How to Make a Relish Tray Just Like Mom’s

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A relish tray is a great dish to add to the appetizer or dinner table. My mom’s recipe is super simple with veggies, olives, and pickles.

divided white tray with vegetables and olives next to bowl of crackers

Holiday appetizers can get so complicated. We fool ourselves into thinking that we need to make a big froofroo spread before the bigger froofroo spread we call the holiday dinner.

Times have changed.

At least since I was a kid. Things were a bit simpler, less-Pinterest-centric, and a lot more relaxed.

The appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, amuse-bouches, snack, whatever you want to call them, were always a pretty simple affair when I was growing up. My mom was a fantastic hostess, even on the tight budget my parents lived on. She always prepped a huge meal for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and often New Years, opening our home to whomever was in want of a holiday meal with family.

And she typically made just one thing on Thanksgiving for the pre-dinner bite: the relish tray.

wine glasses relish tray pickles

The Classic Relish Tray

I’ve heard that the relish tray is perhaps a midwestern tradition. And likely it is. My mom (and her mom before her, and her mom before her) grew up in southeastern Minnesota. With roots going back at least 120 years, I’d say yes, the relish tray is likely midwestern.

To me, it says, “home.”

The relish tray was nothing fancy, just celery and carrot sticks, cut the old-fashioned way, as well as an assortment of olives, pickles, and maybe a few radishes. The cut-glass dish that held them, however, was very fancy. It’s probably smaller than I remember it, but it always exclaimed, “Special!” to me.

We children would snack on these little tidbits while the smell of roast turkey and stuffing drifted throughout the house. And yes, you should let the kids wear the black olives on their fingertips; it’s all part of the fun!

Later that cut-glass dish, replenished with more olives,  would rest on the dinner table and perhaps be passed around so folks could add another tidbit or two to their plates.

It’s a sweet tradition that deserves a place on today’s table.

appetizer table set with relish tray, crackers, and cheese

The word relish typically denotes a chopped mixture of pickled foods, such as sweet pickle relish that might go on a hot dog.

According to the New Pillsbury Family Cookbook, 1972, “relishes are a welcome addition to any meal as an accompaniment to meats. Some relishes also can be served as a salad or as an accent to many sandwiches.”

What goes on a classic relish tray?

A classic relish tray can hold true relishes, of course, but it also includes a variety of pickled foods, such as pickled cucumber, olives, and peppers, as well as celery and carrots.

Many of these ingredients are affordable and long-keeping, making them ideal additions to a holiday spread.

What is the difference between a relish tray and a veggie tray?

A relish tray focuses on pickled foods while a veggie tray usually features fresh vegetables. However, there’s no reason why there can’t be some overlap between the two.

What do you do with leftovers from a relish tray?

Should there be any leftovers on your relish tray, package them up and store in the refrigerator. Use within 4 days.

You may want to chop the olives into a tapenade and serve sandwiches to use up both the pickles and olive spread.

table set with drinks candle and relish tray

How to put together a relish tray on a budget:

Traditionally, like back in my mom’s childhood (and the women of generations prior) pickled foods were made in the home each summer as a way of preserving the harvest from the family garden. Today, not everyone is so well versed in preserving. 

That said, making homemade pickles is a great thing to do!

Nowadays, pickles and olives and jarred peppers can cost a pretty penny. Consider these budget tips as you put together your relish tray:

  • Shop the sales. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, you’ll find lots of sales on party foods, pickles and preserves included.
  • Shop the clearance. You never know what you’re going to find on the clearance aisle. Keep your eyes peeled for good discounts.
  • Buy generic. Generic foods are often made by the same manufacturers as brand labels. You can often save up to half the price by purchasing generic labels.
  • Check out the salad/olive bar. Since you don’t need a lot of any one ingredient for a relish tray, check out the salad and olive bar at your local grocery store. You may be able to purchase quite an assortment for very little money.

With a little creativity, you can easily prep a delicious holiday meal on a budget.

crystal topped server of pickles next to relish tray

If you prepare this recipe, be sure to take a picture and hashtag it #GOODCHEAPEATS. I can't wait to see what you cook up!
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table set with drinks candle and relish tray
Mom's Relish Tray
Prep Time
10 mins
 
A relish tray is a great dish to add to the appetizer or dinner table. My mom's recipe is super simple with veggies, olives, and pickles.
Course: Appetizer, Side Dish, Snack
Cuisine: American
Keyword: olive and pickle tray, pickles, relish, relish tray
Servings: 8
Calories: 41.7 kcal
Author: Jessica Fisher
Ingredients
  • 1 cup olives - try some different varieties from the olive bar at your local grocer's
  • 1 cup pickles - vary the choices from dill to sweet to spicy maybe throw in some itty bitty cornichons, too
  • 1 cup radishes or sliced turnip
  • 1 cup carrot sticks cut the old fashioned way if you wanna go retro
  • 1 cup celery sticks
  • 1 cup peppers - try a few different colors and varieties like pickled cherry peppers or peperoncinis roasted red bell peppers, and fresh red, green or yellow bell peppers
Instructions
  1. Prepare the vegetables as necessary.
  2. Arrange the various ingredients on a tray. Use a pretty, divided dish.
Nutrition Facts
Mom's Relish Tray
Amount Per Serving
Calories 41.7 Calories from Fat 25
% Daily Value*
Fat 2.75g4%
Saturated Fat 0.37g2%
Sodium 447.79mg19%
Potassium 181.02mg5%
Carbohydrates 4.34g1%
Fiber 2.16g9%
Sugar 1.89g2%
Protein 0.87g2%
Vitamin A 2881.38IU58%
Vitamin C 16.44mg20%
Calcium 32.41mg3%
Iron 0.34mg2%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

This post was originally published in November 2011. It has been updated for content and relevancy.

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I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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Comments

  1. Deb says

    I think we had the same mom;), weird, cut glass dish too. And the olives magically disappeared on a certain someone’s little fingers……

  2. Jeanine says

    I come from a rather large, Italian family, and when I read the title of the post, I thought “Relish like on a hot dog?” Then when I scrolled down and saw the picture, I thought, “Ohhhh! Antipasto!” 🙂

  3. Kathy says

    I have lived in Indiana in all my life. We always have a “relish tray”. It always has some different veggies and usually has some pickles and olives. The olives are always gone very early. That is a tradition that we grew up with and we still do.

  4. Tami says

    We always had onion dip (lipton onion soup and sourcream) chips ( remember when they used to come in two plastic bags in a box?) Celery stuffed with pimento cheese from a jar and a big bowl of black olives which disappeared fast on to all my little cousins fingers. Those were the days…………..

  5. Relish trays were such a part of my extended family holidays that I had almost forgotten about them. What a great reminder! Ours included black and green olives, sweet pickles, dill pickles, pickled herring, and weird pickled cinnamon apple thingys. The carrots and celery were on the seperate “veggie tray” with lots of other veggies. Thanks for the memories!

    • Jessica says

      @Rita @ Creatively Domestic, isn’t it funny how we forget about something that was so “normal”?

    • Smee says

      @Rita @ Creatively Domestic,
      The “weird pickled cinnamon apple thingys” were something I had forgotten about until I read this. I LOVED those as a kid. And when I do my shopping tonight, I am going to look for them. It’s time that my kids get to try that little slice of (over-dyed-odd-textured-uniquely-flavored) heaven.

  6. I’m from Ohio (with family in Michigan as well), and we ALWAYS had a relish tray for holiday gatherings when I was growing up. Usually two of them – one for cut veggies, and one for pickles and olives. I had no idea this was more of a Midwestern tradition. And it continues to this day – even when we’re doing a potluck style meal, someone is always designated to bring jars of pickles and olives!

    • Jessica says

      @Deb @ Good Stewardess, well, I think it’s Midwestern. No one has argued with me yet. 😉

      • AllieZirkle says

        @Jessica, My parents grew up in Long Beach, CA and had parents from OK & FL. I grew up with my grandma’s having a relish tray, but my mom never had one. The first time I hosted Thanksgiving, my dad asked “where’s the olives?!”. I will NEVER forget them again!

        🙂 Allie

  7. Kristin says

    Yes, this Kansas girl had those at every big dinner at Grandma’s house. I always loved the olives!

  8. I have only seen the relish tray on the internet and I’ve never heard of any people IRL ever having one. My dad’s family used to put out nuts on Thanksgiving or Sundays. My uncle’s family put out kielbasa and I think pickles and growing up I did not understand why you’d put out food before dinner. My mom’s family is strangely void of nearly all “normal” traditions (as an adult I’ve learned that when I tell people about them they look at me funny) and big meals just didn’t happen. If anyone in my mom’s family cooked dinner, there was no way they were making you an appetizer too!

    • Julie says

      @Michelle, Ah, you must be Polish like me…kielbasa. No holiday was a holiday without it. Although both of parents have passed, I still continue that tradition. And the relish tray is a must…I am also from the Midwest. I think it gave everyone something to snack on before dinner was served.

  9. M says

    We always have a relish tray too. Typically two- one for veggies and another for olives/pickles. Always on the pretty cut-glass serving dishes.
    This Hoosier hasn’t ever been to a holiday gathering or pitch-in where there wasn’t at least one relish tray. It’s a party staple!

  10. This reminds me of my mom. 🙂 She always did a relish dish. Thanks for the flashback.

  11. Yummy!!! I was looking at your picture and I thought, wow, that is a small amount….I am used to feeding a big crowd. 20 is a small group, we will have at least 30 this Thanksgiving, maybe more.

  12. Connie says

    This makes me smile – my Mom has been dead for 14 years and the sight of a relish tray ALWAYS brings her to mind. 🙂 She felt no meal was complete without one.

  13. Celine says

    Well I am afraid I am bursting the “Mid-west Relish Tray Bubble”. I’m from New England which is where our entire family has lived since they came over here from Europe 4 or more generations ago and we have always had a Relish Tray. We also usually have a veggie tray, nut tray along with a Kielbasa, Pepperoni, Cheese and Cracker Tray.

    It’s really funny to hear people trying to figure out all these fancy appetizer trays for their holiday gatherings while we always stick with the same exact thing. Even the kids under 5 expect to see the Relish Tray along with the other things during get togethers.

    • Jessica says

      Well, there we go. Maybe it goes all the way back to the Old World! 😉

  14. chrissie says

    We almost always had a relish tray but it was more from my grandmother’s requesting then from my mom. She ALWAYS supplied the sweet pickles and olives for the ‘relish’ tray. Ours usually included cheese cubes and veggies too. She is around 85 and I think the last time we had a family gathering a few months ago she was looking for a pretty bowl to put those sweet pickles in. Sweet pickles almost always make an appearance. 😉 And my husbands grandmother who is in her early 90’s also often provides at least the cheese needed for the relish tray…although for many years her favorite addition was shrimp cocktail…not really for a relish tray but just what she liked to bring. Oh and we are all from the south with the exception of hubby’s grandma she is from the New England area.

  15. Meghan F says

    Have to chime in and say: I’m from Texas, and my mom always has a relish tray. I do wonder where the tradition came from?

    Thanks for the reminder of long forgotten memories!

    • Jessica says

      It continues to be a mystery! LOL

    • Connie says

      I’m in NY and we always had a relish tray. Like the OP, just hearing or reading those words makes me think of my Mom (deceased) and smile. Small sweet pickles and green olives were required, other items were at her discretion.

      Oh, and I have one of the little glass bowls for those sweet pickles in my dining room cabinet. 🙂

  16. Nope I grew up on Vancouver Island and we had them, but ours were a slight bit different. Just 2 dividers on one side was normally some type of pickle and on the other side olives. Lots of times we had several on the table and others held types of cheeses cut into cubes and then the other side crackers, or carrots on one side and cucumbers on the other. I love them!

  17. Mand says

    I live in Australia. My mum still does this. Cut glass dishes & all. I didn’t know it had a name.

  18. Stacey Hottman says

    I am from Kansas. Every family gathering had/has a relish tray. It’s separate from the Veggie tray. It usually had pickles of different varieties, pickled beets, both green and black olives, those baby corn things(lol) as my kids call them, and the spiced apple rings. As a child me and all my cousins would sneak in and grab the olives, putting them on our fingers and acting like they were finger nails and then eat them. As an adult I see the kids still sneaking to get them and smile because I realize we never really did sneak successfully. We always have extra jars/cans on hand, as they are the first to go. Great memories!

  19. Janet says

    I never realized this was a Midwest tradition. We never had/have a holiday meal without a relish tray. I served one for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. We still include carrots, celery, radishes, pickles and black olives. I have added sweet pepper slices, cauliflower and broccoli florets.

    • I’m not sure where the tradition is from. I think commenters have been varied in their opinions. I’m making one for New Year’s, though.

  20. Tom says

    Overall I would group relish trays as appetizer or hors dourve. Somewhere there may be a distinction between items, I consider relish trays to be plant items that can e served as finger foods. Others add meat, sausages, fish, cheeses, nuts, eggs, and pastry. I have seen all sorts of items of relish trays from different ethnic groups and many share the same or similar items: Just think of these cuisines and I would expect that you can think of 4 or 5 items by each of these nationalities or ethnic groups:
    Italian
    Polish
    German
    Jewish
    Greek
    Middle Eastern
    Russian
    Scandinavian
    South American
    Chinese
    Korean
    Indian
    English Isles
    French
    and on and on

    Items I’ve seen served as relish trays include fresh and Sweet and tart pickled items: carrots, celery, radish. broccoli, assorted olives, mushrooms, cauliflower, cucumber, tomatoes (cherry/grape), sliced sweet peppers (red and green), roasted peppers, pickled banana peppers, green onions, pearl onions, artichoke hearts, pickled okra, and pickled beans.

    These items are plant based but usually require a utensil or cracker/pita/tostini/cruet to be eaten: sour cream onions and cucumber, brochette, salsa, humus, caponata, and baba ganoush. While I have seen these served along relish trays I refer to them as appetizers because they are animal based: pickled herring w/ or w/o cream sauce, smoked fowl, smoked fish, lox, deviled eggs, pickled eggs, all types of sausages and processed meats.

    • Katie says

      I think of a relish tray as being smaller and passed at the table. My mother, who would be 98 now, thought they were in place of a salad. We had carrot sticks, trimmed celery sticks soaked in salted ice water, and radishes. Of course it was all served in a cut glass dish.
      When I married at 36 I learned that his family did not do relish trays. They had major, heavy appetizers they called “poo poos”. They included cheese fondue, summer sausage, vegetable platters with a dip or two, cocktail wieners, nuts, cheeses and bread or crackers and more. Why they weren’t 300lbs is beyond me. I guess it was their Canadian metabolism. My Michigan country girl mom and my Texas dad were happy with a few mixed nuts or something light for the cocktail time before dinner.
      I am serving both a green salad before the turkey and a relish tray including carved radishes, black olives and something else tbd. The parents are all gone and I’m old enough to do it my way while the son-in-law fixes green bean casserole and lifts the 24lb turkey.

  21. Never was there a party or special occasion in our family without a relish tray! I carry on the tradition and have several divided dishes that I use for relish trays. My family always served whatever home canned pickled items were on hand along with radishes, green onions, celery, carrots and olives (black & green). I have added to that list for my relish trays and also have shrimp cocktail, cheese balls with crackers, veggie dips and assorted veggies and deviled eggs. I carry on the family tradition and never have a dinner party or special occasion without a relish tray gracing the table!

  22. Jackie says

    I said I would make a relish tray for dinner and my 46 year old son said How many kinds of relish are there? Apparently I went wrong somewhere.. Ha Ha

  23. Rebecca Herrold says

    Having a small family gathering for Daddy’s 90th birthday this Sunday. Among his requests is a “relish tray.” I often put together a crudite tray, sometimes including olives and pickles. This one will be more pickled items.
    My dad, nephew and I like hot/spicy items, and I often include those on another dish. So that “wimpy” eaters don’t accidently eat the spicy pickles, I usually make a sign or stand nearby to point out which ones they’ll like best.
    I just got the idea to get a red glass relish dish to serve the spicy items. It’s too late for this Sunday, but I’ll be looking at Thrift stores and garage sales to find one for the next time. I saw many on line, so I know red relish dishes are out there waiting to be found by me!

    • Relish trays are so fun! Check right after Valentine’s Day in stores. I bet there will be red cut glass out there next week!

  24. Heidi says

    Where did you purchase the relish tray pictured in this article?

  25. Karen says

    My family had these too. Black and green olives….pickles. Then there was stuffed celery…filling was cream cheese and sliced olives and pimento. I thought we were so fancy when we got these special treats on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Clam and French onion dip with chips was another special indulgence. I grew up in Northern Maine. My Dad is of Scandinavian decent and my Mom well she was from Maine. I think this tradition came from my Dad’s side. He enjoyed pickled herring too. I have one of the dishes she served in from my childhood and it’s always nice to look at. Thanks for conjuring such lovely warm memories.

  26. Kate says

    My Pennsylvania family always had a relish tray with both green and black olives, peppers (those round ones that aren’t too hot), pickles and celery stuffed with peanut butter and cream cheese. I’ve added marinated artichoke hearts to mine. Plus my kids and grandkids insist on a plate of deviled eggs to go with it.

  27. Dianne Dedick says

    Dianne says
    I am from Wisconsin so grew up with a “relish” tray! All holiday dinners had to have a variation of a relish tea. We are celebrating our 55th anniversary with a formal dinner but the only appetizers will be a rather large relish tray. It will include liver pate and pumpernickel bread. Loved all the ideas.

  28. kim fuller says

    I love the relish tray pictured with the recipe, love the little individual sections. Can you please tell me where you got it? Thanks.

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