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Novice Needs help cooking for my 3 year old's birthday party

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We're having about 40-50 adults & 20 kids over for lunch to celebrate my "baby's" 3rd birthday. 70 people sounds like a lot of people!! We haven't done a lot of parties & never cooked for our parties (always done take out). So, we wanted to make it ULTRA-SIMPLE. We're cooking on a budget too.
Not trying to impress anyone with gourmet skills I don't have! We don't have a lot of time to prepare- I also have a baby so we're running on little sleep as it is.

The menu will be a taco bar with beans, rice, appetizers & cake for dessert. Some of you will laugh at these questions, but I've gotta ask...

* If I cook 10-15 lbs of ground beef for the tacos, what size batches should i be cooking the meat in? (5 lbs at a time)?
* Where can I buy 10-15 lbs of inexpensive ground beef for tacos(already checked Costco but they sell lowfat ground beef & I want it to taste good)?
* I want to just cook rice in a rice cooker- what kind of rice goes with tacos? long grain? Short grain white rice? i heard i can just add cilantro to the rice- has anyone tried this?
* Where can i get large cans of refried beans- already checked Costco, Walmart, Safeway- I'm in No. Cal/East Bay.
* What are easy appetizers for a Mexican menu?

Thanks for any help!!

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  1. Your "baby" will only be three years old once ~~ Only 1 three year old birthday in a life time ~~ Please don't miss it!! ~~ Keep it simple!! The party is about the child....Cake and Ice cream is all you need.

    1. Hi Chele!

      I think you're on the right track to go with a Mexican buffet. Super easy and delicious. Don't be afraid of the Costco groundbeef, I use it all the time and it's great! If it seems dry or flavorless to you I would add taco seasoning and a bit of olive oil for moistness.

      Here's my recipe for Easy Spanish rice: Pre-cook the quantity of rice and set aside. In a large frying pan heat up 1/2 c. veg oil and add 2 diced onions, garlic and 1 red and 1 green sweet peppers. Add 2-3 chicken bouillon cubes (or any flavor you like)black pepper and 2 T mild chili powder to the oil and veggies. Mix the above flavored oil and veggies together with the rice and add a large amt. of chopped cilantro. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

      For an easy appetizer serve salsa and tortilla chips! Everyone loves them. Here is an easy recipe for salsa that is easy on your budget too:

      2 large cans of whole tomatoes

      2 small cans diced green chilles

      1-2 diced fresh jalapenos (remove seeds for mild, leave them in for spicy)

      1 medium onion diced

      1 bunch fresh cilantro

      juice of one lime

      4-5 chopped green onions (mix in later, do not blend)

      salt and pepper and sugar to taste

      1-2 cloves fresh garlic

      olive oil

      Combine the tomatoes, chopped onion, and cilantro in blender jar and process until smooth. Pour into a bowl and add the green chiles, jalapenos, green onions, lime juice, oil and salt and pepper. Add sugar 1 tsp at a time to taste, a little enhances all the other flavors. Serve with chips. Have fun at your party!

      1 Reply
      1. re: riversuzyq

        +1 on costco ground beef - tastes good to me too and they re-test for e-coli before they grind in house, so good for kids in my opinion.

        I've never done tacos for this large a crowd, so my advice is purely intuitive.

        I might look at doing the ground beef a little differently. You can add water and spices to the beef at the start of cooking, this helps break the beef down, so you'll have a finer texture to the beef but it will also add moisture and spices which will help when reheating and keeping warm.

        For the rice I would use a medium grain white rice which I think will hold together a little better in a taco. You can add cilantro and a little oil to the rice after it cooks to help it stay moist longer and give some flavor. I would do it in a rice cooker if you have one. If your rice cooker isn't very large, you could do a batch - take it out and place in a chaffing dish and cook another batch in the meantime.

        Enjoy! Have fun! Don't stress the details.

      2. Unfortunately, You will probably have to cook your hamburger 1 or 2 pounds at a time. If you have or can borrow a large rectangular electric skillet, you could probably cook 3 pounds at a time. If all you have is a 12 inch skillet, you may have to do it 1 pound at a time. On the bright side, you should be able to make it a day or two in advance and then heat it up either in the microwave or a pot.

        My grocery store sells 10 pound chubs. I would think Costco or Sam's Club would too. You could also just ask the butcher for 16 pounds in 2 pound packages, too. I have found ground chuck more flavorful than regular hamburger but it is up to you.

        It would be nice to serve the rice in a rice cooker. Hopefully one of these people can give you a rice cooker recipe for Spanish rice. Borrowing crock pots would hold the meat, beans and rice hot.

        You are brave. I would have gone for hot dogs or spaghetti.

        1. I was in a similar situation last year! We had a birthday party for my mom that we thought 20 people were coming to, and by the time my dad finished inviting people, we were at the 50+ mark! I like to cook but had never cooked for a group that large, so was nervous. The best advice that I can pass on is to focus on what you can make/prep ahead so that you can enjoy the party on the day of! We also ended up having lots of people volunteer to bring food, which we accepted and were happy to have on site.

          This website (http://emmalikskitchen.blogspot.com/2...) has some good Chipotle knockoff recipes, including one for cilantro rice that is easy, and some for some salsas that you could easily put together the day before.

          For sides/apps, you could do some layer dips, fresh salads with tomato/avocado/etc., salsas and chips -- all things that can be prepped ahead and would just require being set out the day of.

          I get beef at Costco and haven't had any issues, but my regular grocer sells pretty large packs too. For the refried beans (I know this sounds crazy) - have you looked on Amazon? They carry just about every brand out there. The other option would be to see if a local restaurant will let you order a big pan that could just be reheated?

          Good luck, and most importantly, enjoy the party :)

          1 Reply
          1. re: ForFoodsSake

            Wanted to second the rec for refried beans on Amazon. if you're not making from scratch or buying from a restaurant.

            I buy the "instant" beans (just add boiling water) and they're really good... MUCH better than canned (I find canned refried beans pretty nasty).

            Honestly, the instant beans are just as good as the middle of the road local Tex-Mex joints (and I'm near ground zero for Tex-Mex). Plus, they don't have that slimy texture like the canned ones.

            These are the ones you want:


          2. Are you sure that will be enough meat? Remember that ground beef will cook down considerably. As far as cooking it, I've done huge batches in the oven. YMMV. :) Just remember not to crowd it in the pan when you cook (whether oven or stovetop) or it will steam instead of brown. If you want more fat than Costco's beef has, you could mix it up with some chuck or straight-up beef fat from the local grocer.

            1. Hope this is not too OT for this board, maybe questions about shopping should be on the SF Bay Area board, but here goes. The Costco in Hayward is a "business" Costco which means they have food service type items, like large cans and serving stuff. There is probably also a Smart & Final somewhere near you that sells this type of merchandise.

              1. I don't want to scare you too much, but food for 70 people is a pretty major undertaking in a home kitchen. If you haven't done party cooking before, you are going to be working solidly for about 2 days before the party and the whole day of the party, and something will be guaranteed to go badly wrong.

                Keep in mind - 1-2 pounds of beef at time in a home sized skillet. At twenty minutes per batch (including prep and so on), that's about three hours solid cooking. Rice - a typical home rice cooker takes about 30 minutes, and cooks rice for about 8 people. For 70 people, that's 4-5 hours to cook the rice. Then you have to wash and shred your lettuce, grate cheese and on - I'd budget at least 3 hours of work including cleanup and prep for the taco toppings.

                For appetizers on a budget for 70 people, count on about 5 hours work, minimum, even for an easy appetizer.

                You have to keep everything properly cold overnight, which is going to be difficult in a home sized refrigerator. On the day of the party you have to heat everything up - you can probably do the beef in big pots on the stove, rice in the microwave in batches, and refried beans in another pot or two. You need to keep it hot, so you might have to rent some catering equipment.

                Plan on spending the whole day of the party, including the whole party, on food serving and organization. If you are out for the cake and singing, you'll be doing well.

                If you really want to feed that many people simply and cheaply,I'd suggest the following

                - Big pots of chili. Make a veggie one and a meat one the day before. Most of your refrigerator will be taken up keeping this cold. Borrow a couple of large pots, and you can have two pots out for serving, and two reheating on the stove, or heat four at once. Get disposable foam bowls for serving.

                - In advance, buy your disposable plates, bowls, cups, cutlery and napkins, a variety of soft drinks (diet and regular), juice, water, and beer or wine if you want to.

                - Pick up the cakes the day before.

                - The morning of the party go to Costco and get bags of rolls (enough for two per person), tortilla chips, pretzels, jarred salsa and three or four pre-made veggie trays. Also buy a lot of ice.

                - Put the drinks to cool in tubs of ice about two hours before the party.

                - If you want something more, buy a couple of packs of Romaine lettuce at Costco, and a couple of types of salad dressing. Wash and slice the lettuce, and serve in a big bowl with dressing on the side.

                1 Reply
                1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                  Tastegood... that is some good advice for the OP, but a few things could be a bit less intimidating;

                  For extra chilling space; borrow coolers from friends ahead. Pots of cooked meat, beans, taco toppings, etc. can all be stored overnight or two with gel packs for extra 'fridge' space.

                  Disposable catering chafers can be bought at any party supply store for less than 7 bucks, and extra disposable metal inserts for those. You can fill the inserts ahead with meat, etc. and reheat for an hour each in the oven for service.
                  Crock pots are certainly the best way to go for rice, beans. If you had 2-3 crocks of rice you would be fine. 2 of beans. People aren't going to eat gallons of food at a lunch, especially with lot's of kiddies and activities.

                  Borrow your neighbors oven ahead of time! You will need more oven space if you have to reheat more than a couple pans of food.

                  Chips, salsa and big tubs of caucamole are all that is needed for an apptizer; add a veggie tray and some cut watermelon/melons with chili, salt and lime on the side, and your good to go!

                  Good luck!

                2. You didn't say how you're equipped as far as cooking vessels go. If you do batches I would suggest combining them all together to assure a consistent taste.

                  I would check 99 Ranch, or any of the larger Asian markets for the ground beef. They normally have 2 grades depending on how lean you want it.

                  A simple recipe for making Spanish rice in your cooker would be to sub chicken broth and prepared salsa in place of the water. Garnish with chopped cilantro at serving.

                  You should check your local Smart & Final for the refried beans. For certain that they have it.

                  Consider having a salsa / guacamole contest amongst your guest with a prize going to the winner/s. You can even break it down into categories. Accompany with a huge bag of chips and there's your appetizer.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: letsindulge

                    Wow, I like that idea to make rice. Really simple- has anyone tried it? Thanks!!

                    1. re: chele

                      Chele, it does produce a fairly good rice. Making Spanish rice the traditional way yields a fluffier product, but using the rice cooker is ease of preparation for sure. Very important that you factor in the broth & salsa in place of your water. The proportions are 2 parts liquids, to 1 part rice. Also let rice rest before fluffing to avoid broken, and mushy rice.

                  2. you've got some solid advice here. good news is you aren't cooking for 70 adults. 20 kids won't eat a whole heck of a lot. they're going to be running around playing, and will barely stop for a few bites of cake.
                    keep in mind too re appetizers and whatnot, parents will be watching their kids a fair amount, and are less prone to standing around demolishing the appetizer foods.

                    appetizers - and i usually don't tend towards saying "go buy" - go buy guacamole and salsa tubs from Costco along with tortilla chips. you could do some meatballs in a seasoning/sauce that you bake off in the oven the morning of, but you don't need to...
                    and/or you could do a few trays of Bonnie's Buffalo Chicken Dip and buy some veggies to dip... not quite Mexican per se, but spicy :)

                    meat - i agree 1-2 lbs at a time, depending upon your skillet. can you do some in advance and freeze it? then defrost the day before? and/or can you borrow skillets from friends/family to do a few at once?

                    rice - i do medium grain white rice, and i do a cilantro sauce to go over it... mine is different from the one riversuzyq posted above... mine i do in the food processor only... so simple and always well received if you're interested.

                    happy birthday!
                    do as much as you can in advance... accept what you have done, don't sweat what you haven't, and remember to be present... you'll remember those moments with much greater fondness.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Emme

                      Wow!!! Great suggestions & recipes... and thanks for not chiding me for getting pre-bought easy stuff instead of making from scratch! Tired of buying pizza for my little one's bdays & you've given me the support to try something new.

                      Any more suggestions - greatly appreciated!!!

                      1. re: chele

                        Make it easy on yourself, both for cooking and clean up, and don't have tacos for the kids. I'm assuming most will be about 3? I'd hate to have to clean up after a lot of 3 year olds trying to eat tacos. I'd do taquitos or even chicken nuggets for them. Costco has large packs of taquitos that are easy to heat, cut in half, done. No mess when eating. I've spent too much time cleaning up after parties w/ adults not looking after their kids and they don't sit still. I don't know if you have space for them to all sit but if not, they're running all over the place.

                        For something really simple w/ tacos, try this chalupa dinner bowl. You can make it in advance in the crock pot, keep in the oven to warm and refill the crockpot. You'd be surprised at how much one serving makes, especially for use in the taco. And, it has the beans inside. People have said it reminds them of Chipotle's pork. It's cheap, easy and goes a long way.


                        1. re: chowser

                          my thoughts on a taco bar for so many people was just like this. it will look like a bomb went off in no time and tacos can be tough for little hands to manage effectively. hard enough for big hands!

                          the carnitas is a great suggestion and can be wrapped up in soft tortillas or done as pulled pork for sandwiches. pork butt is usually cheaper for me than ground beef. it can also be cooked several days ahead and get even better as it sits in the fridge.

                    2. I've made rice to go with Mexican food in a rice cooker, then just stirred in cilantro and some fresh-squeezed lime juice. It was really good, and simple.

                      An easy meat option (if you're open to a small menu change) is pork carnitas. Smitten Kitchen has a recipe on her site. I follow the method, but just use pork butt, one roughly chopped onion, one orange peel (no pith), the juice of that orange, and several whole sprigs of cilantro. You'd have to do a few batches, but it's largely hands-off.

                      To jump on the Costco bandwagon, I really like the jalepeno-artichoke dip for an appetizer.

                      Another easy app ~ we make a lot of Rick Bayless' roasted salsa verde. You just oven roast 1# tomatillos and 1-2 jalepenos. Let cool, then process all of it (incl. juices) with some water and several sprigs (leaves only) of cilantro. Mix in 1/2 white onion, rinsed, and the juice of a lime. Salt to taste. I *think* one batch makes around 2 c., but I'm not positive. Just multiply as needed. You can also mix some with mashed avocado for a quick guacamole.

                      1. Hmm... really making me rethink the menu. I've never cooked pork carnitas. I chose ground beef because i thought it would be fast & cheap. Would pork carnitas really be easier?

                        thanks for the suggestion on the kids menu- yup, i think finger friendly foods are better for the kids- picturing my 3 year old now!!

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: chele

                          Have you looked for refried beans at a Grocery Outlet?

                          1. re: chele

                            You can buy pork shoulder in large packs from Costco. With the dried beans in the recipe above, it goes a long way and would be cheaper than the ground beef.

                            1. re: chele

                              At Costco (where I live in Idaho), pork shoulder is just under $2/lb. So that's pretty cheap for meat. It's $1.50/lb. for pork butt at Cash & Carry, but I don't know if you have that store in your area. Most people I know don't cook carnitas, so when they get it served to them at someone's house, the "impressed" factor really goes up!

                              I just put the pork (cut into large chunks) in a large pot on the stove, add the ingredients I listed above, cover with water, and let the water simmer away for a few hours. There's a little more to the method on the Smitten Kitchen blog (how hot to set the burner, when to change the temp. Then when the liquid cooks away I just get a couple forks and shred it. Or break it up with a wooden spoon. Salt to taste. It takes about 3 hours, but it's mostly just letting the water cook off.

                              Here's a link: http://smittenkitchen.com/2011/11/hom...

                              But you'd have to do more than one batch that way. I've fed 8 adults and 10 kids with that recipe (and a larger, maybe 7-lb. picnic pork; pork butt is better IMO), just on small corn tortillas. The kids usually prefer flour tortillas, or you could use taco shells. We had a couple sides, including the cilantro-lime rice and probably orange slices.

                              And we garnish with the roasted salsa verde (jarred would be fine for ease), fresh lime wedges, queso anejo crumbled up, cilantro leaves, avocado slices. Sometimes sliced olives for the kids because kids loooove those!

                              I would think you could do a large batch in the oven or maybe put a large roasting pan over two burners to do multiple batches at once? Never done that, but it sounds like it would work. Anyone know better? :) And I know there are people on this board who do carnitas in the crock pot.

                              1. re: SAHCook

                                It's easy to do pork shoulder in the crock pot but for that many people, it would be easier in the oven. It might be easy to use them to keep it warm, though--maybe one w/ spicy, one w/out.

                                1. re: chowser

                                  ok. that looks simple enough for me to handle- i like the oven idea...

                                  And I agree, carnitas would seem more impressive for a party.

                                  I found this recipe to put it in the oven... would this work for SAH Cooks recipe?

                                  Oven directions:

                                  SAHCook's recipe:

                                  Also, my mom suggested I cook a week ahead and freeze it - cool it & put in ziplock bag (she's nervous for me!). Would it taste any different? Anyone tried this?

                                  What do you think of Quesadillas for the kids- flour tortilla with butter & cheese? Would this be better than tacos?

                                  Really appreciating your suggestions on preparing things for a party this big - what seems easy cooking for 3 is not so easy for 70 people, as I'm finding out from all of you.


                                  1. re: chele

                                    I would definitely trust Rick Bayless' method! When I make it on the stove, the onion, cilantro and orange peel almost completely dissolve into the meat. I'm not sure if that will happen in the oven having never done it that way, but if you're at all concerned about it you could just chop finer (I leave it all in huge chunks).

                                    For that much meat, I'd use the big foil roasters instead of a 9x13 to cook more meat at once.

                                    If you freeze it, you can reheat in the oven. I haven't done that with carnitas, but my instinct is to reaheat it in a foil-covered pan, adding a tiny bit of water only if necessary to moisten, then remove the foil at the end. I've put carnitas under the broiler for just a couple minutes to crisp up some of the edges and liked how that turned out, so if you're not loving the reheated texture, that is an option. I'd probaby also wait to salt it until you reheat it.

                                    I really think that carnitas is one of those foods that tastes so good homemade that even if it's less than perfect, it's still great. I wouldn't worry about freezing/reheating.

                                    I think quesadillas is a great idea! I've heard of people making a big batch in the oven, but I haven't tried it. It seems like that would save some time at the party, especially if you could put them together ahead of time, or at the very least have all the cheese shredded.

                                    1. re: chele

                                      I would do Rick Bayless's method but use SmittenKitchen's sauce to give it flavor. And, as SAHcook recommended, do it in large aluminum pans in the oven. I would cook it on low and freeze (or do it the day before and leave overnight in the refrigerator). Then defrost and finish cooking the day of the party, part 2 with the high heat. Pork shoulder is very forgiving. I do pork shoulder, on low, overnight then continue to cook, part 2 of both recipes.

                                      Quesadillas sound good for kids, no butter even, if you're ready to make to order. But, they're harder to do all at once. You could make them, wrap in aluminum and bake w/ cookie sheet on top and below on a wire rack, I'm thinking. Tacos are find for kids but I just hate the mess w/ little kids trying to eat them. It's fine if you're planning a seated dinner and they'll be staying put.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        quesadillas can definitely be assembled and par-cooked ahead, in the oven. reheat in the oven on sheetpans. soft tortillas are a better idea for kids because they won't crack and spill contents all over the place. brush some butter or spray some pam on the outside so they aren't bone-dry though.

                              2. Speaking on behalf of those of us who loathe cilantro, I suggest using it strictly as an optional add-in. For a considerable proportion of the population, it tastes like soap. You would not grate a bar of Ivory into your rice. Offer it as a condiment, along with lime and extra chile peppers - all things which are deal-breakers for some folks. If you have 70 guests, you can be sure that otherwise, a number of them will find your food inedible.

                                1. So, I tried a small batch in the oven& finally got it to be tender, but there wasn't that much flavor to it. Is that how it's supposed to be & the flavor is added with salsa, guac, etc.? I had to add a lot of water to cover the pork so maybe it diluted the orange & lime juices? It was still good, but not sure if I made it right. By the way, it was really easy to make- does seem to be the best option for cooking for a lot of people. Thanks for the great idea!! The soon-to-be birthday girl loved it & she's a picky eater! she actually finished her plate! :)

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: chele

                                    not sure what your recipe calls for, but i generally use 1/2 orange juice and 1/2 water. enough to completely cover the meat. often times i just set it in the oven and cook on low overnight. it's almost impossible to screw up.

                                    and yes, you can cook it a week ahead, cool and freeze. i do this all the time.

                                  2. I have relatives who usually instead of making rice buy it from a local Mexican supermarket with a deli or Mexican restaurant,

                                    I've seen big cans of retried beams at Mexican supermarkets, or do you have smart and final up ere? They have wm as well. Not sure if they are in all of California or just southern

                                    1. UPDATE: *****************************************************************************

                                      THANKS!! All of those who replied... We had the party for my 3 year old & it was a great success. Made carnitas tacos & all the sides. Was so much better than ordering pizza. this was the first time i cooked for 50 people & owe it all to you guys!! My daughter was so ecstatic- she screamed & laughed the whole time. Thank you so much!!!

                                      3 Replies
                                        1. re: chele

                                          Glad to hear it! Great food does so much to enhance a great party, and this party sounds like one you'll remember for a long time. :) Fantastic job!

                                          1. re: chele

                                            So glad it turned out well! Nice job.