As hundreds of area high school seniors prepare to graduate and take their first steps into the "real world," their parents and families are preparing to send them off with a party worthy of their accomplishments.

While graduation parties are meant to be fun, giving grads the chance to mingle with everyone who has helped them achieve this milestone, for the parents (and unofficial party planners) it can quickly become more stressful than celebratory.

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Patty Viaene, manager of Taher Catering in Willmar, says it's her job to help with the one must-have that can make or break a graduation party: the food.

"I'm here to help the family and take that stress off them," Viaene said. "Even if families

don't hire a caterer, they should make sure they have someone there to help them. Ask a friend or a family member to help out. A graduation party should be something you get to enjoy, too."

Aside from asking someone to help serve the food, it's also important to plan a menu early, Viaene said. Many people base their menus off the time of the graduation party: For example, egg bake and muffins for a morning party, or desserts and coffee in the evening. Most people only expect a "full" meal - salads, a main course and a dessert - during afternoon parties.

Even then, because many guests will be attending several graduation parties, it's fine to keep the menu simple, Viaene said. Instead of four salads, just serve one that can be prepared one or two days early. A taco bar may be fun, but consider all the work it will take to chop lettuce and other vegetables and to brown hamburger beforehand"I know it sounds pretty standard, but cold sandwiches and fruit are probably the easiest graduation foods," Viaene said. "If you aren't so detailed, it will be easier. Those little things all just add more stress."

These days, however, many families are choosing to go beyond the basics and add those extra details. Grand Rental Station in Willmar, which has rented out tables, chairs and tents for area graduations since 1998, has recently added some miscellaneous items to its inventory that are popular at graduation parties, including a popcorn maker, sno-cone maker and cotton candy machine.

"A lot of people want to do concession items," said Kevin Wall, customer service specialist at Grand Rental. "More and more, we see people wanting to be more extravagant. They're splurging for those extra items."

Most of the concession items at Grand Rental cost around $50 to rent for an event, plus the cost of supplies to make the food. Depending on how many people will be attending the graduation party, those costs can quickly add up, Wall said. When parents call to ask about rental options, many don't know how much items cost or how many of a certain item they will need for the party.

"Many parents have no idea what they're getting into with graduation parties," Wall said. "It's not something they've ever done before. It's a learning experience for most people."

For those parents who are feeling the stress of planning a graduation party, Viaene and Wall have some tips:

• Plan ahead. "If your kid is a junior this year and you're going to graduation parties, take note of what works and what you may want next year," Wall said. "Other parents who have done this before are probably the best resource."

Set a budget and stick to it. Spending more money doesn't always make for a better party.

• When it comes to food, it's important to keep it fresh, whether it's hot or cold. Borrow some coolers or chafers from relatives or friends, and take advantage of that extra fridge in the basement. "Refrigeration is huge," Viaene said. "Remember: Lots of ice is nice."

• Have everything ready a half-hour before guests are expected to arrive. "Some will come early, so be ready," Viaene said.

• Hope for the best, but be prepared for something to go wrong. "Little things may happen, or even big things may happen," Viaene said. "Just take a deep breath and move on. You're there to celebrate a huge accomplishment, after all."


Ultimately, whether a parent is a newbie or a seasoned veteran when it comes to planning graduation parties, it will likely still be a lot of work - but it's worth it.

"Graduation is a huge milestone," Wall said. "There aren't too many things you do for 13 years before you can graduate. It's important to celebrate that achievement with your child."