If you have a newly minted high school graduate at your house, you’re already aware it’s a time of high expectations, and that includes the graduate’s party for family and friends.

A typical scenario: The grad insists on an open guest list and an endless spread of favorite foods, no expense spared. You’re planning to display your house as a gleaming showplace, even if it will require a remodeling miracle to make it look even remotely presentable. And everyone is positive the weather will cooperate.

You have visions of guests clustered attractively in your (suddenly perfectly landscaped) backyard, looking like stock photo models as they throw back their heads and laugh merrily. What a party, they all murmur.

Reality check: The guest of honor will be stuffed from the string of parties held in the week leading up to yours, and will probably ignore the food to talk with friends (and collect those $20.16 checks from relatives). If you insist on completing every item on your to-do list, you’ll be exhausted, especially if you gave into that crazy last-minute idea to clean out the garage and turn it into a Tiki Lounge. And, given unpredictable Minnesota weather, it’s likely to be 50 degrees and raining, so no one will move more than 5 feet from your kitchen.

Even if all these things happen, it’s still possible to have a party that’s not only fun for your guests, but also for you (yes, you!).

First, take a deep breath and step off the merry-go-round of escalating celebratory splendor that grips parents this time of year. No, you will not cater a party with a bottomless supply of restaurant burritos for the entire senior class. Your house will probably get a thorough vacuuming a few hours before guests arrive, and not much more.

The weather may indeed be wretched, possibly including gale-force winds and sleet. But there is hope for sanity, and perhaps even merriment. Follow these veteran party-givers’ tips for party food that’s tasty and novel, but not bank- (or back-) breaking.

Overlapping parties are the norm this time of year, so some attendees may be on party No. 2 or 3 before they stumble up to your buffet table. While you do want to offer something to eat and drink, keep in mind that you aren’t fueling a party of pioneers for a Conestoga trip over the Rockies. Odds are that your guests are heading only as far as the next cul-de-sac. With that in mind, try offering just one food — one terrific, memorable and grad-approved food. Here are some possibilities.

Cookies and milk

My older daughter’s party had a “Cookies and Milk” theme. Invitations included a large image of a chocolate chip cookie, with a bite taken out of one edge (courtesy of a few whacks from a paper punch). I spent the weeks leading up to the party making batches of chocolate chip cookies and storing them in neighbors’ freezers.

When the big day came, I laid out huge platters and mounded them with my cookie supply. Then we set up coolers with a “milk bar” that featured whole, skim, chocolate and almond. I even offered a bowl of dough, with a sign warning about the possible dangers of eating raw eggs.

Then I sat in the backyard with my guests, never once worrying that we were running out of anything. Leftovers? I refroze the cookies and gave them as hostess gifts for the next few months, making me a popular guest all around town.

Popcorn bar

Tom Furey, a Minneapolis-based father of four, has had plenty of experience in the grad party game. When it came time to throw a bash for his daughter, Katie, he consulted with Mary Beth Stotts, a friend and caterer, who suggested a “popcorn bar” theme, since it’s one of the family’s favorite snacks.

“We worked together to narrow down a list of flavors,” Furey says. “We ended up with Bacon, Barbecue, Cheese, Kettle Corn, Lime and Southwest Spicy.”

To make the bacon flavor, the family saved bacon grease for months in advance, then used the grease to pop the corn.

“I made a big batch of caramel corn and packed it in gift boxes for guest favors,” he adds.

Since a popcorn bar is a relatively inexpensive food option, Furey recommends buying the best quality popcorn available. “I buy online, from Riehle’s Select Popping Corn, which is grown in Indiana,” he says. “I especially like their small kernel Autumn Blaze, which pops small, but has great taste.” (selectpopcorn.com)

Regress (a little bit)

Yes, the party honoree is a sophisticated young person with a well developed palate and exquisitely formed taste buds. But that doesn’t mean a little kiddie nostalgia wouldn’t hit the spot right about now. If your child was an eager summer camper, an old-fashioned camp-style dinner could be a bit of edible nostalgia. Walking tacos are an easy-to-prepare, no-fuss-to-serve offering that just might have everyone in attendance reminiscing about the joys of their days at Camp Widjiwagan.

Lisa Petty, who was living in Chanhassen at the time, themed her son Matthew’s party fare around what he’d always said was his favorite time of the school day: lunch.

“Right through senior year, he happily ate whatever the cafeteria offered,” she says.

She found Styrofoam divided trays online, then dished up beef pot roast sandwiches, individual bags of potato chips, fruit salad, banana pudding and chocolate chip cookies. As the perfect beverage to complement this lunch-lady cuisine, she purchased milk in half-pint cartons from her son’s school.

Rise and shine

Minneapolis resident Susan Hamre held a Sunday-morning party for her son Isak.

“He selected his favorite foods — waffles and bacon — and we took it from there,” she says.

After researching the practicality of hiring a waffle-serving food truck (expensive, especially with a minimum quantity requirement) and trying a caterer’s frozen waffle option (not especially tasty), Isak offered this advice: “Mom, you’re overthinking this. Can’t we just make your waffles?”

“It was a light bulb moment,” Hamre says. Energized with the “don’t overthink” spirit, she made waffles the night before the party, then warmed them as guests arrived (after an initial rush wiped out her inventory, her wonderfully cooperative non-graduating children stepped up and prepared more.

“I took advantage of a bacon sale at Cub, which made thick-cut bacon affordable,” she says. “Baking nearly 400 strips on parchment-covered cookie sheets made it possible to get everything cooked in a reasonable amount of time.”

The only drawback? “No one in our family could even think about eating waffles again until the following March,” she says.

Walking Tacos

Serves 24.

Note: The “classic” dish.

• 24 single-size serving bags of Doritos or Fritos

• 3 lb. ground beef

• 3 (1.25 oz.) pkg. taco seasoning mix

• 3 c. water or beef broth


• 6 c. shredded iceberg lettuce

• 3 c. salsa

• 3 pints (6 c.) sour cream

• 3 c. guacamole

• 6 c. grated co-jack cheese (Colby/Monterey Jack)

• 3 c. finely diced tomato

• 2 c. finely diced onion

• 1 to 2 c. sliced jalapeños

• 1 to 2 c. sliced green onions

• 1 to 2 c. freshly chopped cilantro


Brown meat. Add taco seasoning mix and 3 cups water or broth, then simmer about 10 minutes, until liquid is reduced.

Transfer meat to slow cooker and keep warm.

Assemble toppings in individual bowls and set out bags of chips. Ask guests to crush their bag of chips, then add meat, followed by toppings. Fold over top of bag and shake. Ready to eat. 

Furey Family Oven Caramel Corn

Makes 8 quarts.

Note: Adapted by the Furey family from “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking,” edited by Mary Jane Blount.

• 2 c. brown sugar, packed

• 1 c. (2 sticks) butter or margarine

• 1/2 c. light corn syrup

• 1 tsp. salt

• 1/2 tsp. baking soda

• 8 quarts (32 c.) popped popcorn


Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, combine sugar, butter, corn syrup and salt, and bring to a boil and keep at boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda.

Divide popcorn and scatter evenly on 2 well-greased rimmed baking sheets. Pour syrup mixture over popcorn and mix well. Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool on rack before breaking into large chunks. Store in airtight container. 

Oven-Baked Bacon

Serves many.

Note: Bacon can be cooked ahead in large batches and rewarmed in oven or microwave on the day of your party.

• Bacon


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange bacon strips side-by-side (they will shrink in cooking). Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until bacon reaches desired crispness. (No need to turn over the bacon.)

Remove pan from oven and place strips on paper-towel lined sheet. Pour off grease and discard parchment paper. 

Make-Ahead Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes about 5 dozen.

Note: From Julie Kendrick, who prefers this recipe with half shortening and half butter. She recommends using parchment on a baking sheet rather than greasing it, and finds that a long chill in the refrigerator for the dough makes a difference, too.

• 2 1/4 c. flour

• 1 tsp. baking soda

• 1 tsp. salt

• 8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter, room temperature

• 1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening

• 3/4 c. granulated sugar

• 3/4 c. brown sugar, well packed

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 2 eggs

• 12 oz. bag semisweet chocolate chips


Combine flour, baking soda and salt in bowl.

In mixing bowl, beat butter, shortening, granulated and brown sugars, and vanilla until creamy. Add eggs, beating well.

Gradually stir in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Cover mixing bowl and chill at least overnight, or up to three days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and drop cookie dough in 1-inch balls onto sheet. Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, until just slightly brown, then allow to sit on the baking sheet until firm. 


Makes about 6.

Note: From “Joy of Cooking,” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker.

• 1 3/4 c. flour

• 1 tbsp. baking powder

• 1 tbsp. sugar

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 3 eggs

• 8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter, melted

• 1 1/2 c. milk


Preheat nonstick waffle iron. Whisk together flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.

In another bowl, blend eggs, melted butter and milk.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Combine with a few swift strokes of the whisk.

To use waffle iron: Cover about 2/3 of waffle iron with batter. Close the lid and wait about 4 minutes. When the waffle is ready, steam will have stopped emerging from the cracks in the iron. If you try to lift the top of the iron and it shows resistance, it probably means the waffle is not quite done. Allow it to cook slightly longer and try again.

Serve waffles immediately or, for later use, cool waffles and wrap in plastic and store in refrigerator for 2 days or frozen for several months. To reheat, bake unthawed on a rack in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or toast in toaster at lowest setting for 5 minutes. 

Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers food, health and science. She blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.