Beyond pizza: Creative finger foods are great for kids parties

Kabobs of fruits, vegetables, cheese and deli meats are fun and easy to eat. A raspberry-cheesecake dip is tasty alternative to ranch dressing. Photo by Rick D'Elia.
Kabobs of fruits, vegetables, cheese and deli meats are fun and easy to eat. A raspberry-cheesecake dip is tasty alternative to ranch dressing. Photo by Rick D’Elia.

Pizza at a child’s birthday party is as common as cake and candles. The Italian pies are both convenient and a safe bet. After all, what kid doesn’t like pizza? The downside: Pizza can be humdrum. Another birthday, another pizza. Yawn…

Instead, local chef Amy Barnes came up with a way to combine ingenuity with ready-made ingredients for kid-pleasing party food that’s a snap to prepare.

“One of the best ways to make the food at your child’s party stand out is to make it yourself. It’s easier to order pizza, but not nearly as interesting,” says Barnes, chef and cooking instructor at Sweet Basil Gourmetware & Cooking School in Scottsdale.

Barnes, a mother of boys ages 10 and 15, suggests party food that can be prepped in advance. No parent wants to be stuck in the kitchen while others celebrate, she says. Another option is to fold cooking into the party.

“Kids really do like to cook, and when they touch it, they own it,” Barnes says. “Kids will eat what they cook.”

Kids are natural nibblers and dippers, which makes finger foods the perfect go-to choice for parties. Smaller servings also allow each guest to eat just as much as they want, which avoids wasting food.

Like their parents, an increasing number of kids today embrace robust flavors. Swap ranch dressing for a raspberry-cheesecake dip. Spice up meatballs with teriyaki, and serve mini-hot dogs wrapped in bacon and drizzled with barbecue sauce.

Barnes knows that kids’ preferences run the gamut, so she recommends serving a few choices. Along with her tried-and-true hors d’oeuvres mentioned above, here are three additional ideas for kid-pleasing fare.

Food on a stick: Assemble no-grill kabobs, threading slices of peppers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, olives, diced peppers, grapes or whatever fruits and vegetables are the freshest. For proteins, add thick-sliced deli meats or cheeses cut into cubes. Offer a variety of skewers so that kids can pick and choose. Or place the ingredients in bowls to allow each partygoer to customize their own skewer. Any kebab skewers will work, but the most practical are the inexpensive bamboo ones available in grocery stores.

Sushi rolls, sort of: Yes, some kids will eat traditional sushi, but too few to make it a good choice for a party. To broaden its appeal, simply Americanize the ingredients. Instead of ahi tuna and seaweed, assemble sushi with diced chicken, ham, salami, roast beef, spinach, cucumbers, olives, sprouts,  mozzarella and shredded carrots and cabbage. Roll two to three compatible ingredients — such as spinach, diced tomatoes and smoked turkey — into whole wheat, spinach or sun-dried tomato tortillas. Use a sharp knife to cut rolls into sushi-size portions. Serve a variety on a platter with soy sauce, mustard and ranch dressing for dipping. A surefire crowd pleaser combines peanut butter, banana, raisins, cinnamon and honey. For an authentic touch, encourage kids to eat the sushi with chopsticks.

Salad in a jar: For a lighter, healthier option, serve pre-made salads in Mason jars. Place dressing on the bottom and layer with diced and sliced vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, nuts and cheeses and croutons. Cover and refrigerate. Partygoers simply pour into a bowl, or onto a paper plate, toss and eat. Serve with rolls or bread.