Cheese plates make a big statement. There are lots of guides to the perfect cheese plate on the internet, but for an informal gathering, you don't need to strive for perfection. Instead choose items that you would be happy to eat as leftovers. I always keep crackers and cinnamon almonds in the cupboard and a bunch of grapes on the shelf of my fridge, so those were easy additions to the spread. I also set out two types of mustards (already in my fridge) and a jar of my mom's homemade peach-rhubarb jam to add a bit of variety. So far, nothing on the cheese plate was beyond my normal grocery list. Choosing the cheeses can be nerve-wracking, but unless you are hosting a bunch of cheese snobs, people will just be happy to have something to snack on. Brie is a popular cheese and at Trader Joe's the domestic brie is less than half the cost per pound (at $4/lb). This means you can get a big hunk for about $3 that will take up a lot of space on your platter. A hard cheese is a nice addition and the one pictured above is a syrah-soaked Tuscano (also from Trader Joe's). It tastes good and it adds a bit of color. My third choice was a gouda, partly because I was looking for variety and partly because I could get a decent wedge for about $3. All in all, the cheeses came to under $10 which is not much more than a few bags of chips would run you. I also picked up a packet of sliced salami and a baguette, which only added another $5 and had the added benefit of being my dinner that night. But when my friends walked in, they all commented on how nice the cheese plate looked.
Remember to have fun! When you host a large or food-intensive party, it is easy to get caught up in taking coats and refilling plates. When you are hosting an informal gathering, choose a menu that won't need any attention once the first guest walks through the door. Snag a seat for yourself and don't be afraid to direct your friends to the fridge instead of refilling all the glasses yourself. After all, the whole point is for you and your guests to enjoy each other's company!