If you’re hosting a grad party this May or June, now is the time to start your planning and organizing. With my graduation party menu and tips, along with some careful planning, your party will go smoothly and your stress level will stay low!
Over the years, I’ve planned and hosted graduation open houses for all three of my kids. Along the way I’ve picked up some tricks and tips. For those of you who might be planning your first open house this year or maybe next year, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned from hosting three open houses, as well as the menus that I planned.
When I was planning Nicole’s (my oldest) party, I found a great tip about buying bottled water. Buy as much water as you think you need and then buy more, you really can’t have too much bottled water. If the day of your party turns out to be a hot one, you could go through a lot of water and you certainly don’t want to run out. It’s really not that expensive, especially if you have a Sam’s Club or Costco membership. If you don’t, just keep your eyes open for sales and coupons at the regular grocery store. If you have a lot of leftovers, don’t worry, the water won’t go bad and you’ll have it on hand to use up over the summer.
As far as soda goes, figure out first what kind of soda you want to buy. I always bought Coke products (that’s what my family likes) and the varieties that I bought included, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Diet Sprite and Lemonade. I bought more of the varieties that I knew my family would drink and less of the varieties that I knew that we wouldn’t drink (for us that was regular Sprite). That way, if there was leftovers I didn’t worry that they would go to waste. Starting about a month before the party, I kept my eyes open for the sales and coupons in the Sunday paper and would make the rounds to the grocery store, Target, Walgreens and so on to buy the soda at the best price. When I found a great deal, I really stocked up. With both open houses, I had a fair amount of soda left over, but that was alright because I didn’t have to buy much soda over the rest of the summer.
I suggest bottled water and canned soda rather than 2-liter bottles, because then you don’t have to worry about buying cups. With 2-liter bottles, you will also end up with more waste, because partially used bottles won’t keep for very long.
I have a 40 cup coffee maker, so I also made coffee for people to have with dessert. I don’t think that is essential, though, especially if the weather is hot. I had a lot of coffee leftover, each time.
Selecting a Menu:
After three open houses, the biggest thing I’ve learned is to keep your menu simple. I had more than I needed for Nicole’s party, so for Kelly’s party and Alex’s party, we offered fewer dishes. I think a main dish with two or three sides is plenty.
I suggest that you base your menu on things that can be made ahead of time. For Nicole’s party the main dish was BBQ pulled pork sandwiches. I was able to make the pork well in advance and kept it frozen until the party. A couple of days before the party, move the pork to the refrigerator to defrost and on the morning of the party you can reheat it. An electric roaster or a chafing dish both work great to keep the pork hot. Besides being able to make the pork in advance, it was a great choice because of how economical it is. You can often find pork shoulder for under $2.00 a lb. After the party, I froze the leftovers in meal size portions for my family, which was great for quick meals throughout the summer.
For Kelly’s party, the main dish was Grilled Chicken Pesto Pasta.
For this dish, we grilled the chicken a couple of weeks ahead of time and froze it until the day before the party. The day before the party we cooked the pasta (borrow several large pots if you need to) and finished preparing the dish. I refrigerated it over night and brought it to room temperature the morning of the party. The great thing about pesto pasta is that it tastes great room temperature and so I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to keep it hot. The other thing to note is that this dish freezes really well, so that’s what I did with the leftovers and once again we had some quick meals on hand.
In addition to the BBQ pulled pork sandwiches at Nicole’s Party, we also served a black bean and corn salad (which we made the day before), cole slaw (we made the day before), baked beans (out of a can) and fresh fruit salad. If I had to do it over again, I would only have three side dishes. For Kelly’s party, we also served ciabatta rolls, caesar salad and fresh fruit salad, which was a much more manageable amount of food.
For the fresh fruit salad, we cut up all of the fruit the day before and kept it all in separate containers. Then the morning of the party, we combined it in a serving bowl.
For Alex’s party we came up with a menu that was delicious, but simple and could all be made ahead of time.
For the main dish I once again made BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches, but this time I served a couple of different BBQ sauces on the side. That way guests were able to help themselves to what they liked.
I served the pork on my Homemade Sandwich Rolls. I started making the rolls a couple months ahead of time and froze them as I went. If you don’t want to make homemade rolls, the pork is delicious on ciabatta rolls.
For sides we had kettle chips because those are Alex’s favorite and it made for a super easy side. Everyone loves chips, right? I also made a fresh fruit salad which I kept fairly simple. I used a combination of grapes, strawberries and pineapple. The final side dish was my Coleslaw Minus the Mayo. Since this is made without any mayo, it’s a lot safer to leave sitting out on a buffet. Plus, it’s really delicious! I made the dressing a couple of days ahead of time. Then the morning of the party I combined it with the cabbage.
Finally for dessert, I ordered a cake from Sam’s Club. In addition to that, Alex had requested lemon bars. I ended up making these Easiest Ever Lemon Bars which are really delicious and are incredibly easy to make. I made the bars two days ahead of time and refrigerated them until the party.
To sum up menu planning, keep it simple and make ahead as much as possible. Also, if anyone offers to help with the prep work….SAY YES PLEASE! It will make the work go so much faster!
Cakes and Dessert:
In my mind, every graduation party needs a cake. That’s one thing I depend on the bakery for. My favorite bakery cake is from Sam’s Club. I think it’s very tasty cake and you just can’t beat the price. You can get a half sheet cake that’s been custom made for a very reasonable price. Costco also has affordable options for cakes. If you don’t have a membership, check your favorite grocery store or Walmart, they probably have inexpensive options as well.
In addition to cake I like to serve a couple of other desserts. I generally let the kids decide what desserts they would like to have. Some easy choices for this would be brownies, cookie bars, mini cheesecake bites and lemon bars. You can also add things like M&M’s, mints and nuts.
PARTY SET UP:
Just like the food, get as much of the prep work done ahead of time. The less you have to get ready the day of the party, the better.
Now is a great time to see what you might need to borrow, rent or buy. Do you need chairs? Tables? Serving pieces? Coolers? Table cloths?
I always devoted the entire day before the party to prepping. That’s when we finished the cooking, got the tables and chairs in place, got any memorabilia that we were displaying set up and got the food areas all set up (minus the food, of course). By early evening everything was generally ready to go for the next day. Then our tradition was to relax and enjoy some Chinese takeout for dinner down in our basement (away from everything we’d worked so hard to get set up!) before getting a good night’s sleep.
The next morning I was up early to get the food ready to serve and take care of any last minute details. Things that are generally best left to the morning of the party would be putting the ice in the coolers for the water and soda. We have a lot of freezer space so , we bought the ice the day before, but that’s something you may need to send someone out for the morning of the open house. It’s also probably a good idea to wait until that day to put table cloths on any outdoor tables as well as any outdoor decorations in case it rains or gets really windy. Other than that it’s mainly getting the food heated up and put in your serving dishes.
I hope this information is helpful to all of you out there planning your own graduation parties. If you have questions about anything, feel free to leave them in the comments and I will answer them as best I can.