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Birthday Party Food for Kiddos… and Their Very Patient Parents

We are still relative newbies to the world of children’s birthday parties, and the terror that can be instilled in the heart of a parent when s/he sees a precious child return from a friend’s party with a goodie bag so chock full of candy that it rivals Halloween.  I cannot speak to how other people’s children act (well… actually I could, but that isn’t polite) when hopped up on that level of sugar and pizza-party junk food, but I can attest to how my lovely, precocious little boy turns into a whirlwind of high pitched cackles and rule breaking that I can only describe as temporary insanity for all involved.  As fellow parents, shouldn’t we want to set our own children, as well as their friends and parents, up for success?

I’m not suggesting that all birthday party food must be reduced to carrots and hummus (although that would be tasty!), but we can create amazing birthdays while still feeding people well… and inexpensively.  The food that I include here isn’t necessarily healthy.  This is celebration food, not something that you would include in your diet or eat on a daily basis.  Nor is it filled with preservatives or the nearly obscene amounts of sugar found in processed foods.  These are all dishes that can be made a couple days (or more) in advance so that the day of the party can be spent enjoying the birthday boy or girl, not panicking over the stove (I’ve been there too).  So let’s have a party, and not feel sick to our stomachs by the end of the feast.

The foods and drink that I am posting here are actually the same recipes that we’ve used for all of Little Man’s birthday parties so far and many of the recipes are not my own.  For those dishes I’ve included the links to the original sites, so all you have to do is click on the dish’s highlighted name and a window will open with that recipe from its original site.  It’s unlike me to recycle exact menus like this for recurring celebrations, but we’re still finding our way in how to throw great kid parties.  I wanted recipes that I knew would turn out great, that could be done in advance, and that wouldn’t break our bank account or my spirit to prepare.  I might break out and try something different next year, but then again if it isn’t broken…

So here’s the menu:

  • Rainbow Fruit Platter
  • Jungle Juice Punch
  • Amazing Mac n Cheese
  • Zebra Cake
  • Snacks and Goodie Bags

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

Rainbow Fruit Platter served on a rectangular bamboo cutting board.

One of the most commonly re-pinned items from my Pintrest boards is this Rainbow Fruit Platter.  The original site I pinned it from does not exist any more, but similar images have popped up across the internet.  I don’t know what it is about this simple dish (maybe the avoidance of the tasteless cantaloupe and honeydew melon that so often “graces” fruit plates), but every time I serve this at a child’s party it gets eaten up faster than anything else.  For best results, use fresh fruit.  It seems silly to state this for a fruit platter, but having lived in places where during the winter months you sit back and watch the price of fresh produce skyrocket it can be tempting to go for frozen.  To put it mildly, the texture would be a bummer.  It doesn’t matter what shape platter you use for this, I’ve used both rectangular (above) and circular (below).  Just be sure to give enough room for each color arc to be well represented.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) at the party in 2012.

Rainbow Fruit Platter (and Pooh Bear) served on a circular metal platter.

You can use any combination of your favorite fruits, but here are the ones that I keep coming back to both for their great colors and taste.

Rainbow Fruit Platter

Ingredients

Red: Sliced Strawberries and fresh Raspberries

Orange: Mandarin Oranges, peeled and divided into segments

Yellow: Pineapple, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

Green: Green Grapes, halved

Blue/Indigo: Blueberries and/or Blackberries

Directions:

  1. Find a large serving platter and set it near your work station.  Depending on the platter’s material, you may want to cover it with plastic wrap before putting the fruit down.
  2. Prepare the different fruits and set them aside in individual bowls.
  3. Begin with the red (and largest) arc of your rainbow, and arrange the strawberries on the platter.
  4. Then fill in each succeeding arc with your chosen fruit.  You may need to adjust the size of your arcs as you go.
  5. Add the most delicate fruits, like the raspberries and blackberries (if using) last.
  6. Once the platter is complete, roll up a small paper towel and place it in the void between the blueberries or blackberries to preserve the arc’s shape.
  7. Cover the platter loosely with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until the party.  You can do this the night before, but I don’t suggest doing this too early since the texture of the cut fruit can get mushy.

Click here for a printable version of the Rainbow Fruit Platter recipe.

Jungle Juice Punch

Finding a drink that is both suitable for kids and enjoyed by adults can be tricky at parties.  For my part, I don’t allow Little Man to drink pop (or soda for those south of the border) or any of those popular punches made out of flavor packets that are little more than sugar and food coloring.  Instead I use one of the iced tea and fruit juice-based punches published by Giada De Laurentis on the Food Network website.  For kid-based parties my favorite is Giada’s Apple Mint Punch, which I call “Jungle Juice” for the parties because of its golden green color.  I make a double or triple batch and serve it in a large bee-hive shaped glass beverage carafe.  In Giada’s recipe she makes simple syrup with fresh mint as the sweetener.  It pains me to pay for fresh mint in the store (especially in winter), so I often use dried mint.  If you use dried herbs, just use half the quantity that the recipe specifies.  Dried herbs are much stronger than the fresh, so you don’t need quite as much.  If you are making this when your garden or local farmers market is full of fresh herbs, use whatever mixture of herbs you like best.  My favorite version of this was actually from last summer when my mint had been severely hacked back in a fit of mojito making, so instead I used fresh basil and tarragon.  The punch was delicious!

Amazing Mac n Cheese

Since Little Man still takes naps, I like to have his parties in the morning so that things are breaking up right around the time for him (and his friends) to settle down for nap time.  That means that I want the kiddos and their parents to have something good for lunch, so that they have energy to play, none of us are feeling sick from too much junk food, and the kids can leave feeling happy not completely pooped and grouchy from sugar crash.  My favorite dish for this is an amazing Mac n Cheese from the Pioneer Woman (aka Ree Drummond) also on Food Network.  I make a double batch of this in the morning, pile it into my largest lasagna pan and set it aside until I’m just about ready to serve lunch.  Then I top it liberally with grated, sharp cheddar cheese and broil the top until its melted and golden brown.  I’ve also made this the night before and reheated it for a party the next day.  Just be sure to give yourself ample time to rewarm the casserole in the oven, and hold off on adding the cheesy topping until you are just about ready to serve.  Every time I serve this I have parents’ asking me for the recipe.  Now you have it!

Zebra Cake

065Of course I forgot to take a picture of the inside of the cake, but if you want to see the cool, zebra-print pattern check out the link that follows with the cake’s name.  The first time I can across Zebra Cake was from the DIY Queen website.  The original post consists just of cool pictures of the process, but I found a number of other sites where the process is described in greater detail.  Check out Fae’s Twist & Tango for a great example with detailed explanation of the steps and sample cake recipes.  It’s astoundingly simple, and gravity does much of the work for you.  Simply choose your favorite white cake and chocolate cake recipes (or box mixes) and prepare the batters.  The batters need to be of pourable consistency, so if they are too thick you might need to thin them out a little.  Then you start by pouring a small scoop (about 1/3 of a cup) of the white batter in the middle of your prepared (butter and parchment paper) cake pan.  Then add a similarly sized scoop of the chocolate batter, and repeat.  Try to save the last scoop for the chocolate batter.  With each scoop, gravity will slowly push the other rings out towards the edges of the pan.  Then bake, cool and decorate as you would like.  Little Man’s party was animal-themed (hence the cake I chose), so we used a delicious chocolate frosting, simple candles, and a ring of non-toxic plastic animals for decoration.  Once the candles were blown out each child (birthday boy first) got to choose an animal to add to their goodie bag.

068Snacks and Goodie Bags

Beyond the Rainbow Fruit Platter and the Mac n Cheese, I like to keep the rest of the offerings simple.  For this birthday, Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was for Cheezies, a Canadian cheese-puff that is similar to the American Cheetos.  One word of advice, don’t start a discussion with a Canadian about which brand is better.  They are very passionate about their Cheezies…  So to honor Little Man’s one birthday request, and to celebrate our new Canadian home, a good sized bowl of Cheezies appeared next to the Mac n Cheese casserole at his party.

Little Man's sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

Little Man’s sole request for food at his party was Cheezies.

The Goodie Bags for Little Man’s party were relatively simple in that there wasn’t a ton of stuff, and we tried to keep sugar to a minimum.  Each child got a small bag (gotta love the dollar stores) with their name in puffy paint.  Inside each bag was an animal foam magnate kit to do at home another time.  Then we’d also gotten animal-themed stickers and handed those out after the kids did a great dance party.  Each child also got a handmade animal mask (see next week’s post for more information on those), and two stacks of miniature homemade cookies (Chocolate Chip and Oatmeal Raisin).  We wanted the bags to be fun and special, but not filled with candy or expensive to make/buy.  They were also fun for me to work on over the week prior to Little Man’s Party.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

A tray filled with the Goodie Bags and things to go in them.

On the whole, I think the party was a success.  For the next week Little Man kept asking to have his friends over for another dance party.  The streamers finally came down, and now we’re settling in to these new adventures with a little boy who is one more year older.  It’s fun to day dream about the new adventures we’ll have together over this next year… and what he’ll want for his next birthday party.

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A Season of Blackberries

OK, so it’s possible that I might have gone a little overboard with the blackberry love recently.  It’s hard not to on the island.  On Vancouver Island in August it is a common occurrence to see cars pulled over on the side of the highway, not because they are broken down or in need of assistance, but because people are out there picking blackberries.  Then you start to see people with ladders on the sidewalks to get to the higher branches, people buried in bushes at the back of supermarkets, people with berry buckets everywhere.  Once you can recognize what the bushes look like, you realize that the parts of the island that are not covered with forest are instead covered with blackberry bushes.  The bushes line the highways and roads, the train tracks, they pop up next to telephone poles, they grow beside bus stops, and they are all over Vancouver Island University campus.

Bushes 

I started jealously watching specific areas around town where I’d spotted the bushes, waiting for when the locals had decided that the berries were ready.  Then I would pounce… literally if I had to.  It wasn’t until after the family reunion that I started noticing people’s cars on the side of the road with people embedded and ensnared in the bushes greedily picking berries.  Then it took some time for us to be able to coordinate our schedules when all three of us could be out there harvesting.  While Little Man was willing, he is not actually much help picking blackberries… or picking anything for that matter.  When he has “helped” Mommy pick tomatoes in the farm garden he tends to use the precious fruit like a hard thrown bocce ball.  I have to move fast to get the fruit from his little hands into my basket.  And that is without the extra bonus of all the blackberry thorns.  So on each of our forays to pick berries Dave’s primary task has been keeping Little Man out of the road, out of the bushes and more or less out of trouble.  For Dave’s efforts he has been rewarded with blackberry scones, muffins, and yes, a blackberry cocktail.  I’m sharing the blackberry muffin recipe at the end of this post.  For the other two, you’ll just have to keep posted.  🙂

berries 

For our own harvesting, we first tried a spot along the road that takes us down into town.  The area is largely forest, but there is a little turn around area and I’d seen cars and berry pickers there in the past.  While we made a pretty good haul that day, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped since the people I had spied earlier did a good job of clearing out the berries.  Our next attempt was right outside of Dave’s building at VIU.  These bushes were full of gorgeous, bursting ripe blackberries.  So Dave chased Little Man who was chasing the bunnies, and I picked berries as fast as I could.  Blackberry harvesting is not without hazard, the bushes snagged my jeans, my sleeves and my hair.  I would bury myself deep into a particularly nice area of the bushes counting on my clothing to protect me (more or less) from the thorns, just to find that I couldn’t get out again.  But any scratches, and there were quite a few, were well worth it.

Dave

I have to admit that not only do I love picking and eating blackberries, but with every freezer bag I put away I feel like that’s also money in the bank.  Each bag that I freeze for future use is one more bag of berries that I don’t have to buy at the store, and as I mentioned above I use berries in everything from salads to pancakes to baked goods to drinks.  Did I mention that I love blackberries?  Normally this time of year would find me scowling at the stacks of beautiful fresh blackberries in the stores, priced at a level that was hard to justify in our grocery budget.  This year it found me ensnared in bushes, and I am still finding thorns in my jeans.  If you also find yourself in a place where blackberries do not grow wild (and free of cost) but still want to try out the muffin recipe below, please substitute the blackberries with any berry that you do have access to, frozen or fresh.  Blueberries or raspberries would be great in these muffins.  Speaking of blueberries, I’ve been told that they are just now coming into season here…

A couple notes about blackberry picking safety:

  • First, although the berries grow incredibly well along the train tracks, NEVER pick berries there.  Not only is it dangerous with the trains using the tracks, but the tracks are routinely sprayed with herbicide to keep plants from growing there.  That means that the berry bushes have been sprayed too.  Not good eats.
  • Second, although it is tempting, never pick berries low to the ground.  There are animals out and about that like to mark their territory.  Just imagine the height of a neighborhood dog’s hind quarters and remember that urine soaked berries are to be avoided.

Blackberry Oatmeal Muffins

Ingredients:

1 ¾ c. whole wheat flour

¾ c. rolled oats (not quick cooking)

½ c. brown sugar, packed

1 tbsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

1 c. milk

1/3 c. plain yogurt

1 tbsp. canola oil

2 eggs

1 c. blackberries or other berry, frozen or fresh

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400º.  Line a muffin pan with papers or lightly oil it.

In a large bowl stir together the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.  In a small bowl whisk together the milk, yogurt, oil and eggs until well combined.  I tend to use good quality skim milk and fat free yogurt here.  The yogurt adds a richness to the muffins, and replaces the oil that would otherwise be required.

The dry ingredients.

The dry ingredients.

The dry ingredients combined.

The dry ingredients combined.

The wet ingredients.

The wet ingredients.

The wet ingredients combined.

The wet ingredients combined.

 Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir just long enough to combine.  You do not want to over mix the batter since that results in tough muffins.  This batter will look a bit more wet than muffin batter usually does.  Don’t worry, it’s supposed to.  Let the batter sit for 20 minutes.  This will let the oats hydrate, soaking up some of the extra liquid.

Everything combined.  It will look too wet until after it has rested for 20 minutes.  My sushi timer is set, now the waiting begins.

Everything combined. It will look too wet until after it has rested for 20 minutes. My sushi timer is set, now the waiting begins.

 After the 20 minutes of resting, add the berries to the mixture and gently fold together.  Divide the batter amongst the muffin cups, and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until they are golden brown and a tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean (except for any blackberry juices it might encounter).

After the batter has rested, add in the berries.  Now you are ready to go.

After the batter has rested, add in the berries. Now you are ready to go.

Tasty batter in the pan...

Tasty batter in the pan…

Tasty muffins out of the oven...

Tasty muffins out of the oven…

 Let the muffins rest in the pan for about 5 minutes, and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.  Enjoy!

Cooling muffins on the rack.  This is when Little Man realizes a treat is coming.

Cooling muffins on the rack. This is when Little Man realizes a treat is coming.

Little Man in the background asking "'Nack time?"

Little Man in the background asking “‘Nack time?”

 Blackberry Oatmeal Muffins