How to Host the Best Graduation Party
Hosting any party can be tricky, and full of details! I’ve hosted so many events and parties over the years, that I have developed a “formula” that works, so I don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time! Here are my tips on how to host the best graduation party!
Our middle daughter graduated last week, and is going off to college (locally!). Her party was Saturday night. All of our large scale entertaining has to be done outdoors because our home is so small . The climate is pretty good here, and about our only concern is the heat, so we can pretty much entertain almost year round without worrying about the weather. Until this party!
Maybe I should’ve titled this post the party that almost wasn’t! Gale-force winds moved in toward the end of the week. Winds are not at all the weather we wanted for this graduation party!!! Needless to say, we could not set up until the very last minute and then prayed for the winds to stop in time! I wasn’t able to set up all of the decorations that I intended, and wasn’t able to get very many pictures. Thank God, our prayers were answered, and the winds died down just as the guests were arriving. Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time, and the three days of winds made it a beautiful night!
1) Start Planning Early
If you want to host the best graduation party, start planning early! This cannot be stressed enough! As with any event, the earlier you start, the better! No matter how early I start, I always seem to be running around like a crazy person at the end! Having as much as possible planned out early will only help! Even if graduation items aren’t out yet in stores, keep an eye out for serving pieces and other decor that can be used. Dollar Tree and the Target dollar section are great places to look! I almost always find cute things I can use. Have a general idea of where you will be hosting your party-inside your home, in your yard, or at a restaurant or venue.
2) Gather Inspiration
Pinterest is always my first place to start when planning a party or event. It keeps things easily organized, is full of inspiration, and boards and pins can be shared. My daughter and I started looking for inspiration on Pinterest about six months prior to graduation. We pinned anything and everything that we liked. We found food ideas, photo booth ideas, etc. She wanted a boho style, and a neutral color palette with pops of blush tones. You can see my Pinterest board here, and see every idea you need to host the best graduation party. I’d love it if you’d follow me on Pinterest! If you have any holiday or event coming up, I’ve probably done all the work for you!
3) Set the Date and Order Invites
In order to host the best graduation party, set the date as early as possible, and get the invitations mailed out! Graduation season is so busy, and it’s not likely that you will be able to pick a date where there are no other parties occurring, but getting the word out early is so important! Because we had out of state family coming in, we picked the date about two months in advance, and started spreading the word just as a heads up.
There are so many apps and programs out there to make your own invitations, or they can be ordered. Canva is a great source if you want to make your own, but they would still need to be printed. We opted to order our announcements from Minted, and coincidentally, so did ALL of the other families that we received announcements from. Minted is pretty reasonable, and we liked the matte finish and the thickness, as well as the templates they offered.
In this social media and digital age, it might be tempting to just put something up on Facebook, or send out an Evite, but etiquette (at least as of now) is still that they be mailed out. While we’re on the topic of etiquette-one thing needs to be explained. There is a difference between invitations and announcements. Technically, we had announcements printed from Minted, and mailed those to out of state friends and family who we knew wouldn’t be able to attend the party. We accompanied the announcements with a party invitation (I just made one on my computer using Canva and printed it at home) to local friends and family who would be more likely to attend the party.
You can very well combine both the invitation and announcement and just have one made that includes the announcement and party info. This is perfectly fine etiquette, and we received many that included both. A good rule of thumb is to mail them out 4-6 weeks before the event.
4) Plan the Menu
Again, the earlier you can plan the better! The menu is no exception! My daughter picked a taco bar, a pancake bar, and a popcorn bar for the menus. Parties are a great time for fun food bars. Different themed charceuterie boards are also great party food! And in my opinion, there always needs to be some sort of dessert or treat! Pinterest is a great source of party food ideas. Be sure to check out the food items on my Graduation Party board-there are some fantastic Covid-friendly food ideas! It very important to consider food allergies in this day and age! One of my daughter’s friends is gluten-free, and one is dairy and gluten-free, so I made sure to make taco meat that was gluten-free, and we ordered a couple of treats for them from a local bakery.
5) Staple Pieces
Like I said above, I keep my eyes open when I am out for anything and everything that could possibly be used. Over the years, I have acquired a good number of staple decor, as well as serving pieces. If you do this, it really helps with the cost of the party. As you start to build a good collection of staples, you will probably find that you have to spend less and less for a party or event.
Greenery, crates, table runners, and vases are some of the thing I consider staple decor. Things that can be used over and over, and will stand the test of time and trends. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money! Thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets are great places to look for such things. Dollar Tree and the Target Dollar Spot often have great decor for super cheap! Facebook Marketplace is another great source for decor!
See this little bamboo tray? I’ve had it for years, and I bought it from the Target dollar section. It’s been used for more things than I can count. (Sidenote-the graduation bubbles and the shreds are from Dollar Tree.) The greenery is a cut up swag from Hobby Lobby. Grab some swags when they are on sale-they provide so much greenery for the money! All of the greenery you see throughout started as swags.
Do you spy the vase that is holding the photo booth props? It’s from Dollar Tree. I have several of them, and there is so much that you can do to embellish them, or just leave them plain glass! And this basket-it was a quarter from a thrift store! The gold frame above with my daughter’s picture in it…you guessed it-Dollar Tree!
Staple Serving Pieces
Trays, platters, cake stands, two or three tiered stands, and drink dispensers are what I consider staple serving pieces. They are things that you can pull out to serve for holidays, parties, or even on a daily basis. White pieces are always a classic, and can be easily found. TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods are great places to buy these, and their prices are very affordable. But if you keep your eyes out, you might even find some at yard sales and thrift stores. I’ve even bought a big set on Facebook Marketplace for $12!
I have three drink dispensers-a very large one that I used for water, and two medium sized dispensers for ice tea and lemonade. Drink buckets are also a great way to serve cans and bottles and can be filled with ice to keep them cold. They are often considered a summer item, and will go on clearance when the fall things start to come in. Years ago, I purchased one with a beach ball stripe from Target on clearance for just a few dollars. The outside of it was spray-painted white, and it’s held up perfectly all this time.
Walmart is another great source for serving pieces! They came out with a new line called Alameda by Better Homes and Gardens, and it is gorgeous! It can be used for outdoors as well, and is food safe and completely washable! A few of these pieces had to be added to my collection!!!
A little tip for table runners-buy a tablecloth and cut it up! The narrow rolls of craft or mailing paper are also the perfect size for a runner, and they’re disposable! Narrow rolls of wrapping paper work great, too, and add some color to the table. The runner on this table was a lace tablecloth that I bought at Goodwill for $4, and cut into 4 strips. It has lasted through many parties, and I’ve even washed it!
6) Shop for Specific Decor
Specific decor is party plates, napkins, decorations that are specific to the event. Birthday party items are obviously around all year, but graduation party favors and decor don’t come out until March or April. When you see the graduation items come out-buy them right then!!! You can always return if you change your mind, but they go fast!!! They will typically be long gone by May!!! Party City is the only store that I know of that will restock graduation items.
Think outside of the box when shopping for party decor. The graduation hat in the above centerpiece was originally a banner that I bought at Hobby Lobby for about $3. I cut the hats off of the ribbon they came on, and used them in five centerpieces, and on the cupcake stand. (I took the picture from the backside of the centerpiece, insert embarrassed emoji here!)
Tip-barbecue skewers are amazing for party decor! The hat was taped to a skewer, and I also used skewers for the photo booth props.
If you want to host the best graduation party, setting up separate stations or vignettes will distinguish your party from all the rest! Plus, it gives guests things to do!
The food is probably the most important thing if you want to host the best graduation party! If you are having the party during lunch or dinner time, you should consider having at least one main dish or hearty food. To avoid having to serve a meal, have the party mid-day, or later in the evening! As I mentioned previously, my daughter had picked a pancake bar and popcorn bar. We added the taco bar to give some sustenance, as the party started at 6:30 in the evening. Again, be sure to take food allergies into consideration!
It’s probably best to place all of the food in one central area-it makes is much more convenient to refill, and for guests to file through. Consider traffic flow when setting up the food. Guests should easily and conveniently be able to go through a food line and have everything they need in logical places-plates, napkins, cups next to drinks, etc.
Typically, I do a separate table for beverages and put the cups, ice, sweeteners, straws, anything they might need for drinks all together. If the party is outside, I like to provide lids for the cups so that bugs don’t get in the drinks. Be sure to put out a Sharpie so guests can label their cups! In this case, I ended up being a table short, and had to combine things.
You must also think about how to keep the hot things hot and the cold things cold in order to host the best graduation party! If you have power nearby, crockpots and food warming trays are great for keeping food hot. I borrowed a large roaster from a neighbor to cook the taco meat in, and keep it hot while serving. Sterno trays are also a great option, especially if you don’t have access to power. They can be purchased at Sam’s Club, Costco, Party City, or Amazon. I get the sterno cans at Dollar Tree.
To keep the cold things cold is a little trickier in the heat of summer. You can purchase chiller trays, and inflatable trays for ice on Amazon. But they can be expensive, and not aesthetically pleasing. The inflatable tray that I purchased for my son’s graduation party had a leak, and pretty soon the ice was melted, and water was flowing out of it, creating a muddy mess!
Thankfully, it wasn’t as hot this year, and the only food that really needed to be kept cold was the sour cream, cheese, and guacamole for the taco bar. I purchased a round diving tray at Party City, and found a large round lid I turned upside down, filled with ice, the tray fit on top. It worked out really well, and only cost about $6 for both pieces. No one got a good picture of the food actually set out, because we were running so behind. People flocked to the food line the second it started to come out.
Dessert Bar or Treat Station
If you want to host the best graduation party, desserts are a must!!! We kept it very simple with store bought cupcakes and cookies from Sam’s Club, rolled wafer cookies with ribbon to look like diplomas, and candy buckets.
These buckets were probably my favorite thing of the dessert bar because they were so cute! I found the idea on Pinterest, of course! I used avery.com to create free templates, and printed them out on 2 x 2 labels on my computer. The labels say:
- Book Worms-filled with gummy worms
- Smartie Pants-filled with Smarties
- Reach for the Stars-filled with Starburst
- Class Rings-filled with Ring Pops
- So Long Suckers-filled with Dum Dums
- Nerds-filled with Nerds
The gift station should be easily identifiable from the entrance of the party. You don’t want guests to have to wander around with their hands full trying to find where to place the gifts. There should also be a basket for cards.
A photo booth area is crucial if you want to host the best graduation party! It doesn’t have to be elaborate! Just some kind of backdrop where guests can take pictures. Props are always a fun addition, and they can be found all over, and are typically very affordable. We have amassed quite a collection of props over the years. Again, Dollar Tree and Target are great places to find them, as well as Amazon.
Personally, I would not recommend using a Polaroid. I saw it on Pinterest, and thought it was such a cute idea. My girls each already have a camera, but the film was expensive, and the guests didn’t know how to use it. With cellphone cameras, there really is no reason to provide cameras anymore. You can set up a hashtag on Instagram, and have the guests post to it as an easy way to collect all the pictures that have been taken.
A guest book is optional. This is from my son’s graduation party, and he has never once read it. However, my daughter is more sentimental, and she has already poured over it several times, and she probably will for years to come. It really depends on the graduate. If you do opt for a guest book, leave a chalkboard or sign with clear directions on what is to be done. We a book for my daughter, and I wrote a chalkboard that said, “Please write your wishes and advice for the graduate.”
A photo display is also optional, but the graduate and the guests always seem to enjoy it! We used a pallet, supported with a saw horse behind it. I strung twine and clothespins to hang the pictures. I used pictures from the baby years in age order to her senior year, but you could also just use the high school years, or whatever you wish.
- Photo booth props (Amazon)
- Granduation banners (Target, Hobby Lobby)