Food & Catering
What are your grad's favorite foods? This is the best place to start when planning your menu and it will make your food choices a lot easier. Pizza lover? Do pizzas. BBQ lover? Plan a bbq. Italian? Pasta & sauces. Mexican? A taco bar. Dessert lover? Desserts & ice cream. The choices are endless.
Keep it simple
Make it easy on yourself and serve five to seven different menu items. The most common mistake made at a graduation party is serving too much food. Read on for advice on quantity.
Dare to be different!
After going to too many graduation parties where the same food is being served you will understand. We encourage you to be imaginative. For example, if your graduate is a pizza freak, serve pizza. It's an unusual open house item, and yet it's the number one most popular food among teenagers. Mix it up by serving some unique gourmet pizzas in addition to the standard favorites, cheese and pepperoni.
If your graduate loves desserts, have a dessert party that starts at 7:00 p.m., and specify “dessert party” on your invitation so people know to eat dinner before they come. Desserts can be made ahead and require little serving time. The bakery is an easy way out. Or how about make your own sundaes and banana splits?
Ask for help in the kitchen
Hire a caterer or server if you can, this is one party you don't want to miss! If you can't afford a caterer, ask friends or neighbors to help. Maybe you can offer to do the same at their party if they're having one. See Ask for help. If you’ve agreed on a theme, be sure to maximize the opportunity to find foods that fit the theme.
For caterers and wait staff in your area, go to our Caterers & Supplies webpage and search for your state. We may have some local businesses listed.
Keep hot food hot & cold food cold
As you plan your menu think about how you're going to set up your buffet table.
Chafing dishes are available for rent and make an excellent presentation. If you're planning to serve hot food, you may want to borrow one or two from a friend. Or you can rent them at your local rental company.
To keep cold food cold we recommend setting up an ice table. Your local rental company may have them for rent or check out this inflatable tabletop cooler that can be purchased at a reasonable price. It's a great investment if you see more parties in your future.
French's Tabletop Cooler
French’s Tabletop Cooler is a great way to serve your cold foods. It's designed with inflatable sides and a unique 1” air-insulated base, made with heavy duty plastic so it can be used again & again. Set up before your guests arrive so you can enjoy the party without running back & forth to the kitchen.
Just inflate the cooler, place it on a 6 foot banquet table, fill with several bags of ice & place the food containers into the ice. The cooler can be covered with a plastic tablecloth when food is not being served to keep the bugs out & the cold in. It can also be used as a beverage table. For best results, it should be kept in a shaded area away from direct sunlight.
For more information or to order, go to www.frenchstabletopcooler.com.
A weekend brunch is a great time of day to have a graduation party. You'll get a great turn out and your guests will be hungry.
- Make it simple - offer a variety of fresh baked bagels, a selection of cream cheeses, jams and other spreads, and muffins. Set out a toaster or two so your guests can toast their own bagels.
- Cook pancakes on a big griddle and serve them with different syrups, toppings (fresh fruit, chocolate chips, etc) and whipped cream. Or you can hire a professional to bring their own griddle.
- We all love frosted doughnuts! Order ahead for a quick stop at the bakery. You can even request frosting in your school colors. Be sure to have lots of napkins!
- Sausages and bacon can be pre-cooked and kept warm in a chafing dish.
- You can prepare hard boiled eggs with your graduate’s name and the year on them and place them in a beautiful basket. Great for people on a low-carb diet.
- Coffee bar kiosk: Check with a caterer or the local coffee shop for service or supplies. Or create your own with rental equipment and supplies.
- Serve exotic juices or breakfast smoothies or use your juicer to prepare custom beverages.
- Serve fresh fruit in a watermelon boat. Cut your school logo out of the watermelon.
- Make fruit kabobs with fresh pineapple, canteloupe, strawberries, and melon.
- Have a crepe bar. Crepes can be pre-made and you can serve a variety of fruit fillings & sauces. Don't forget the whipped cream!
Afternoon & evening menu ideas
Weekend afternoons & evenings are the most popular times for grad parties. If you want to ensure a good turnout, hold your evening party on a week night. It's a nice change for people who have a lot of parties to go to and they'll appreciate a night off from cooking.
- BBQ sandwiches, ribs, chicken or burgers served with coleslaw, chips, baked beans, and a fruit salad. Tip from a professional caterer for the BBQ: If you want to use the grill, reduce your stress and precook your meat. Keep the meat warm in a chafing dish so it doesn't dry out.
- Pulled pork or chicken sandwiches with baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw and fruit. Buy your pre-cooked meat from a caterer or cook your own. Crock pots and chafing dishes are great ways to keep pulled meat warm.
- Mexican taco bar: Serve spicy ground beef, ground turkey or chicken in crock pots and put the cold items (lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, olives, onions) in bowls floating on ice to keep them cool. Arrange the hard and/or soft taco shells in a Mexican serving bowl or basket. Or serve taco chips. Or create "walking tacos" by providing small bags of Doritos. To make a walking taco, just open the bag of Doritos, add the meat you want and the toppings. That's it! You can also rent equipment for dispensing hot cheese if you want although many people skip this topping because of the hassle. See Party Rentals.
- Buy large bread shaped like the graduation year. Serve it with spinach dip or do a big submarine sandwich. Plan ahead on how you are going to keep the hoagie cool while it sits out for several hours. We recommend setting it on ice. Rectangle shaped garden planters can be bought in various sizes. Or a wallpaper hanging trough will do the job.
- Hoagie or Sandwich Bar: let your guests assemble their own sandwiches. Stop by your local submarine sandwich shop for inspiration. Include a variety of deli meats (ham, turkey, pastrami, roast beef), cheeses (American, cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss), and toppings (lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, pickles, mayo, mustard). Or order a big variety of pre-made hoagies or sub sandwiches to be sliced and served as needed. Keep the extras in your refrigerator. Many sub sandwich shops sell graduation party platters, too.
- Rent a cotton candy machine, slushie machine, popcorn machine or hot dog machine. They add a festive flair and the kids love to serve themselves. Beware: Cotton candy machines can be messy so you may want to set this up outside.
- Salad bar and fresh fruit for the health nuts.
- Oriental Food - See Hiring a Caterer. Many Chinese takeouts will cater your favorite foods.
- Baked Potato Bar. Potatoes can be pre-baked and kept warm in a chafing dish. Provide a variety of toppings including sour cream, green onions, bacon, cheese, mushrooms, ground beef, tomatoes, salsa. The sky's the limit!
- Pizzas – order them from a local delivery service. Have them delivered at different times to ensure hot, fresh pizza throughout your party. Include some gourmet pizzas as well as the standard favorites of cheese and pepperoni.
- Swedish or Barbeque Meatballs. Keep them warm in chafing dishes. Serve with rice or pasta.
- Tortilla Wraps – ordered from a local restaurant. Many sub sandwich shops offer these as options to hoagies. See if the sub shop offers graduation party platters. Most do.
- Lasagna. Lasagna can be premade or bought from a local restaurant or caterer. Serve with a choice of salads (Caesar or tossed), and a variety of bread. Consider serving at least two kinds of lasagna - a meat option and a vegetarian option.
- Pasta Bar - serve several different pastas (eg: rotini, penne, shells) and different sauces (marinara, a white or alfredo sauce, and a meat sauce). Let your guests create their own favorite pasta dish. Pastas and sauces can be kept warm in chafing dishes or crock pots. Serve with one or two salads (Caesar or tossed) and a variety of breads.
- Veggie trays, cheese trays, meat trays, and fruit trays. Most items can be cut up the day before and assembled on the platters on the day of the party. Or you can get these already made at your local grocery store. Include dips for the veggie trays and fruit trays. Dips can also be pre-made the day before or buy them from your grocery store.
Regardless of when you have your party, some kind of dessert is a must. But don't just think cake. There are many different possibilities, starting with your grad's favorite dessert.
- Custom cakes: Graduation cakes are still a popular choice. Congratulations cakes, photo cakes, and custom cakes made in some special shape like a basketball or tennis shoe. Some people order a custom cake to display and a second, regular cake to cut and serve. If you have one cake then you'll need to decide when during the party you want to cut it.
- Graduation Cupcakes with icing in your high school, college or favorite colors. Use a sweet station or cupcake tree to display them and keep replenishing them throughout your party. Cupcakes come in two sizes - regular and mini. So if your guests aren't big dessert eaters you might want to choose the mini option. With cupcakes you don't have to worry about when you should cut the cake and they're less messy too. Sweet stations and cupcake trees are available from Shindigz. Just go to their website and search on "sweet station" or "cupcake tree".
- Cake Pops are the latest rage. Make them or buy them in your school colors, college colors or simply your favorite colors. They come decorated with sprinkles, peanuts and coconut or serve them plain.
- The fun is candy bars with personalized wrappers to give out to your guests. They come in two sizes - regular and mini. You can choose the colors of the wrappers (think high school or college colors) and add congratulatory messages, photos and your grad's name. These can be ordered with the bars so you don't have to do any work at all, just serve them. Or you can order the labels only and put them on the bars yourself. This is a less expensive option and lets you choose your own bars. Check out the personalized candy bar options on our Party Favors page.
- Smores at a fire pit. Provide several baskets full of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers. Have plenty of roasting sticks on hand.
- Ice cream sundae bar: serve ice cream with a variety of toppings - strawberry & chocolate sauce, crushed oreo cookies, peanuts (make sure no one has a peanut allergy!) or pecans, chocolate chips, gummy bears, pineapple, strawberries, cherries, sprinkles, and whipped cream. It's easy, fun and your guests will love it. Some ice cream shops will cater an ice cream bar, providing pre-scooped ice cream, all the toppings, and even a freezer and server if you want.
- Frozen treats from your favorite ice cream specialty store, packed on dry ice. You can also rent an ice cream cart for the day. Check with your local party rental business or ice cream shop. Or hire an ice cream truck to come park in your driveway. You can probably negotiate a good deal and you won't have to worry about how to keep the treats frozen.
- Trays of your graduate’s favorite bars and cookies. Or use a cookie cutter shaped like a graduation mortarboard. If you have family members who like to bake, ask them to help. Most bars and cookies can be made in advance and frozen. During the party, keep replenishing the trays with fresh cookies.
- Fortune cookies.
- Custom made chocolates: Order gold foil-wrapped coins with your grad’s name on one side and the year on the other. Or order custom shaped chocolates like mini basketballs if your grad is a basketball player.
- Root beer floats are always a huge hit. Time saving tip: Scoop the vanilla ice cream into plastic cups and freeze them overnight. Then at the party all you have to do is add root beer and a straw. You can buy a keg of root beer from the liquor store or warehouse stores like Costco and Sam's Club.
- Cheesecakes in a variety of flavors served with different toppings. For example: hot fudge, strawberries, blueberries. Buy pre-sliced cheesecakes or mini cheesecakes that look like little cupcakes.
- Buy lots of suckers in your school colors.
- Candy Bar. Set up a special table with your grad's favorite candy. Your guests can help themselves at your party. Set out little cups or cellophane bags so your guests can take away some candy when they leave. If you set your table up by the entrance/exit they'll do it on their way out. The possibilities for candy are endless. Personalized M&M's and M&M's in your grad's high school or college colors; Jelly Belly jelly beans in your grad's school or college colors, personalized candy bars (mini or regular size), suckers in your school or college colors, Sweet Tarts, Skittles, Twizzlers, Jaw Breakers, and so much more.
- We saw this idea for chocolate mortarboards in the Family Fun magazine (great magazine!). Place miniature peanut butter cups, bottom up, on a plate. Top with a small dollop of peanut butter, then press on chocolate covered graham crackers. For a tassel, cut up a long rectangle of fruit roll-ups, keeping part of the little square in tact, cut little tassels. Stick on top of cookie. This is a great project to have younger siblings help with – and they look so cute!
The most popular beverage to serve at graduation parties is bottled water. Stock up when water is on sale. You can use it all summer if you have leftovers.
For an extra fun surprise buy personalized water bottles with your grad's photo or a congratulatory message. Or buy the labels and apply them to your own water bottles (the ones you bought on sale!). Just go to our Water Bottles web page to see the Graduation water bottles and labels we have to offer.
Provide your guests with a variety of beverages to choose from. Here are a few suggestions:
- A summer tradition of big pitchers of iced tea, lemonade or Kool-aid are refreshing.
- If you want to serve soda, most people we interviewed suggest liters instead of cans. It goes a little further, and you don’t have half drunk cans all over your house.
- If you do serve cans, put out a couple of recycling bags or boxes. People will hound you if you don’t. You can clean up the official recycling bin you got from your garbage company so that it looks more presentable. If you want more than one, borrow your neighbor’s.
- Always provide water for your guests who don’t like carbonated beverages. Bottled water is very popular with high school kids.
- Rent a slushy machine from a party rental store.
- Punch bowls are fun. Make an ice ring using one of the punch ingredients so that as it melts it will not dilute the punch. A bundt pan or angel food cake pan works well for an ice ring.
- Borrow or rent tubs for ice. You can put the sodas right on ice. If you use coolers, label them so people don’t have to dig around.
- You can rent an ice table at your local party rental store. Or you can buy one at a large warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club if you see a lot parties in your future. French's Table Top Coolers sell an inflatable cooler that can be used over and over again. Or some people use a kiddie's wading pool which can be bougt at your local department store.
Fun Treats and Take-Away Gifts
Some people like to put out fun treats that guests can eat at the party or take home.
- Personalized candy bar wrappers from Shindigz and Announce It!. Create unique party favors or take-away gifts with these candy bar wrappers (min and regular size). Adorable graphics and prices to fit any budget.
- M&M's in your high school or college colors and personalized M&M's - You can buy personalized M&M's in multiple colors that have your grad's photo and congratulatory messages on them. Set them out in bowls or package them in small cellophane bags as take away gifts.
- Jelly Belly jelly beans in your high school or college colors - Set out little bowls of Jelly Belly jelly beans or make little jelly bean take away bags. For a unique and fun twist use your grad's high school or college colors. Jelly Belly has more than 50 different colors and flavors to choose from. Click here to see Jelly Belly's selection and to order.
For more menu planning ideas, order our book Graduation Parties! Everything You Need to Know From Start to Finish
A Word on Alcohol
Design your graduation party so it is free spirited, but "spirit-free".
Keeping grads entertained at parent-sponsored and supervised parties can prevent a tragedy. Do not serve alcohol to minors. Even if no one gets injured, adults that provide alcohol to minors can be charged with a gross misdemeanor and go to jail and be fined.
Tip: If you host your party during the day, your adult guests won't even miss alcoholic beverages.
The Food Formula
The number one complaint we hear after graduation parties –
“I have so much food left over!!”
To help you determine how much food to serve you need to determine how many people will come that are hungry. Start by reviewing your invitation list. Divide the people into one of the following lists (a or b).
Add up the number of people you can count on to come hungry (close relatives, close friends)
Add up the rest of the people and cut in half. Our logic here is that more may come but they won't eat much.
Add A and B lists together to determine the number of people you should plan to serve:
If your party will overlap with other parties, scale back, because your guests won't be hungry. Have more bottled water on hand.
General tips on food:
- Limit your menu to five to seven items to keep it simple.
- Single servings may consist of 6 oz of meat, one half cup of two side dishes and one dessert.
- A watermelon boat full of fruit can serve 75 people.
- 15 heads of chopped Romaine lettuce serves 75 side salads.
- People will drink 8 ounces of juice.
- If you offer two entrée choices, only serve 60% of each entrée.
- Have lots of disposable containers on hand to send leftovers home with your guests.
- Food can be left at room temperature for up to 3 hours, but must be refrigerated soon after that.
- Instead of serving one large platter that sits out for hours, it's better to serve a smaller platter that gets refilled or replaced as the platter becomes empty.
- Serve or freeze leftovers within 48 hours.
- Have non-perishable back up items that you can bring out if you run out of your main menu items. For example: mixed nuts, chips and salsa, frozen mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, pizza, candy, cookies.