He thinks the world actually enjoys seeing his butt crack above that baggy waistband. And he can’t fathom that the ball cap brim was designed to shield his eyes, not look ridiculous on the back (or side) of his clueless noggin. Yet somehow, your baby has pulled it off – he will graduate from high school in a few days. Now, you’ve got to keep your promise of a graduation party. And you have to do it without money for a caterer.
Take a deep breath. You can do this.
Traditionally, the graduation party is held in June but theoretically can happen anytime during the summer of the commencement. Pick a date 6-8 weeks out and get busy on those invitations. Let Junior help; it’ll be good practice for when he’s paying his own bills and packaging his resume for mailing.
Now devise your plan. For food-centered celebrations, the plan revolves around the menu. A small, family-only event can be a sit-down with meal with a special dessert of the graduate’s choice. But if your graduation party guest list includes whole households of extended family and hoards of ravenous teenaged classmates, a buffet is the way to go. Ten to twelve people can likely be served from large bowls; bigger crowds than that may require chafing dishes or roaster pans. You can find chafing dishes to rent from restaurant supply stores (or if there are none in your area, try a local restauranteur). Keep in mind that food must be at the proper serving temperature already when you put it in the chafing dishes.
Begin working on your backup plan as well. Will this be an outdoor event? Will you need to rent tents to protect attendees from sun? Awning companies often have a tent rental business on the side, because they can make their own tents with big wholesale canvas fabric purchases. Try calling around. Also, if your plan is for an outdoor graduation party, have a summer-storm or all-day-rain backup plan. How many people will your basement rec room hold? And if you intend to rent or buy chafing dishes, devise a way to shield the buffet table so the Sterno flames don’t get blown out by a heavy breeze. Finally, keep in mind that you get roughly two hours warming time from each Sterno canister, and have help on hand to clear out leftover food when that happens.
Setting it up: Put compartment plates at the beginning of the buffet table, but plastic utensils and and absorbent paper napkins at the end; that way, your guests aren’t holding multiple items while they fill their plates. Wherever possible, make separate tables for beverages and desserts so the main line keeps moving efficiently.
Entrees: It’s no coincidence that every wedding reception buffet spread includes rigatoni with meatball or meat sauce, OR parslied potatoes served with fried or barbecued chicken pieces. Spuds and pastas are starches that fill up guests while costing little to serve. And it’s hard to find anyone that dislikes either. Plus, they’re easy to prepare: Boil, drain, and toss with a sauce. Done.
Mashed potatoes are a good choice too. While whipping, dress them up with sour cream or cream cheese. Seasoning and herbs are a must in potatoes, and if possible, include freshly snipped parsley and chives. Before using dried herbs, eyeball their color first; herb colors and flavors fade as they age on your shelf. Vibrant flecks of forest-green herbs are appetizing and gorgeous. Army-green or brown flecks, not so much.
If you’d like to serve something a little fancier but still filling and inexpensive, try Swedish Meatballs. Toss a double or triple batch with a few pounds of bow-tie pasta and put in your chafing dish. For color, sprinkle with parsley. I have a “cheat” version that is every bit as worthy as the from-scratch version.
Vegetables: The two main keys to offering a vegetable that everyone will eat is actually one in the same: You shouldn’t overcook it, and it has to look good. Overcooked veggies are like old herbs – it’s sad how much is lost along the way. Corn kernels shouldn’t be nearly white and caved in. Carrots shouldn’t be mushy. Green beans, the most popular vegetable choice for in a buffet lineup, shouldn’t be limp and waterlogged. If you’re going to serve green beans, start with fresh ones. After cleaning, blanche them in boiling water for two minutes, then drain. Coat with extra virgin olive oil and sliced almonds that you’ve toasted in a dry skillet or saucepan. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Now they still have some crunch left and their healthy natural color is glossy and intact.
Salads: The Number-One Rule for food-handling is to wash your hands often, but it’s never more necessary than with produce that will not be cooked. Surface-scrub and rinse produce before cutting (tomatoes, radishes, apples, etc.) to avoid transferring any surface mold or bacteria inside. Oh, and wash those hands often! Furthermore…
Avoid salads with mayonnaise or yogurt dressings that could sicken your guests if left out too long. Tossed salads are a good alternative, and even simple ones can be colorful. Use romaine and iceberg lettuces, shaved carrots, sliced radishes, and shredded red cabbage, and pre-dress with a basic vinaigrette. Keep the salad bowl covered with plastic wrap when not using, and if possible, nest the salad bowl in a large bowl of ice to retain its chill. Even with the ice-bath, try to keep it out of direct sunlight.
Breads/Rolls: Although I’m a rabid fan of baking my own breads, supermarkets and bakeries often run graduation party specials. You might do better buying these, once you figure in the utility cost of running your oven and the labor involved in kneading (plus the “rise” time). Call a few places and get pricing before you decide. One nice thing about leftover rolls: Wrap them well, freeze them, and they’ll last literally for months. If you’re still dying to make your own, try this simple bread. It’s as good or better than any store-bought loaf you’ll bring home. The recipe doubles easily for making two humongous loaves that yield 36-40 slices total.
Dessert: There are several ways to go here. The traditional graduation food dessert is a decorated cake. Or, if you’re going traditional on the food items and would like a big finish, rent or buy a chocolate fountain and provide a tray or two of dippers on toothpicks. Ideas here include strawberries, frozen grapes, sliced bananas (dipped in lemon-lime soda they don’t brown so fast), toasted pound cake cubes, or pretzels (no toothpick needed).
Choose a meat that you can roast, which doesn’t require so much babysitting as stove-top cooking. Meatballs are nice. Chicken pieces are standard. Ribs are totally yummy, and with boneless spare rib deals of $1.99/lb, they are definitely affordable. Coat with barbecue sauce or your own special blend of brown sugar, apple cider, orange juice, garlic and spices.
Have plenty of napkins and plates on hand so you don’t run out before everyone’s been served.
Collect punch and iced tea recipes well before the graduation party. Do a trial run of any new recipe on your household first.
Have extra trash receptacles strategically placed around the perimeter of your event, preferably with lids so they don’t attract bees.
Don’t forget the extra ice!
If you’re looking for unique table centerpieces that could also double as party favors, try making one of these little beauties. The site’s pop-up email list subscribe requester box is a bit annoying, but get past that, and you’ll see that this woman’s candy bouquet creations are not only stunning, but suitable for numerous occasions.
Have you pulled off a big catering job on your own? Tell us about it in the comments!