Keep the party food simple and rely on standard kid-friendly foods. One of the challenges of a preparing food for a first birthday party is that you often have three groups of guests… babies, older children, and adults. Rather than make elaborate “spreads” for each group, you may want to rely on standard baby snacks (dry cereal, crackers, apple sauce, etc.) for the youngest children and easy-to-make and serve foods for the older children and adults.
What Kind of Food?
Party food can range from just cake and ice-cream to full meals. Full meals can be a lot of work and usually aren’t necessary. However, just cake and ice-cream seems a bit skimpy. Instead, have a variety of baby-friendly snacks available during the party for guests to eat as they like. Everything should be ready to serve before the party. You won’t have time to cook during a party and it’s more fun to be with the kids than in the kitchen. Sometimes it makes life a lot easier to buy pre-prepared, take-out, or delivered foods for a party. To avoid making too many different kinds of food, choose foods that are both kid and grown-up friendly, such as a tray with fruit, cheese, and crackers.
Provide water and 100% juice for parents to pour into bottles or sippy cups for their children. Write names on cups for older children and adults to avoid mixed-up drinks and having to provide multiple cups per person.
How Much Food?
You’ll probably need less food than you think, because kids are more interested in playing than eating. However, to avoid being caught with too little food, buy extras you can use later (individually packaged string cheese, granola bars, and fruit leathers). What doesn’t get eaten at the party goes back into the pantry for snacks and lunches.
Keep in mind if the parents are likely to stay, you’ll need extra food. However, you don’t need to make special food for the grown-ups. Instead choose food that is both kid and grown-up friendly (fruit, veggie sticks and dip, cheese cubes, and pretzels).
Plan on 2 drinks per child and have extra on hand. If they’re playing hard, they’ll consume a lot of beverages. If you’re serving drinks in cups, instead of single serve boxes or pouches, write names on the cups to avoid mixed-up drinks and having to provide multiple cups per guest.
Buy or Make?
This decision depends not only on what kind of menu you plan, but also how much time and money you have. Try to strike a balance between pre-prepared and home made foods. Conventional wisdom says that making food costs less than buying pre-prepared foods, but sometimes the ingredients for homemade food are less than you’d spend on pre-prepared foods from a grocery store or restaurant. However, sometimes a food you really want for a party just isn’t available pre-made or is outrageously expensive. Other times the quality of pre-prepared may not be up to your standards.
Once you’ve planned your menu, review it to identify the foods you can purchase pre-prepared that will be of acceptable quality and not cost too much. Focus your cooking efforts on the remainder of the list. Of course if you really don’t like to cook or know you don’t have time to spend on the kitchen, you can design the menu to rely on pre-prepared foods.
Cake & Ice Cream
Cake and ice-cream or other sweet treats are expected for most birthday parties. Bakery departments in large grocery stores can provide a wide assortment of decorated cakes on relatively short notice. Cakes from independent bakeries are often better quality, but expect to pay more. Leave a party napkin with the baker and they’ll usually do a pretty good job of matching the cake colors and decorations to the napkin design.
Cakes from store bought mixes taste pretty good, but you need to have an appropriate pan and some basic ingredients (eggs and oil) to pull off a home-baked cake. Home-baked and decorated cakes can be more charming than the overly perfect bakery cakes. Something about the choppy icing and the squiggly writing adds character. Visit Spoonful and Betty Crocker for fun dessert ideas, including ice-cream cone cupcakes, ice cream cake, and lollipop cookies.
A tip on icing – if you decide to tint the icing for the cake, stick with pastel shades instead of trying to achieve a deep color. Some people have concerns about food dye and deep colors can really stain little faces and tongues. A deep red Elmo cake seems like a great idea until little faces turn bright red.
Cupcakes can be easier and more fun to decorate than cakes. You don’t have to worry about getting them out of the pan and they can be decorated with sprinkles and a piece of candy or an object that ties in with the party theme. For example, gummy bears for a Teddy Bear Party. Other advantages to cupcakes are that you avoid messy cake cutting and don’t have to provide cake plates and forks.
Ice cream cakes take care of both the cake and the ice cream in one shot. Or buy little prepackaged ice-cream cups or ice-cream bars or sandwiches if you want to avoid the mess of scooping out ice-cream.
There are some foods that are a hit with just about all children. To be on the safe side include at least some of these in your menu:
animal crackers or other small cookies
- carrots with ranch dressing
- cheese – cheese cubes, string cheese, cheese spreads
- chow mein noodles
- dry cereal (ex. cheerios)
- fruit – strawberries, bananas, grapes (cut in 1/4 to avoid choking)
- gold fish crackers
- graham crackers
- macaroni & cheese
- pasta – spaghetti and other fun shaped pastas (bow ties, bunnies, etc.) – caution some kids don’t like tomato sauce, so have butter and cheese as an option
- pizza – pita, English muffin, if ordering from pizza parlor, order largest size you can use (best value) and ask them to cut it “party style” (small diamonds or squares) to avoid slices that are too big and hard to handle
- potatoes – baked, mashed, french fries or tater tots
- sandwiches (peanut butter or cream cheese, trim crusts and cut into 4 squares or triangles)
- sherbet – many children love this stuff, especially the rainbow colored kind
Food for Adult Guests
Many of the foods listed above can also be served to adults, especially if you “upgrade” them a bit. For example, add some fancier cheeses and crackers and a wider selection of fresh fruit and vegetables to your party trays. Both children and adults will find something they like.