In the first post in this series, we covered the basics of planning the party. In this post we will discuss how to plan a great menu that keeps your guests satisfied, your kitchen in order, and your wallet from being emptied.
Most graduation parties are outdoor, open-house affairs. If you have chosen to have yours indoors at a hall, you will need to check with them about their rules and limitations on the menu. Most of this post will assume that have chosen to have an outdoor party near your home.
Because the Graduation Season falls in June, chances are that some of your guests will have multiple parties to attend on the same day, while others will be hanging at your place for the duration. Having the right variety of food ensures that everyone who attends your party will find something they like. Focus your efforts on foods that are easy to prepare, and easy to keep from spoiling. Also, remember that your wallet can be your most useful tool, so if there is something that is easier to order in, do it and save yourself some stress.
Here are some menu favorites that stand the test of time:
- Crisp greens salads with a nice variety of toppings. This can satisfy the vegetarians on your guest list, as well at the diet conscious.
- Pasta salad. There are many great recipes for this favorite. It is easy to make in quantity and appeals to a broad base of your guests. If you feel the need to have pasta at your party, this is the way to go.
- Burgers, brats and hot dogs. These are easy to make in quantity, and usually have broad appeal. They can be tricky to re-heat for late arrivers. You can put them in aluminum tray chafing dishes. Sterno cans are inexpensive, and can keep them warm for hours. Remember to double tray them, so you can keep a layer of water in the bottom tray. That will keep them from burning or hardening.
- Chicken breast strips. A huge favorite around our area is Lee’s Famous Chicken. They have really delicious white meat chicken strips. We have had them at a couple of our parties, and they always are a crowd pleaser. If you don’t have Lee’s in your area, ask around about places that do this kind of catering and see if you can buy the chicken from them. When buying chicken remember that you’ll need to watch for spoilage. Keep your sternos hot, and make sure that you refrigerate the leftovers quickly. You can always pull them out and re-heat them later.
- Fruit salad. You can take the time to carve a watermelon to use as the container, or just use a large bowl. Make plenty of extra, and keep refilling during the day. On a hot summer day, a cool fruit salad helps keep your guests refreshed.
- Desserts. I talked with my daughter about this, and her advice was to keep it simple. Almost everyone has a cake for the graduate, and many people will enjoy a slice of the cake. Other than that, look for things that are easy to store and serve. Cookies, brownies and such are great. If you have someone coming who has a specialty dessert and they want to make it, more power to them. You will be busy with other things, and won’t want to spend a whole day baking. We usually found that desserts were among our biggest leftovers.
- Snack foods – We are Chex Mix fans. We had small bowls of it around the party, as well as pretzels, and potato chips. You can make your own Chex Mix far enough in advance that it won’t be a burden in your final days. Remember if it is a humid day your chips and pretzels will get stale quickly. Plan to refresh the bowls through the day to stay ahead of the humidity
- Something with a local flavor. Where we live there are many Middle-eastern and Greek restaurants. One staple of those restaurants is hummus. You can buy really great hummus, or make it yourself. A fun thing to do is to find something to add to your menu that gives that local flavor.
Things to avoid
- You may be tempted to make mostacholi, or some other small pasta. Avoid it. While it does serve as a nice, filling side dish, it has its problems. For one, everyone over estimates how much to make and ends up with leftovers. For another, what may start out as perfect, al dente pasta in the kitchen, frequently ends up as over-cooked, limp noodles at the buffet table. If you have many vegetarian guests, or if it is a family tradition, and you are going to make it anyway, remember that less is more. Also, if you can have the sauce in a separate pot or pan, it will make the dish seem more fresh.
- Potato Salad. My mother made the world’s greatest potato salad. It was a staple of every summertime party of my youth. I love potato salad. The problem with potato salad is keeping it fresh. Everyone knows horror stories of eating the potato salad that was left out just a little too long. You don’t want your party remembered for the rampant salmonella, so avoid this one. Again, if you must make it, make far less than you think. Better to run out 2 hours into the party than to have a late guest sample it after 3 or 4 hours with sketchy results.
- Really Long Subs – this was very popular at parties a few years ago. If your guests are all eating at around the same time, and you can guess well how many to serve, then it is a hit. The problem comes when you have a part of the sub unfinished, and a lot of party to go. You either find yourself wrapping up sub slices, or worse, leaving them out. Subs that have been out a while lose their visual appeal long before they are unsafe to eat. This is a personal preference of mine, but I say avoid the subs.
I recommend planning what menu items you will have in advance. You can always alter the plan as the date approaches, but the advantage of knowing in advance is that you will know how much time you need for preparation.
On the day of the party you will need to consider how you will serve the food, and how you will keep it fresh and safe from spoilage. We always used a buffet style, with a line of the foods on one of our outdoor tables. To keep the hot food hot, we purchased the inexpensive racks for holding aluminum trays. Ask around to see if your friends already have some. We then bought cans of sterno to keep them hot, remembering to keep a tray of water to avoid burning the food.
Another way to keep hot food hot is the use of large, electric roasters. These are not as commonplace as they once were, but they do the job of keeping food warm. Beware, though, they do draw a lot of power, and if you are using more than one this can become an issue. Test in advance to make sure the circuit you are using can handle them.
To keep your cold items from spoiling, you can rent or buy a cold table. But, for an inexpensive alternative, fill a small children’s swimming pool with ice, and place your bowls in the pool. If you have a round table to put it on, it will look great too.
When sending out the invitations to the party, it is a good idea to let people know when you’ll be serving food. For those hopping from party to party, it gives them an opportunity to plan their day. It also bookends your food serving time. This lets you clean up and put things away, so you can relax and enjoy the party. Late arriving guests will understand if you have to take things back out for them because you have set the expectation.
These are just some ideas for having a great menu. You will develop your own based on your guests’ and your tastes. The important thing is to have an idea early so you can plan for success.
In the next installment of this series we will look at the drink menu.