Planning a high school or college graduation party is something special! You want to celebrate your child's hard work as well as kick off the next chapter in their lives! With that said, party planning is not an easy task! Especially if your expecting a large crowd! But don't stress! I've got you! Here I've included some inexpensive food bar ideas, buffet menu inspiration and lots of finger foods I am confident your guests will love!
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There are some important questions we can't ignore when planning a party...
- "Will I be serving the food outdoor or indoor?"
- "Will I serve all finger foods? A buffet station? A food bar?"
- "Am I focusing on a theme?"
- "How am I going to keep the food warm?"
- "What should I serve without breaking the bank?"
I think you need to start by determining WHERE you will be setting up your food first. This will give you an idea of how much space you have to work with and if you have accessibility to an outlet if needed.
Then determine how much food you will need! If you are expecting a huge crowd of over 50 guests, maybe a buffet is your best bet. If the party is smaller, you may want to consider a food bar since they are often more personable and are not typically set up to feed a mass of people.
As for the amount of food to serve...I've included below a food formula to determine the approximate amount of food you should be serving.
Food Bar Ideas
Food bars are the new thing especially with the younger generations! They are creative, festive and give guests something fun to do! Plus, they can make sure they are choosing what they like and how they like it.
DIY Popcorn Bar
A popcorn bar is such a fun, easy and CHEAP way to feed guests! Kids and adults love popcorn so why not create this fun setup at your party? Different flavored powder cheeses can be found at most food stores.
Popcorn Bar Must Haves:
These mason jars are perfect for adding seasoning to!
Also check out these jars! They are even better because they have holes in the lid.
Don't forget your mason jar labels so guests know what's inside!
These popcorn bags are a MUST and super fun for guests to hold throughout the party.
This nacho bar is indeed fabulous! Check out how Jessica from Fantabulosity created this amazing bar. She even purchased a real nacho cheese machine! Such a fun idea your guests will never forget!
Nacho Bar Must haves:
Let your guests use these cheap disposable nacho trays to serve themselves!
Add this nacho cheese dispenser to your table and guests will sure talk!
This triple crock pot station is cheap and perfect for serving meats, cheese or peppers and onions!
French Fry Bar
This french fry bar has so many possibilities! Go to the store and but a few different frozen fry varieties. Crinkle cut, curly fries, steak cut, etc. Then spread your toppings out so guests can create their own fry masterpiece! Bonus is that this is a gluten-free option for guests!
Fry Bar Must Haves:
Here are some neat tongs you may want to have alongside your fries!
These electric warmers are my favorite way to keep crispy food like french fries from getting soggy!
Make sure you get these ketchup and mustard dispensers!
You can't have a fry bar without these fun paper fry trays!
Hot Dog Bar
What could be more delicious! Everyone loves hot dogs! Plus, these days they have delicious veggie and vegan dog options too! Have a few different hot dog options and then set every delicious topping on the side you can imagine! From chili to cheese to beans! The toppings could be endless!
Hot Dog Bar Must Haves:
Paper hot dogs trays are indeed an absolute must!
If you do have a hot dog bar, this throwback hot dog steamer and bun warmer would take it over the top!
OR check out this hot dog griller! Such a professional way to keep your dot dogs looking mouth watering!
Don't forget these hot dog sleeves for those late arriving guests or guests who are on-the-go!
I mean, who doesn't like donuts? This would be a fun dessert table to have at any celebration! A donut bar is surprisingly easy to put together and looks so grand! Check out the post above to see how she made her own donut holders!
Donut Bar Must Haves:
If you want to purchase a pre-made a donut holder, these are perfect! You get 5 stands for less than $20.00!
This donut stand is pre-labeled, inexpensive and just plain awesome!
Here are the fun letter balloons too if you want to throw some behind your bar.
Cupcake bars are probably the most fun dessert bar I can think of. For this idea, you want to choose your cake flavors, from chocolate, to vanilla to red velvet! The possibilities are endless! Then add in 2-3 different frostings and some fun sprinkles that match your school's graduation colors!
*Tips: Use boxed cake mix to make your own cupcakes. Make them a few days or even a week ahead of time and freeze them until the morning of!
Purchase store-bought icing tubs and add the icing to plastic piping bags (or large Ziploc bags with the corner snipped off.) This way, ALL the prep can be done a day or two early!
Cupcake Bar Must Haves:
Plastic piping bags are a must to allow guests ice their own cupcakes!
This clear cupcake stand would be perfect and match all graduation themes!
Don't forget your small clear bowls to serve all your cupcake toppings!
What's a cupcake without sprinkles?! You can choose the color to match your theme!
Buffet Station Ideas
How fun would a PASTA buffet be!? Make the pasta the night before! Just make sure you add a touch of olive oil to keep it from sticking together! Then serve with some delicious hot sauces!
The following pastas would be great choices:
These sauces would reheat really well and are common favorites:
Other pasta buffet table toppings you can serve on the side.
- parmigiana cheese
- red pepper flakes
- olive oil
- freshly chopped basil
- garlic bread
But how will you keep the food warm? Make sure you check out my Ideas For Keeping Food Warm!
This buffet is perfect for an outdoor graduation party especially because of the warmer weather! Jambalaya is typically served with rice, peppers, andouille sausage, shrimp, okra and many spices. Corn and potatoes are an added side dish that pairs well and are super cheap!
To make this buffet, you'll need a few different chafing dishes, 4-6. In each dish, you will want to place the following foods:
- Andouille Sausage
- Peppers and Onions
- Seasoned Rice
Here is a jambalaya recipe you can use to give you an idea of how to season your food. Just set aside the sausage, veggies and shrimp as you cook them in batches. Each will go in its separate chafing dish. The pot will still hold the flavors of everything as you cook each so when you're ready to cook the rice, it will simply soak up all of that flavor goodness!
The corn and potatoes can be steamed or roasted in the oven.
All American Buffet
This buffet is so simple and pretty darn cheap to recreate! Ham and chicken are easy to keep warm and can stay moist if you don't overcook them. Mashed potatoes go well with both of those meats and corn is a cheap easy side dish that every one loves. You can even serve corn on the cob instead. I would also include a green like green beans or a creamed spinach. Finally, finish off this buffet with some soft potato rolls and you're set!
Food menu idea:
*Tip: Make everything BUT the mashed potatoes the day before. Mashed potatoes do not reheat well since they can dry out easily.
Appetizers don't need to be difficult. Since guests will be coming and going all throughout the graduation party, it is best to stick with appetizers that can easily be kept warm without over cooking or drying out.
Inexpensive but filling appetizers that people can grab with their fingers are what everyone wants! Check out some of my favorites below!
Finger Food Ideas
Maple Bacon Pork Bites! These bites are a delicious appetizer to serve for parties! They are packed with flavor, fills you up and can be baked in bulk in the oven!
Grilled Pineapple Skewers! These can be kept warm or cold and can be made hours ahead or even the day before! I mean, who doesn't like food on a stick?
Baked Chicken Chimichurri Kabobs. I love how easy these are to prepare. The sauce can be made 1-2 days before and the chicken baked in the oven! So they are perfect for chafing dishes!
Mini Cheese Burger Skewers.These skewers are also baked in the oven which makes them easy to prepare in a large batch. They are a blog favorite!
Glazed Apple Chicken Sausage Bites. These bites take less than 10 minutes to make and can stay warm for hours in its glaze without drying out! I like to keep them in a crock pot.
Grilled Cheese Sticks. I made these for a party and people were going nuts over them! They are baked and easy to prepare using 2-3 different sheet pans.
Baked Seasoned Potato Wedges. These wedges are made with Yukon Gold potatoes so they are super creamy, fluffy and delicious! A fun appetizer or side dish to serve with just about anything!
Pasta Salad Skewers With Creamy Dressing. These skewers are made with mini cheese raviolis so they are packed with flavor and fun to eat!
Mini Keilbasa Corn Dog Skewers. Corn dogs are a fun summer food that everyone loves! These skewers are made with kielbasa instead and served with a creamy dijon sauce for dipping!
Check out these 97 Finger Foods You Must Serve at your party!
How Much Food Do I Need To Serve At My Party?
The question of the day!
This all depends how many guests your expecting. There is no perfect formula but here is the general food rule that caterers like to follow.
If you plan on serving appetizers, plan on 3-5 per person. Remember, appetizers are meant to be small bite size portions. If you are looking for bite sized appetizers, I have a whole selection of them here!
Caterers like to follow the 1lb. rule! That means that for each person, you should plan to serve 1 lb. of food per person. This rule applies for adult guests or in this case, hungry teenagers!
What is the best way to calculate this?
I recommend creating a party food shopping list. This is the one I use. It just helps me calculate the amount of food I need while keeping cost into consideration.
Here is a real-life situation to give you a better idea:
(Warning: The math teacher in me is about to come out...)
If we follow the 1 lb. rule, converting lbs. to ounces helps a lot. Especially with corn since that is typically sold in ounces.
So if there are 16 oz. in a pound, we need 16 oz. of food per person.
When you calculate the amount of corn for example, make sure you think about the total number of guests your expecting. Lets say that's 20 guests. If we follow the 1 lb. per person rule, we need approximately 20 lbs. of food right? Multiple 20 lbs. x 16 oz. per pound and you have 320 total ounces of food. That total will need to be split amongst all the food you will be serving.
So let's say our graduation party menu is as follows:
- Steamed Corn
- Potato Wedges
- Blackened Chicken
- Roasted String Beans
So if this is our party menu, we have 4 food items. (Remember, we need 20 lbs. of food which is 320 ounces.) This means you just need to divide the total ounces, 320 by 4. Which equals, 80 ounces of EACH dish. This is just an approximation. So that's 80 ounces of corn, 80 ounces of chicken, etc.) This should be more than enough food for your guests. You do NOT want to run out of food...EVER.
Okay, did I lose you?? If so, check out this party food calculator. It might be more helpful!
Also, shop smart! Costco, BJ's or whatever local whole foods distributor you have near you is your best bet for getting large quantities of food for less money!
But wait, how are you going to keep the food warm??
You don't want to give your guests food poising from serving food that is not properly stored. Here is a food safety temperature checklist that is nice to have at all times in your kitchen.
I hope you were able to find some inspiration for the graduation party you are throwing! It is an exciting time and good reason to celebrate!
My last tip for you is to put most of your effort into ONE area of the party and make it worth it! The goal is to make that area or table the "talk" of the party. This is something that is unique and fun! If you need to spend money on one thing to make that area pop, do it. Ex: A popcorn machine or cotton candy machine go a long way presentation wise.
Don't forget that there are plenty of party companies that RENT equipment for this purpose too! Happy party planning! 🙂
Have you checked out my Finger Food Guide? I share tips on how to serve finger foods and ideas on what to serve.