways to Use Leftover BBQ Brisket
Beer-braised brats are infused with deeply delicious, caramelized, malty, savory flavor and the onions are plentiful, bronzed, and melting-soft, soaking up all that sauce. Make them up to three days in advance and just gently reheat when you’re ready to serve—with plenty of grainy mustard, hearty buns, and sauerkraut, of course. Get our Beer Braised Brats recipe.
Related Reading: The Best Way to Grill Sausage
To start developing the flavors, sauté vegetables, ground beef, and spices, then put the mixture into the slow cooker along with tomatoes and kidney beans. Let the chili cook overnight or all day until it’s thickened and has a nice beefy flavor, then stir in jalapeños for a kick of heat. This works as a main course with all the usual fixins (pro party tip: make it a walking taco bar as long as your chili’s not too thin)—but it’s also good as a hearty hot dog topper. Get our Spicy Slow Cooker Chili recipe.
Taking your Labor Day party to go? Two simple pantry items—oil-packed tuna and rice—form the backbone of this healthy and versatile salad that’s perfect for packing in your picnic basket. Stir in briny chopped olives, sweet sun-dried tomatoes, and tart vinegar and serve this salad over a bed of greens, stuffed into a pita, or rolled up in lavash for an easy but delicious dish. Get our Italian Tuna and Rice Salad recipe.
Related Reading: How to Have a Socially Distant Picnic
What’s a picnic, potluck, or barbecue without pasta salad? Sad, that’s what. Incomplete. This NOLA-driven, pasta salad update on the old chef’s salad is the total opposite of those two things. Chewy, al dente pasta shells are tossed with salami, provolone, roasted red pepper, celery, pepperoncini, and two kinds of olives. A bold red wine vinaigrette ties everything together in style. It eats like a meal and is another great picnic option, but works equally well as a side at any BBQ. Get our Muffaletta Pasta Salad recipe.
Need a vegetarian version? Here you go! A chewy, hold-up pasta shape (penne rigate is perfect) is slathered in summer goodness. That means halved cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella balls, chopped basil, and a heaping cup of verdant pesto. Toss and let sit to allow the flavors to combine. Get our Classic Pesto Pasta Salad recipe.
Canned chickpeas and dense, toothsome gemelli pasta gives this summer salad plenty of satisfying chew, and also, the ability to stand up over time. Toss these farinaceous elements with cucumber, feta, capers, chopped parsley, and a dressing of white wine vinegar and olive oil. Good stuff. Get our Dill, Chickpea, and Feta Pasta Salad recipe.
Related Reading: The Best Gluten-Free Pasta Salad Options with Recipes
Bagged, pre-shredded broccoli slaw meets up with shredded green and purple cabbage in this healthy coleslaw twist with an uncanny ability to hold up as it sits. A dressing of vinaigrette and Greek-style yogurt—along with chewy additions of dried cranberries and walnuts—makes it interesting. Get our Broccoli Slaw recipe.
Relate Reading: Try These Two Tricks for the Best Coleslaw
This classic side dish is a must have at any summer party, and there are tons of styles of potato salad to choose from (Japanese potato salad is a current fave)—but this one happens to be mayo-free, so it’s good for vegans and holds up better at room (or backyard) temperature. Plus, it’s jam-packed with all the fresh summer herbs you can find. Get our Herbed Potato Salad recipe.
Ranch-style beans are one of our favorite things at a picnic, potluck, or cookout. Here, dried pinto beans are long simmered in the Crock-Pot, with onion, tomato sauce, garlic, spices, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. They emerge rich, creamy-textured, and spicy. If you need to make them vegan or vegetarian, swap the beef stock for vegetable and omit the ham hock (but add a tiny bit of liquid smoke or even smoked paprika instead). Get our Slow Cooker Ranch Beans recipe.
Related Reading: Crock-Pot BBQ Side Dish Recipes for All Your Summer Parties
11. Pimento Cheese
Some kind of dip is a must-have on your Labor Day table. Hummus is great, as is classic French onion dip, but for a change, we’re going with pimento cheese—creamy, cheesy, rich, subtly spiced, and studded with sweet pimento peppers. Scoop it up with chips, crackers, and raw veggies, but also know that it happens to be great dolloped on top of a burger. And the flavors get even better as they sit, so make this the night before and you’re golden. Get our Pimento Cheese recipe.
Deviled eggs are one of the most iconic make-ahead party dishes, and they’ll never go out of style. These are dressed up with tarragon, but you can use any fresh herbs you have, and while you don’t have to use a piping tip for the filling, it is an easy way to make them look impressive. If you have an Instant Pot, boil up to a dozen eggs at once in a flash and party prep just got even easier. Get our Tarragon Deviled Eggs recipe.
Open Kitchen Deviled Egg Platter, $20.95 from Williams Sonoma
A basic egg plate that lets your food take center stage.
For dessert, a no-bake option is always a smart move in summer, and this ice cream cake fits the bill. The base is simply vanilla wafer cookies blended and held together with butter, and then you layer three flavors of store-bought ice cream on top. We used vanilla, strawberry, and pistachio, but mix and match however you like. Feel free to top it off with a chocolate shell drizzle and some chopped, toasted nuts or even sprinkles for extra pizzazz, especially if your ice cream layers are a little less colorful than this trio. Get our Pistachio Strawberry Ice Cream Cake recipe.
14. PBJ Bars
If you’re not averse to turning on the oven, these nostalgic treats are everything we love about our favorite childhood sandwich in bar form. Rolled oats and chunky peanut butter are mixed into a crumble that does double duty as both the bottom crust and a sweet, nutty topping. In between: a thick layer of chunky strawberry jam that bakes into a bubbly, fruity filling. This one will please kids and adults alike. Get our PBJ Bars recipe.
15. S’mores Bars
And then, of course, there are s’mores. Labor Day might be your last chance to make the classic campfire dessert for another year, so set up a s’mores station with creative ingredients for people to customize their own ultimate marshmallow treat, or go the big batch route and make these crowd-pleasing s’mores bars (40 pieces from one baking sheet). They’re pretty much a summerized version of Christmas brittle or Christmas crack, so you can be certain they’ll go fast. Get our S’mores Bars recipe.
Don’t Forget Drinks
Once you’ve got your food figured out, think about drinks. We like sangria for Labor Day, or other big batch drinks. Mocktails are nice to offer too, along with the standard soda, water, and so on. And you can always fill coolers with canned cocktails, spiked seltzer, and beer. Chilled red wine is another delicious option, but go one better and make frosé.
Everything Else You Need to Know
As for setting the scene, check out our outdoor entertaining hacks and learn how to keep bugs from creeping on your party (especially those pesky mosquitoes). And this year, make sure you stay safe if inviting guests.
Since this is no time for fine china but you might want something more eco-friendly than Chinette, stylish shatterproof dinnerware is also a must.
Add some chill tunes and that’s about it—you’re all set for the last big hurrah of summer. (And if that puts you in the mood for a little celebratory shopping, there are plenty of great Labor Day sales going on…)