It can be done! Actual food — honest-to-goodness, from scratch, unprocessed food — can be served at a child’s birthday party, and it can be good, and the other kids and their families can eat it and enjoy it. I swear, it’s really true, despite how jaded many of us in the food blogging community may sometimes feel about the state of childhood nutrition in America.
Oh, in case you were wondering…yes, sorry, I’ve been off the blog for over a week now, but during that time we had a LOT going on…much of which was preparing for said birthday party. It was L.’s fifth birthday this weekend, and at the birthday boy’s request, we had a luau. He’s been asking if we could host a luau at the beach for MONTHS now, and besides the fact that I find it oddly charming for a preschooler to know what a luau is, I had to admit it was a really good idea. And L. is absolutely in love with the beach, and with water of all kinds, so it seemed to J. and me that taking advantage of our status as Rhode Islanders would be the perfect thing to do for an August party. The only question I had for L. was, “What do you think people might like to eat at a luau?”
He pondered for only a moment before responding: “Chicken on sticks. Also, Mommy, maybe some cous cous salad. And probably some fruity drinks with umbrella straws in them. Oh, and cupcakes — chocolate ones.”
I think it was a pretty safe conclusion that I’d end up making most of the party food myself. Last year, we had a smaller group for his birthday and we just ordered some sandwich platters and so forth from Whole Foods — but last year, the venue we’d chosen had refrigeration and tons of counter space. For a beach party with about three times as many guests, J. and I were by no means financially equipped to have the whole thing catered; nor did we feel confident in leaving nitrate-free sandwich fixings out in the August heat for very long at all.
So I rolled up my sleeves and made the requested “chicken on sticks,” along with some grilled ham kebabs (some with pineapple, some without). I made the cous cous salad, and although I’m not a fan of the “cute food” thing, I couldn’t resist doing a kid-friendly pasta salad with seashell shaped noodles. We rounded out the meal with store-bought sweet bread (okay, not very healthy, but it’s a luau staple) and a tropical fruit salad. For snacks before the main meal, we had a vegetable platter, pita chips, beet hummus (for its gorgeous shocking pink color), and some goldfish crackers — it was a party, after all. Dessert was chocolate-buttermilk cupcakes with homemade vanilla buttercream, and we washed everything down with organic lemonade and water.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous about how the food would go over with L.’s friends. Oh, I know most of the parents pretty well, and I didn’t think any of the kids who were joining us for the party were super-selective eaters; but when so many parties for kids are structured around pizza, chips, sodas, and junk upon junk upon junk, it’s challenging to manage the expectations of a bunch of 4 and 5 year olds who may be expecting the “party norm.” Not that I have anything against pizza at a birthday party, mind you — I think it falls under the jurisdiction of living in the real world and eating the occasional treat — but if we can figure out a way around it, we do. Because, well, we’re crazy like that.
The first nice surprise of the day, food-wise, came early in the party. One of the guests was sitting nibbling on crackers and raw veggies, glancing sideways at the tub of magenta hummus just a few inches away from her. Suddenly, she snaked her arm out and struck at the dip, retreating hastily with a dab of pink goo on her cucumber. A second later, she said loudly, “Hey! I LIKE that hummus!” I did a little inward dance as her mother helped her scoop some onto her plate, and as L. followed suit, not to be outdone.
At lunchtime, yes, there were a few plates here and there that were somewhat beige — chicken, bread, and pasta with the mix-ins carefully separated — but for the most part, the kids were not only eating happily; they were excited about the food. I’d sort of thought that the adults would be pleased to have some healthy choices for lunch, but it did take me by surprise that the kids were comparing the chicken and ham skewers, eating the cous cous even with all the vegetables mixed in, and diving into the fruit salad with abandon. Maybe it was the dip in the ocean before lunch that revved their appetites, or maybe it’s really true that children rise to the level of the expectation that’s set for them; but I didn’t have to feel the slightest bit guilty about letting any of them follow their meals with the ridiculously decadent sugar bombs masquerading as cupcakes — especially since, on a hot day at the beach, so many of them had chosen to drink water rather than lemonade. (Gasp! Yes, it’s true; kids do drink water. They even LIKE it. No funny colors or artificial flavors required!)
As for those sugary cupcakes, in case you’re unfamiliar with my birthday cake stance: I believe fully and wholeheartedly in awesome, buttery, sugary, homemade birthday cakes, and I don’t much care how unhealthy they might be. I revel in making special confections a few times a year for my family; I even think it’s necessary, quite frankly, so they can splurge and have wonderful treats and sweets and not feel so deprived that they end up hijacking a Hostess truck later in life. And for L.’s cupcakes this year, artificial coloring be damned, I even decorated them with M&Ms. Not only was he giddy over having permission to eat candy-covered cupcakes, but he and the other kids took special pleasure in choosing their color. Hey. It was a party. And party, we did.
Was it a lot of work, doing a “real food” type of birthday party? It was time-consuming. But it was pleasant work, the kind of work you don’t mind doing because you know there’s a great reward coming at the end of it. That reward came the morning after the party, when L. walked up to me, stuck two Mickey Mouse stickers on my pajamas, and said, “Mommy, you deserve two stickers because you did an awesome job on my birthday party.” He bounced away, leftover lei swinging around his neck, and I sipped my coffee and thought…I am never doing this again. Okay, maybe I will. Or definitely. I definitely will.
Sigh. “I love you, L.”
“Me too, Mommy. Thanks for my birthday.”
L.’s Beach Party Cous Cous Salad
1 1/2 cups uncooked couscous
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper, to taste
Bring the chicken or vegetable stock to a boil; stir in the cous cous, cover, and remove from the heat. While the cous cous is steeping (this takes only about seven minutes), heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red bell pepper and saute for 2-3 minutes; add the zucchini, season with salt and pepper, and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until the zucchini is just softened and the bell peppers are tender. Stir in the corn and cook 1-2 minutes more.
Fluff the cous cous with a fork. Add the vegetable mixture to the cous cous, drizzle with the lemon juice and one tablespoon of the remaining olive oil, and toss to coat. Taste the cous cous and adjust the seasonings; add the last tablespoon of olive oil only if you feel it needs more moisture. Serve at room temperature.
L.’s Luau “Chicken on Sticks”
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken — breasts, thighs, or tenders will all work — cut into strips about 1 inch wide and 3 inches long
2 cups 100 percent orange juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup canola, vegetable, or other neutral-flavored oil
In a large dish, whisk together the orange juice, soy sauce, garlic, honey, and pepper. Slowly add the oil. Marinate the chicken in the orange juice mixture for 30-60 minutes (any longer than that, and the orange juice may start to break the chicken down too much). Thread the chicken onto skewers — one piece of chicken per skewer — and grill for about 4 minutes per side, until cooked all the way through.
L.’s Birthday Spiced Ham
1 boneless ham steak, preferably nitrate-free, between 12 and 16 oz.
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground allspice
Combine the cinnamon, pepper, and allspice in a small bowl. Liberally sprinkle both sides of the ham steak with the spice mixture. Grill the ham steak for about 5-7 minutes per side, until completely cooked through. For L.’s luau party, I let the ham steaks cool, then cut them into cubes and threaded them onto skewers with chunks of pineapple.
Seashell Tropical Pasta Salad
1 lb. seashell pasta, whole-wheat if you can get it
1 cup mandarin orange segments (packaged only in juice with no sugar added — please check the ingredients and make sure they’re as pure as possible!)
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1/2 cup 100 percent orange juice
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Cook the pasta according to package directions; drain and cool. Toss the cooled pasta with the orange segments and cucumbers. Whisk together the orange juice, mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil; drizzle slowly over the pasta salad, tossing, until you’ve got as much dressing as you need to coat the pasta nicely (you may not need all the dressing). Taste and season accordingly. Serve cold.