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toddler party in the park

my son is turning 3 in September and we're having his party at the park. Looking for any ideas for what to serve that's relatively easy on prep/clean up.

We'd like to avoid pizza if at all possible.


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  1. Toddlers are the ultimate grazers. Think small bites. Maybe quartered sandwiches? parents like to see fruit and veggie trays.

    6 Replies
    1. re: julesrules

      I think simple finger sandwiches for the toddlers is a great idea. Chicken, turkey, cheese, PBJ if allergies are not an issue. Fruit, veggies, goldfish crackers, cheese and crackers, cake. Chicken nuggets are good at room temperature if you want a second choice. Lots of cold water. You could have more interesting sandwiches or make your own sandwiches and a few chips, dips, salsa, etc. for the adults in attendance.

      1. re: julesrules

        Oh and cupcakes are way easier to serve than a cake, obviously.

        1. re: julesrules

          For kids that little, a tiered stand of mini-cupcakes - fewer
          frosting-smeared faces, and less crumbled cake on the ground.

          Better yet, lady fingers halved lengthwise, filled with banana or some berries, and frosting or whipped cream piped over the fruit. Arrange on a tiered cake stand.

          I'd do hot dogs, or miniature ones, from cocktail franks and finger rolls, or as pigs in blankets. Going with finger food means no risk of poking with utensils or sticks.

          1. re: greygarious

            I know everyone thinks they are kid-friendly, but hot dogs are choking hazards and aren't really recommended for kids under 4. I'd split it lengthwise before doing pigs in blankets.


            1. re: The Dairy Queen

              yep ..remember the scene in Field of Dreams... Poor guy...lost his dream twice... stupid hot dog..

              1. re: girloftheworld

                HA! I always think of that scene, Burt Lancaster of course: "This child's choking to death!"

                But, I don't think it's authoritative. :) This source is better. http://www.babycenter.com/0_foods-tha...

                Popcorn is also on the not recommended list for age 3-5 (or younger.)

                I'm always shocked when I go to birthday parties for toddlers and preschoolers and see things like whole grapes, large berries, popcorn and even hard candy sitting out as snacks for the kids. Hot dogs are a little different because I assume that if they are being grilled or something it's usually expected that a parent can intervene to slice the dog lengthwise, but that's not possible if you bake it into a pig on a blanket.


      2. We did something similar when our son was young. I am assuming that you are having a mix of adults and kids?

        We made all the food ourselves and prepared it in advance. We borrowed a bunch of coolers and made sure we had plenty of ice. Oh and bring extra trash bags in case the parks containers are not convenient or full

        We had two coolers full of ice and drinks. One held small waters for the kids, the other held favored seltzers, ice teas and lemonades for the adults.

        We made big batches of popcorn in advance and seasoned with different flavors and stored it in zip locks. The kids loved the one tossed with rainbow sprinkles. At the party just dump in bowls. Have a scoop for each bowl and med sized plastic cups to serve it in.

        Fruit skewers. There were a hit with the kids too. The night before we cut up a variety of fruit-melons, berries, pineapple, etc and head on skewers. Easy to eat and easy clean up.

        We made a cheese and veggie tray with cubes of assorted cheeses and cut up veggies. Store in separate containers and assemble when there.

        Main course:
        We made assorted pinwheel sandwiches. So many options for fillings, easy to make in advance and easy for even the toddlers to eat. Along side we had potato salad and coleslaw however if you don't want to deal with having utensils you could have bowls of chips, pretzels, etc so everything could be eaten by hand.

        I made mini cupcakes. Again, easy to transport and easy to eat

        If it's really hot that day bring large roasting pans with you, fill with ice and place the bowls and platters on top of the ice. Keeps things cool for a few hours.

        Depending on how festive you want to be bring brightly colored table clothes for the picnic bench and balloons.

        2 Replies
        1. re: foodieX2

          also, not food related but
          set up camp sort of near the restrooms or you will end up having to organize caravans. . . .

        2. i do private chef catering... and for budget toddler party the other day...We did a Dino Dig....I took those glad wear small containers which are about two inches deep and six inches across decorated the lids and sectioned them out with dino themed cup cake liners making little individual bento boxes.. I packed each with dino cut cheese and turkey and some blueberry's and carob chips a juice box... stacked these in a cooler then we did a dry ice volcano punch and cupcakes with plastic dinos on them...

          1. I've yet to meet a child or adult who didn't love sandwiches cut with cookie cutters into fun shapes like a star or heart etc...
            +1 for fruit kebobs and small wedges of watermelon

            Is 3 too young to enjoy a dirt cake? Those are easy to make and always popular.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ttrockwood

              Second all of this. I made a cake like this when my son turned 4. He loved it.

            2. My favorite easy picnic is stuffed braided bread. You can make your own dough or buy it frozen. Be creative on the filling--simple like ham and cheese, do breakfast ones like hard boiled eggs and bacon and cheese, pizza like ones w/ mozzarella and tomato sauce. Just slice and serve. Here's an idea of one:


              1. Meatballs and penne/baked ziti with salad and bread can feed everyone without a choking hazard and is still edible from hot to cool-ish. Just not small meatballs, like you get frozen from a store or a restaurant supplier. Make them yourself about palm sized, roughly between a golf ball and a baseball.

                7 Replies
                1. re: buckytom

                  I have visions of tomato sauce stains on every child's good party-outfit clothing, and handprints on most parents khaki pants. Maybe fine for a sit-down dinner with older kids, but not at all something I'd make for a toddler picnic in the park.

                  1. re: MidwesternerTT

                    I recently made La Brea tar pits drummettes (beloved recipe from the old yellow "Gourmet" cookbook http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...) for a kid-friendly picnic in the park, thinking they are sweet, salty and come with their own little "handle" for easy eating. They were delicious but oh my, that "tar" was so very messy. We'd made a double batch with the intention of bringing them as our contribution to a pool party the following day, but nixed that the second time around as I could only imagine the horror of being responsible for sticky, tar-prints all over my host's home.

                    Funnily enough, the hit of the picnic at the park was potstickers. The hit at the pool party was (no kidding) a tray of grocery store deli cheese and lunch meats so everyone could pick their own, plus crackers. Also, watermelon.

                    I actually think meatballs and penne are a great idea, but with something other than marinara.

                    Boring, perhaps, but I think little sammies or rollups are the option mostly likely to please everyone. PBJ (or almond butter or sunflower butter and J), cream cheese and apricot jam, hummous, avocado, cheese, salami or other cured lunch meat, are the way to go--all stand up to lack of refrigeration pretty well. Shapes for the little kids, quarters or triangles for the grown-ups.

                    Watermelon (and other melons) in shapes (but not balls due to the choking hazard problem) is awesome. I'm not so much of a fan of skewers for 3-year olds, but you do have to serve them somehow, so You could put them out of reach and let the parents deal with the skewers or toothpicks or whatever.

                    I've always wanted to make these cupcakes in ice cream cones for easy eating. http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/i...

                    P.S. Happy birthday to your son, Pete.


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      agree about the skewers being a hazard since there will be kids of varying ages and aptitudes. melon can be cut using cookie cutters, like stars and hearts and horsies. :)

                      instead of cut sandwiches make wraps or pinwheels as they are easier for puny hands to keep intact.

                      i'd avoid anything served in a bowl like chips, goldfish or popcorn. even with adults around, grubby toddler hands will find their way in there. if you want to serve these kinds of snacks then pre-portion into small dixie cups or paper cones.

                      instead of chicken nuggets (gah, why does anybody feed that garbage to kids?) you can make chicken tenders which are fine warm or cold and easily eaten out of hand as long as they don't have a sticky, drippy sauce. same with strips of steak. kids like eating with their hands and will get dirty no matter what, lol.

                      have fun!

                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        The Dixie cup thing works splendidly, as do applesauce packets, and little boxes of raisins. I hate that waste, but for entertaining little kids, it's a good solution.


                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          Cut your chicken tenders bite sized and you will have chicken nuggets, which can be easier for tiny hands and mouths. The only difference is size.

                          You can bake healthy, tasty chicken nuggets.


                          1. re: Tara57

                            indeed you can, but that isn't the first thing that springs to mind when i hear "nuggets".

                        2. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Those ice cream cone cakes are so cute but hard to transport. Whoopie pies or ice cream cookie sandwiches are easy to wrap individually and serve.

                    2. Recently went to a 4-yr old party with a beach theme and she did a great job with star-shaped cut out sandwiches for kids (PB&J but we all know each other and no allergy risk) and chicken salad on croissants for parents, goldfish and pretzels in bowls to snack on, grapes all halved in little Dixie cups for portions and little hands. Then she made rice krispie treats in the shape of sand castles and had mini cupcakes. It was very kid-friendly and turned out great. SImple is best.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: jboeke

                        How'd she shape the rice crispie treats? That sounds adorable.


                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I think she used a small flower pots, and then bought little toothpick flags to put in the top.

                      2. Discussions on a couple of similar posts may be helpful reading
                        for a 1 year old, 50-60 family members

                        for a 4 year old 20- 30 people

                        1. My three year old nephew is a MESSY little eater. When we have parties or he is over, we try to serve things in muffin cups (can get cute designs too). We cut rice krispies, brownies (we even make him black bean brownies or add zucchini and he doesn’t notice the difference) just big enough to fit in the cups.
                          Oh, and if you are serving dip of any sort (PLEASE pre portion them out) ….those McDonald’s sized ketchup cups work great. My nephew is pretty messy and prone to double dipping.
                          If you choose to skewer anything, coffee or popsicle sticks are not as sharp.

                          1. When my kids were small, we had many birthday parties with adults & other kids; my daughter is a July baby and we used that as a perfect excuse for an outdoor celebration. I liked to do barbecues in the park and did chicken wings & legs, hot dogs, hamburgers and grilled vegetables. Dessert usually included a watermelon basket piled with assorted fruits (canteloupe, honeydew, peaches, strawberries, blueberries) served with a yogurt dip, a cake and ice cream.

                            Contrary to what others may think, a three year old can pretty much eat the same thing as an adult because at that age, they should have nearly a full set of teeth so unless they don't know how to chew, there is no risk of choking: http://www.babycenter.com/0_developme...

                            In all those years, I never had a kid choke on a piece of hot dog, a grape or popcorn. If they can chew a chicken nugget, they can chew small pieces of hot dog or a grape. If it were a child without too many teeth, that's a different story, in which case, it's up to a parent to break the food up in smaller to swallow pieces. It's all common sense.

                            For an adult, pinwheel sandwiches are great, but for a little kid, they have to be able to hold it without it unraveling and that could be messy. If you want to do sandwiches, stick with regular bread of your choice and cut into triangles or cut out with cookie cutters for a design. To go with those sandwiches, you could serve one or two soups like something with alphabet or ditalini pasta; a roasted veggie tray with dip could complete the meal. One thing I like to do is a baked potato bar; it's both easy & popular. You could wrap potatoes in foil and bake them off before you leave home then put them into a cooler to transport. When you get to the park set up bowls of toppings like cheese, scallions, butter, sour cream, bacon bits, grilled chicken, chili, etc. and set the potatoes up in a disposable chafer.

                            You can also go the Italian route and do pans of baked pasta, sausage & peppers, etc., which would be easy to serve as would barbecue since you're in Nashville.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Cherylptw

                              It has nothing to do with the teeth!!!! Their trachea is about the size of a drinking straw! I guess the one kid that DIES in the United states during every five days from choking is not attending parties.

                              1. re: LaLa

                                My mother is terrified of balloons because when she was in second grade a girl sucked one down her throat and was choking..none of the teachers could hear her and she was afraid to leave the girl... mom finally got the balloon to come up ..but she has a manic fear of choking and balloons.. she use to watch to make sure I cut everything small enough before putting in my mouth( notice she gave a four year old a knife but worried about choking)

                                1. re: girloftheworld

                                  That's pretty amazing that your mom, especially as a child, was able to get the balloon to come up. She likely saved the girl's life. Your mom may have missed her calling as an EMT (although, I suppose your mom could actually be an EMT for all I know! Is she?)

                                  I also worry about giving young children balloons. I stick with mylar balloons at toddler and preschooler age! I let my own child have balloons, but I supervise him closely and don't let him take it into his room with him at nap time or bedtime.


                            2. There are already so many great suggestions here for easy, delicious finger food; all I want to do is echo the recommendation for mini-cupcakes rather than full-size ones. Most kids will take one or two bites and then drop/throw away the cupcake, or they'll lick the frosting off and ignore the cake, which (digression alert!) reminds me of a simultaneously genius/horrible thing I saw at a cupcake stand once -- frosting shots. You could just buy a dixie cup full of frosting. Point being: full size cupcakes are basically wasted on preschoolers. Good luck!

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: P_penelope

                                Mini-cupcakes are so fast in the oven, too. This Elvis (banana and chocolate chip) cake recipe makes wonderful minis, and it's delicious even without the PB frosting. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/438182

                                My husband recently took my preschooler to a birthday party (this was a divide and conquer day: I ran errands while they were at the party). Later, I asked my child if there had been cake at the party. "No," he said, "Just muffins." My husband said they were standard-sized bakery cupcakes with a couple of inches of frosting. My child took one lick of the frosting, then handed the cupcake to my husband, saying "Ew."

                                I really love greygarious' filled ladyfingers suggestion above, too, though I worry that my child, who thinks a cupcake is a muffin, might just think the ladyfingers are some kind of sandwich and not perceive it as a treat at all, although I think this might be a problem with only my child, and not necessarily a universal one.


                                1. re: P_penelope

                                  Yeah, when I suggested "cupcakes", I didn't mean full-size bakery cupcakes with 2 inches of frosting either. I typically use the pans I have to make 24 half size, and some "full size", cupcakes. Even with full size, when made at home, can be pretty small if you don't use a lot of batter. And icing/frosting is pretty minimal - a schmear, or if piping, basically a swirl to mostly cover the top. Sprinkles etc make them super-appealing to kids without needing a ton of icing.
                                  One advantage to full-size cupcakes is you can use cupcake liners, which can be cute, themed, etc, and also act as a serving plate, or at least separate the cupcake from the plate used for the main meal. Less waste, less hassle than having dessert plates.
                                  For these bday party cupcakes, as well as school events, I use cake mix but homemade icing (basic butter and powdered sugar type). This makes them taste good ENOUGH, but I'm not wasting my homemade cake efforts on a bunch of frosting-lickers :) Organic cake mix can be had if one prefers a short ingredient list.

                                  1. re: julesrules

                                    wacky cake makes great cupcakes and is a snap to whip up if one would rather avoid boxed mix.

                                    1. re: julesrules

                                      Great point about those cupcake liners. They can be so cute these days! I love your idea of making some full-sized and some half-sized cupcakes in a regular cupcake pan.

                                      Do you decorate or present them differently or anything like that so that the little kids end up with the half cupcakes and everyone else gets the bigger ones? Or does it just seem to work out?


                                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                        It just seems to work out. The small cupcakes I make don't look that much smaller when iced, somehow. I'm fully convinced the little kids are mesmerized by the sprinkles, sparkles and various other doo-dads I decorate with and don't notice the size.

                                      2. re: julesrules

                                        Great points, especially about the cupcake liners instead of plates -- that also means less for little hands to have to cope with. And about wasting from-scratch cake on kids who will take one nibble and chuck it. Why are they always so excited for cake when they so rarely actually eat it?!

                                        1. re: P_penelope

                                          It's all about the frosting! I once made a multilayered chocolate truffle cake, frosted w/ ganache but w/ decorations out of Crisco buttercream. The kids scraped the fake buttercream off and devoured it and threw the rest away. I could have cried!

                                    2. I'd forgotten that I posted on one of those threads...thanks for the reminder!

                                      1. our little guys birthday party was at the park. they did buckets of fried chicken chips&dips, relish trays and soda, water, juice in galvanized trash cans full of ice-
                                        I'll note however this party was intended for the child's little friends&their family plus our family including adults.