Warren Buffett has often said that his ideal holding period is forever. There's also a lot of evidence that the longer you hold stocks, the lower your risk becomes and the better your returns are. Of course, the key to that is owning the right stocks to begin with. And in general terms, some of the best stocks to buy and hold are dividend stocks. After all, companies that have shown the ability to pay a dividend often have strong enough businesses to ride out economic ups and downs as well as being competitive. 

Furthermore, dividend stocks also have a very strong record of total returns -- that is, share price appreciation plus dividends -- that often outperforms the market overall. So with the idea that owning stocks for the very long term is ideal and that dividend stocks often make the best investments, we asked three of our contributing investors a simple question: "What's a dividend stock that you might regret not owning a decade from now?" 

Hands reaching for a dollar bill, being held just out of reach.

Image source: Getty Images.

They came up with CareTrust REIT Inc. (NASDAQ:CTRE)Patterson Companies, Inc. (NASDAQ:PDCO), and Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE:EPD). Keep reading to learn why these are dividend stocks you might regret not buying now -- and holding -- in a decade. 

A decade of growth may be just the beginning

Jason Hall (CareTrust REIT Inc.): I feel like I beat the drum for real estate investment trust -- or REIT -- CareTrust more than for any other dividend stock. For good reason, considering one of the most important trends over the next several decades is creating a fantastic opportunity for the company. 

The trend? America's baby boomers are getting old. Around 3 million will turn 65 annually for the next dozen years, doubling America's 65-plus population by 2035. For CareTrust, this means a massive opportunity; there will need to be a significant expansion of skilled nursing, rehab, and housing facilities to care for and accommodate them. 

A physical therapist assists a senior man with an exercise.

Image source: Getty Images.

About seven in 10 people will require long-term care of some sort after turning 65, often in a rehab or nursing facility. CareTrust's core business is acquiring and financing these kinds of facilities, and contracting with well-established and reputable healthcare providers to operate and maintain them on long-term agreements. This generates strong cash flows, and the growth prospects could lead to decades of steady dividend growth. 

At recent prices, CareTrust stock yields 3.7%, and management has been able to increase the payout regularly. Trading at 17 times normalized funds from operations, CareTrust isn't dirt cheap, but it's also reasonable considering the growth potential. If it's a decade or more of dividend growth you're after, CareTrust could be perfect. 

Healthy pets, healthy teeth, healthy dividend

Chuck Saletta (Patterson Companies): Human dental services and animal health services aren't frequently lumped together in people's minds when they talk about industries. Still, Patterson Companies has found a way to profit from distributing to both types of businesses, and it shares some of those profits with its shareholders in the form of a dividend.

A veterinarian checks inside a dog's ear.

Image source: Getty Images.

What makes Patterson Companies a business that you might look back 10 years from now and wish you had bought is what it does with that dividend. Since instituting that dividend in 2010, Patterson has increased its dividend annually, increasing it from $0.10 per share per quarter all the way to today's level of $0.26 per share per quarter. 

While it may not maintain such a fast dividend growth rate, there are good reasons to believe it can keep up the overall trend of increasing its shareholder payments in the future. First, it is expected to be able to increase its earnings at around a 7.5% annualized rate over the next five or so years. That growth gives it room to increase its dividend without making it an undue burden on the company's ability to generate cash.

Second, its payout ratio is only around 55% of its current earnings, and its debt-to-equity ratio is below 0.8. That combination gives it the ability to handle a short-term setback in either the economy or its own growth plan and still maintain that dividend.

Third, with a current market price of around 15 times its expected forward earnings, it appears to be fairly reasonably valued for that anticipated growth. That gives investors a decent reason to believe they can benefit from both the dividend and from potential share price appreciation associated with the company's growth.

Slow and steady should keep on winning

Reuben Gregg Brewer (Enterprise Products Partners L.P.): In the race between the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady won. That same dynamic often plays out in the investing world, and U.S. midstream giant Enterprise Products Partners is a slow, but consistent, tortoise.

That consistency has allowed Enterprise to increase its distribution annually for 20 consecutive years. Within that impressive record is a streak of 52 consecutive quarterly increases. The average annualized distribution increase over the trailing three years was roughly 5.5%, easily besting inflation. Over the past five years, meanwhile, Enterprise's distribution increased about 5.5% annually. And over the past decade, the average annualized increase was about 5.5%. Talk about plodding along.    

But that slow-and-steady progress increased the quarterly disbursement from $0.23375 per unit per quarter in July of 2007 to $0.42 in July of 2017 -- a roughly 80% increase. The current yield is a robust 6.5% at recent prices, meaning you're starting with a yield that's roughly three times higher than S&P 500 average. A big yield with slow-and-steady increases that beat inflation, and thus increase your purchasing power over time, is not a bad combination.    

This is a result of Enterprise's focus on fee-based midstream services, which tend to be very consistent. For example, during the oil downturn, the partnership's distribution coverage never fell below 1.2 -- despite opportunistic acquisitions and continued growth spending. Demand for oil and gas is far more important to Enterprise than commodity prices.    

EPD Chart

EPD data by YCharts.

Frankly, I expect more of the same kind of boring from Enterprise in the future as it follows the same playbook. It's currently working on $9 billion in growth projects. This is the kind of boring, slow, and steady progress that income investors will be sad they missed out on -- exactly why you should put Enterprise on your short list today.    

Chuck Saletta owns shares of Patterson Companies. Jason Hall owns shares of CareTrust REIT. Reuben Gregg Brewer has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Enterprise Products Partners. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.