Gluten-Free Graduation Party Guide

Your soon-to-be high school or college graduate can see the light at the end of the tunnel by now. In just weeks he or she will be marching to “Pomp and Circumstance” and receiving a hard-earned diploma. So now is the time to start preparing for that gluten-free graduation party.

Lorae Raeder’s daughter Miranda, who has gluten sensitivity, graduated from high school in 2015. Raeder, who’s from the Southern Tier region of New York, said she didn’t know where to begin when it came to planning a party.

“Throwing a gluten-free graduation party scares me because I want the whole menu to be gluten free,” Raeder said. “The last thing I want to do is be the ‘food police’ with the honoree, my daughter, at a party being thrown in her honor.”

There are a lot of considerations when you plan a graduation party: cost, access to gluten-free food in your area, caterers’ gluten-free training, venues and your time and resources.

Do it yourself

A home-cooked meal is a popular option for graduation parties. You know everything will be gluten free, and it is probably the most budget-friendly choice. But it is also the most time consuming. Food preparation before the party with shopping, cooking, freezing and reheating—not to mention house cleaning—can take days or weeks.

And during the party you’re also in charge of replenishing food and making sure the hot and cold foods stay at safe temperatures.

Easy at-home gluten-free menu options include grilled steak, chicken or kabobs. A taco bar with corn shells or a baked potato bar are not only gluten free but can easily include vegetarian options. 

Check out our gluten-free recipes here.

Call the caterer

Nate Benkofske, who was diagnosed with celiac disease as a toddler, will graduated from high school in Minnesota in 2015. His party menu included assorted appetizers, catered food from Chipotle Mexican Grill, a specially made gluten-free cake for him and a regular cake for the other attendees.

“I know I can’t make all of the food myself because of time,” his mom, Lynda, said. “Nate loves Chipotle so it was an easy decision.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill is one of the most popular fast-casual restaurant chains in the country. Everything on the menu is gluten free except the flour tortillas. “While we don’t have a [special] gluten-free menu, there are plenty of options for people who maintain gluten-free diets. You can certainly order only items that are gluten free,” said Chris Arnold, communications director for Chipotle.

For his part, Benkofske had a laid-back attitude about what was served at his party. “I don’t dwell on the fact that just because I need to eat gluten free, that everyone at the party needs to eat gluten free. There is so much more to life than food,” he said.

Jennifer North, vice president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, also turned to a caterer when her daughter Molly graduated from college several years ago. But she wanted everything served at the party to be gluten free to avoid cross-contamination for her daughter and 7-year-old niece, both of whom have celiac disease.

North is acutely aware of the complexity of managing gluten-free food in restaurants because the NFCA has a gluten-free education program for restaurants.

“I know what can happen when restaurants get busy and things get rushed,” North said. She tried to reduce the chance for error by asking the caterer to make her gluten-free order first thing in the morning. Then she planned to reheat it later for the party.

But the caterer insisted the meal could be made safely later in the day, and the food would be better if it arrived fresh and hot.

North finally agreed, but she was not home when the food was delivered and it turned out one dish mistakenly contained gluten. Unfortunately North’s niece had already eaten some of it by the time the error was noticed.  

North said she learned a valuable lesson. While she would order catered food again, she would stick to her original plan to have the food made and delivered at the start of the day.

Read Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Gluten-Free Caterer. 

 “I would follow my instinct to have them make the food when it is not so busy,” she said. And she would make sure she was there when the food arrived to double check the order.

If you are thinking of having your child’s graduation party catered, make sure the chef understands your gluten-free needs, including preparing the food in a way that prevents cross-contamination. Go over the menu thoroughly and ask questions about ingredients and food handling. On the day of the party, review all the food one more time to make sure your directions are followed.

Truck in the food

Food trucks are a growing trend, and many are available for on-site catering. You might be surprised to find that food trucks often offer cuisines that are naturally gluten free.

Bonnie Handke of Mahtomedi, Minnesota, hired the Tot Boss food truck for her daughter’s high school graduation party in 2014. Handke is also gluten sensitive and had vegan and vegetarian needs in the family.

“I liked the food truck option because the food was cooked to order, and the individual could specify what they wanted. This was so simple and there was no mess in the kitchen and no leftovers you get tired of,” she said.

Dan Docken of Tot Boss, based in Maplewood, Minnesota, has a niece with celiac disease and understands the gluten-free diet. While his regular menu, filled with what he describes as “tater tot concoctions,” has a few gluten-containing items, nearly everything is gluten free. Customers can request a completely gluten-free menu for a private party.

Easy cleanup is another plus. “One customer told me the mess just drives away at the end of the party,” Docken said.

Party prep

Although hiring a caterer or food truck will likely cost more, it will save a lot of time and effort.

Laura Ursini Marroquin, community relations and project manager for the Rib Company in Costa Mesa and Long Beach, California, began serving gluten-free options at the family-owned BBQ restaurants 12 years ago when her son was diagnosed with autism. “I couldn’t take my son to eat out at our own restaurant,” she said. Now the restaurant has many gluten-free menu items.

Based on her experience in the restaurant business, Marroquin said a caterer typically needs at least two weeks to plan and execute an order. But you should start planning even further ahead if you have a specific restaurant or food truck in mind.             

Marroquin said you should specifically tell the caterer that getting safe gluten-free food is the most important consideration to you. Make sure the caterer really understands gluten-free foods and preparation.  

“Ask about contamination in the fryer and special cooking techniques,” Marroquin said. “When we have a client who is actively asking those questions, we are more on top of those cooks creating the gluten-free meal.”

Docken recommends visiting a food truck and asking about truck cleaning procedures, noting that you should confirm that there will be no gluten-containing items in the truck during the party to eliminate any chance of contamination.

What about the cake?

A cake, complete with school colors and sometimes even a picture of the graduate, is often the centerpiece dessert at graduation parties. There are many bakeries, some exclusively gluten-free, that create gluten-free cakes for graduations, as well as other events.  

Click here for our list of gluten-free bakeries in the U.S.

If you have one in your area, be sure to put in your order far enough in advance. Some bakeries also offer online ordering. The sugar or icing sheets often used to put photographs on cakes are made from a layer of frosting and are usually gluten free.

It’s also easy to make a homemade cake using one of the many gluten-free mixes or recipes that are readily available. You may want to experiment with making a larger cake than usual if you are planning a big party. Cooking times will vary, and you want to be sure your cake is baked all the way through on the big day. A gluten-free sundae bar or a selection of gluten-free cookies and brownies are also popular options. 

Find gluten-free dessert recipes here.

In the end, it is important to consider what you realistically can do and what your child wants when planning a graduation party. Ask your graduate if he or she wants an exclusively gluten-free party. What kind of food does your child prefer? Maybe your graduate will surprise you, forgo the party, and ask to use the money for a plane ticket to backpack through Europe for the summer instead. It could happen.

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