As a self-described dinner-party evangelist (and a person who just wrote an entire cookbook about them), I help people create celebrations they’re actually excited to host—one that fits their style, energy, and, most importantly, budget. Planning parties big and small are my thing. And with graduation season right around the corner, I’m here to help relieve a little stress off your shoulders.
Surrounding your new grad with food and the people they love may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be—I promise! If the idea of cooking or even ordering catered food feels like too much, take a step back and consider an easier (and way more fun) alternative. What about… a dessert bar?
Imagine an entire table of your grad’s favorite sweets: cakes, donuts, cookies, pies, even ice cream. It might sound wild, but remember that your party doesn’t have to be everything for everyone, it just has to be right for you (and your grad).
Still unsure? I once catered an entire wedding where the bride’s only request was a dessert bar and literally nothing else. So I set up whimsical piles of snowy sugared donuts, all of her favorite cookies, crumble- and lattice-topped pies, bowls of in-season strawberries with mounds of whipped cream, and ginormous fudgy brownies. And you know what? People said it was the most fun, delicious, and low-stress wedding they’d ever been to.
How To Plan a Next-Level Dessert Bar
Starting to feel like this is out of your wheelhouse? Don’t panic—I’m here to guide you! Here’s what you do:
1. Pick Your Treats
A week or so before the party, write a list of your grad’s favorite treats, both from now and wayyyyy back in their childhood. A mix of nostalgic treats—candy even— and modern baked goods is a really fun combo that’s also a guaranteed conversation starter amongst your guests.
2. Set a Budget
Decide how much you’re willing and able to spend. The great thing about desserts is that there are tons of affordable options. If a particular item is super expensive, skip it! Pick another item from your list. If a treat you really want is out of your budget but you really want it, ask a family or friend that likes to bake if they would be willing to make it.
And for serving, you’ll only need to buy small plates, forks, napkins, and serving utensils.
3. Order Treats Online
The week of the party, order everything you can online—specialty candies, baked goods, cute napkins, and whatever else you can take off your plate (pun intended).
4. Place Your Bakery Order
If you want specific items from a local bakery, order them in advance, or call and ask them to set something aside for you a few days ahead of the party.
5. Fill In the Blanks
Once you’ve gotten all of your must-have treats, fill in the gaps with stuff that’s easy to get and affordable. If you live close to a Trader Joe’s, stock up on Chocolatey Cat Cookies, Dark Chocolate Almonds, and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups—they are always hits. You could also browse the freezer section of your local grocery store for frozen pies, New York-style cheesecakes, and fun popsicles that can live in a cooler next to your dessert bar.
6. Avoid Tunnel Vision
Here’s the most important tip: Don’t drive yourself nuts looking for that one thing—no one but you will know it’s not there!
Tips For Setting Up Your Next-Level Dessert Bar
When it comes to setting up the dessert bar, the more plentiful it looks, the better. A small table crowded with treats is more fun to look at and eat from than a massive table that looks bare.
Before I bring the food out, I like to see how the serving bowls and platters look together and to make sure everything fits on the table. The key to making it look good is to have different heights. Cake stands, a bowl on a stack of books, or a platter on an upside-down bowl are great ways to create a variety of heights. Only then, add the treats to the table.
Final tip! It’s important to remember that your guests will only have as much fun as you do. If any one element on the dessert bar is freaking you out (for any reason—you never have to explain it to anyone) get rid of it. Make it work for you. And, if you’re looking for more inspiration, you can always pick up a copy of The Dinner Party Project and I’ll hold your hand all the way through!