Celeb Chef Kelsey Nixon on Her Son’s 1st Birthday Party
Kelsey Nixon is best known as the Emmy-nominated host of Kelsey’s Essentials on Cooking Channel, which returned for its fifth season earlier this month. You may also recognize her as one of the finalists on season four of The Next Food Network Star, where she made it to the top four and was voted Fan Favorite. But in addition to her culinary credentials, Nixon is also mom to 1-year-old Oliver and, like any NYC mom, she faced a few challenges while planning and hosting her son’s first birthday party in June. Here, the bubbly Brooklyn Heights resident talks with NYMetroParents Deputy Editor Kaitlin Ahern about planning a menu for tots and adults, taking shortcuts, and the one thing she’ll do differently next time.
You hosted Ollie’s first birthday at home. How did it go?
We did it on a Saturday evening, on our rooftop here in Brooklyn Heights.
We moved to Brooklyn Heights right before we had the baby, just a little over a year ago. Before that we were on the Upper East Side, but with the baby coming we wanted more space and a neighborhood we felt was great for kids. I was looking for a change too, I felt I was starting a new chapter of life. Brooklyn Heights is a fantastic neighborhood. We’ve been really happy here.
We have a nice rooftop—in Brooklyn Heights you get fantastic views of Downtown Manhattan, plus it’s nice and spacious, so it’s a great place to have a big group. I didn’t know how many people to expect, because it’s summertime and people have lots of plans, but I like that the roof gave us the option to accommodate as many people as we wanted.
Did you request RSVPs from your party guests?
I did ask for RSVPs, but the last few parties I’ve hosted—I don’t know if it’s becoming a trend, but I haven’t had so much luck with RSVPs. I had one experience where I prepared all of this food and literally half of the people showed up that I thought were coming. So now I’m wary of the old classic RSVPs. We got at least 10 extra people [at the birthday party] that I didn’t receive RSVPs for.
How do you handle making food for a party when you’re not sure how many people are going to show up?
In terms of food preparation, I always do just a little bit more. I don’t want to go crazy and create too much extra work for myself. For the birthday party, I was doing simple foods. We did it from 4-6pm, when it was not so hot, and I wanted to make sure we were done before bedtime for the kids. Because of the timing, I didn’t need to feed people an entire meal—I did more snack foods, which gives you the opportunity to stretch the food a little more.
And I wanted to do a bite-size theme. My son is really little, he was born almost 3 months early, so this entire year we’ve been trying to beef him up. The idea behind the bite-size theme was that “big things come in small packages.”
What was on the party menu?
I made miniature fruit skewers, mini tacos, and mini birthday cake bites, which were really cute. It was all small food that I could stretch, and I felt like I had a little more freedom in case other guests showed up that I wasn’t expecting (which they did!).
How do you plan a party menu that appeals to adults and young kids?
I tried to offer—without too much work for myself—things that would work for kids and adults. For the mini fruit skewers, half I did just fruit, and the other half I squirted lime juice over the top and made a mixture of sea salt, chili powder, and lime zest that I sprinkled over the top. It sort of mimicked Mexican street food, like the mango you get on the street with chili powder and lime, but I didn’t want to be giving chili powder to a 1-year-old. So I had a kids’ area and an adults’ area set up with different plates of food.
With the mini tacos, for the kids I did a couple that didn’t have spicy salsa on them and some that were a little more basic, with just a little meat and cheese—they were really easy. And I did a corn salad in little cups, which I thought should satisfy both the kids and adults.
And the little birthday cake bites were good for both. I originally wanted to put them on a stick, but then I decided I wanted them to look like a little cake, so I used a brownie bite, then frosted it like a cake with sprinkles and a mini candle. I tested them on a stick and realized that once you took one bite they would completely fall off. So I ended up removing the stick idea and I found these darling little plates, and when I say little I mean literally 2 inches by 2 inches. I put the little cakes on the plates and had people eat them with forks. It made it more fun. I found the plates the day before the party, when I was in the most random craft store, and I thought ‘These are perfect!.’
Were there any hiccups or unexpected challenges?
I was going to make bite-size churros and put them in these cute paper cups. I was so excited, I had all of the ingredients, and then my husband said ‘Kelsey, really think about this—are you going to make bite-size churros for 25 people?’ And he was right, the churros are best when they’re hot and just made, so I’d be running around making batches and trying to serve them at the right time. Instead, I went to Trader Joe’s and found cinnamon-sugar apple sticks. I actually found them through Pinterest, and people said they tasted like churros. I bought three bags and they were a hit, especially with the kids. It was a great little healthy snack for them.
It was a good reminder that it’s easy to get carried away when party planning, and to think that everything needs to be homemade. But you have to cut yourself a break and do yourself some favors.
Did you take any other shortcuts during party prep?
Rather than making homemade brownie bites, I purchased them from my market, then topped them with homemade buttercream frosting and sprinkles. It saved me hours of baking, and I put that time into making the tacos and corn salsa.
Do you think there’s added pressure on your party food because you host a cooking show?
I have to say there’s an added pressure. My guests are expecting to eat really good food, so it’s easy for me to get carried away. But it’s just not realistic—no one can make an entire meal for 25 people from scratch and still enjoy the party themselves. It’s too much to ask.
I make an effort to enjoy my own party, especially when I’m doing all the work. I didn’t hire a caterer, I made all the food on my own, but I didn’t want to spend the whole time stressed about the food table. All of the food went, so I know everyone got something. And I was able to focus on talking with my guests and spending time with son.
What’s your best advice for busy moms trying to plan a birthday party?
My best tip would be to start thinking about it in advance, and force yourself to write it down. Lots of times you start processing it in your mind, but until you write it down, the chances of you doing anything in advance are slim to none. I mapped out a plan five to six days in advance. Tuesday I bought the paper products, Wednesday I put in my Fresh Direct order. It made it a lot easier and less stressful, so the two days leading up to party I wasn’t running around doing everything.
And find areas where you can take those shortcuts, there’s nothing wrong with that. You need those to pull it off!
Is there anything you’ll do differently next year?
Being a rookie parent, it was my child’s first birthday and I didn’t event think about gifts. People started showing up with them and I felt really stupid. I wish I would have thought about it a bit in advance because I think we could’ve done something positive like donating to charity instead of gifts. I made a mistake there and now I’m frantically writing thank-you cards for all these generous gifts we received. In the future, I look forward to doing something a little more rewarding around the gifts.
Season 5 of Kelsey’s Essentials airs Wednesdays at 8pm on Cooking Channel. For more on Kelsey Nixon, visit kelseyskitchen.com.