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Mar 29, 2011 10:02 PM

Need help with surprise party menu

I am helping to plan a surprise party for a friend. I am wondering if you all can give me input on a menu.

It will be at his house, which is about 45 minutes away. I won't have very much time to set-up or prepare food on site (about 30 minutes) and I am wondering what kinds of foods would be good for about 25-30 people.

The party will be for mid-to-late 20-somethings on a Friday evening. It will be around 7:00 (with people arriving early), so I'm worried people will be expecting dinner. Cost is a big concern for me.

Birthday boy hates tomatoes and is lactose intolerant. While he does love cheese, something very cheesy would not be great.

Current ideas I've been kicking around: (I'm a huge Ina Garten fan, so I always start with her)


Ina's Pan-Fried Onion Dip
Ina's Herb Dip

"Main" dish:

Ina's Pita Stuffed with Tabbouleh
Some kind of pasta salad
Pulled pork sandwiches* - I made this recently and would say that $20 of pork butt here makes like 10 sandwich portions. I don't think this is my best option from a cost perspective.


I want to make a red velvet sheet cake. Does anyone have a good recipe for a sheet cake version? I always see red velvet cakes that are in layers and I don't want to transport something complicated like that.

So, yeah, I need A LOT of ideas and help. I really appreciate your input!

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  1. Hi,

    Sounds fun! I'll get to the food in a sec, but is there any way you could ask for people to chip in for the food? I don't mean to ask everyone at the party, but surely someone else must be in on it and helping out, aside from you? I don't think it's unreasonable to have a few friends pitch in for costs, especially if you'll be the only one ending up cooking.


    Your snacks sound good, in my opinion. Pasta salad is good for feeding a crowd on the cheap. You could maybe add in chopped veggies or a dressing that will compliment your other courses and sprinkle with cheese to please the lactose intolerant birthday boy without sending him to the restroom.

    Are you terribly set on doing pulled pork sandwiches? Or pulled anything? I know it's different, but I used to sub chicken in many pork recipes, as I have a family member who refuses to eat pork. Otherwise you could maybe go with some sort of falafel or beef slider, which would take your menu in more of a mediterranean direction, but would still be delicious. Either falafel or burgers would be more cost-effective and could be prepped quickly.

    As for the red velvet cake--I don't have a go-to recipe, but there's no reason you can't just bake your favorite recipe in a sheet pan and adjust baking time accordingly. If there is too much batter, just bake the rest in an extra pan. I "convert" all my cake/bread/muffin recipes constantly depending on how I want to eat them (i.e. banana bread in an 8" round pan, or blueberry muffins in a 13"x9") and have never had a problem. Just keep an eye on baking and don't leave it alone for more than 5 minutes once it starts to look done.

    Good luck!

    2 Replies
    1. re: nothingswrong

      @ nothingswrong - I am sorry but you can not invite someone to a party and then ask them to pay. If people ask if they can bring something that is one thing, but to ask them to contribute is simply not right.

      1. re: yummyinmytummy

        i don't mean to ask the people who you invite, but for instance: my friends and i have been throwing birthday parties (sometimes surprise parties) for one another for years. we'll invite our close group of 5 or 6 friends, and then also the friends of the birthday person who we don't know too well. so our close group of friends always split the cost and duties, but we would never ask the others to pay.

        i don't see anything wrong with this. if the OP is alone in this, then fine. i just would think it'd be nice to have some help and i can't imagine there isn't anyone else who would be willing to pitch in.

    2. With only 30 minutes to set up and get ready, as well as cost constraints, I think stuff you can have ready before and just do final prep on would be best.

      The snacks sound good.

      nothingswrong is correct on pasta salad being a good option. Maybe a few varieties of those? One with mediterranean vegetables and an a lemon/olive oil dressing, one with a mayo dressing, one with chicken, maybe a pesto one, etc.

      I agree that the pulled pork sandwiches might not be the best/cheapest option. Maybe a make your own taco or pita setup? Provide the tacos/pitas, salad ingredients, meat, a lentil option which will cut down costs (I recommend - surprisingly good!), and which you can even mix with the meat. That also cuts down on the prep for you, as you don't have to assemble them.

      1. I think the pulled pork would work well, especially if you have a crockpot but you could also have it in a big disposable aluminum pan and pop that in the oven when you get there. I'd do that for the main, with cole slaw and rolls (use smaller rolls so the pulled pork goes further). If you live near Costco, they have a good price on pork shoulder. You could still keep the pasta salad but don't need the pita, unless you have vegetarians in the crowd.

        If you buy a two pack of those large aluminum baking tins, you can make the red velvet cake in the other so transport will be easy. Just double your recipe for the larger pan.

        1. So I have been thinking about this a lot more and have decided to do a taco bar type of thing with shredded pork, shredded chicken and lentils or beans. One of you actually mentioned this!

          What would be some good, creative toppings? And would it be weird to still serve dips/veggies/chips? Since people need to arrive early (since it is a surprise party), I want to have snacks available prior to dinner (tacos). Any other ideas?

          5 Replies
          1. re: riotouspink

            It's not weird to me. I don't see why you couldn't eat some veggies and dips and then have tacos later. For toppings, the regulars are all pretty good to me. My daughter said that avocados are 1.69 each this week so if you have similar prices, I wouldn't think guacamole would be a good idea. I know this is cheap of me but you were talking about keeping the costs down. The Red Velvet Cake will take an ounce,a whole big bottle of red food coloring . Not sure what it costs now but it's not cheap (Or not to me anyway.).Years ago when my daughter decided she had to make a red velvet cake we couldn't find a one ounce bottle of red food coloring in our small town store. So we bought multiple packages of mixed food coloring. I still have plenty of blue,yellow and green. Good luck to you. It sounds like you have things figured out. Hope you have a good time and that your friend appreciates it.

            1. re: riotouspink

              For your taco bar toppings, it's easy to set out salsa, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, shredded cheeses, canned black olives, fresh cilantro, shredded iceberg, shredded cabbage or coleslaw, halved grape tomatoes, tortillas and bottles of hot sauce. You can even make/buy interesting fruit salsas to go with the chicken, like oranges, apples, pears, mango and pineapple.

              1. re: Phurstluv

                This time of year, unless we accidentally stumble on a decent tomatoes, we just forget the fresh tomatoes on tacos and use our homemade salsa. I also like to put a little lime juice in the sour cream for tacos. For my family, we always have chopped onion and/or chopped green onions too. Now you've got me craving tacos!

                1. re: MellieMag

                  Yes, of course, we usually get decent grape tomatoes in now, and did I forget fresh limes? I had to type it in twice!

              2. re: riotouspink

                as a dip, you might search here for goodhealthgourmet's black bean dip. always a winner.

                for toppings you could also include roasted sweet potato cubes (pair well with black beans), caramelized onions as well as raw (both the onions and potatoes can be done at the same time in separate roasting pans in the oven), roasted peppers, sauteed zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, roasted garlic, shredded blanched carrots, sliced jicama tossed with lime and a dash of cayenne.
                you could also do "international tacos" and offer some fillings cooked with indian spices,
                or do a variety of salsas... green chile, pico de gallo, peach spicy salsa, etc.

                baked potato bars are fun too. offering regular and sweet potatoes...

              3. How about a good but inexpensive, bone-in ham precooked with an attractive glaze and served at room temperature? My daughter (late 20's) served this along with a Black Velvet (Stout and Champagne) Punch at a New Years Day buffet...she served close to 60 people at her Open House with a $40 ham and $6 worth of marmalade and Dijon glaze. Her sides were the traditional scalloped potatoes and green salad, but you could add a pasta salad to stretch the meal.