Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cross Country Team Lunch: Baked Potato Bar

 photo potato bar editied 2.jpg

When I offered to host our kids' cross team for an after-meet lunch last year, I debated between a taco bar and a potato bar, knowing that it would be easy to have people help out by contributing ingredients. I can't remember exactly why I ended up choosing potatoes over tacos, but it was a real winner and we decided to do it again this year. It great for those athletes who just burned off their spaghetti dinners from the night before and works well for a large group of people. The potatoes are filling, so guests aren't having to repeatedly go back through the line for seconds (or thirds and fourths, if we're talking about my son). : )

A couple of weeks ago, I found my shopping list from last year, making the planning even easier. I thought it would be even more helpful to just record my lists and tips on the blog to make it even easier when I host again next year. I've already had several people ask me about ingredients and planning, so this might be the first "helpful" post I've had on this blog in a long, long time! ; ) I apologize in advance for how long it is -- I could never be a food blogger!


I do most of my shopping for the potato bar at Costco, just because we're a Costco family. There might be better deals at Sam's or elsewhere, so shop wherever you like the best. The 20-pound sacks of potatoes at Costco are particularly good because they are large potatoes -- about a pound apiece. This year I bought 3 sacks ($8.99 each) and ended up with 56 potatoes. You might think that people won't want to eat that much potato, but the kids really love it, and both years I've only seen a few people split a potato, and there's been very little food going in the trash.

Preparing the potatoes works best as a two-person job. Marc washed and I patted them dry, pricked them a few times with a knife, brushed on some butter, and wrapped them in foil. We used olive oil for a handful of the potatoes for our dairy-free guests. I found pre-cut foil sheets at the dollar store last year, and it really is a nice time saver. Not necessary, but helpful for a big project like this.

I have a double oven and was able to fit all the potatoes into the two ovens. Last year I bought 4 sacks of potatoes (way too many!) and used a roaster in addition to the ovens. I haven't got the cooking time down to an exact science yet -- this year I started cooking the potatoes about 5 hours before we ate, starting at 325, upping it to 350, and then decreasing the temperature to warm. The smaller, upper oven cooked the potatoes faster than the bottom. When wrapped in foil and stacked together, these large potatoes stay warm for hours -- seriously, we set the leftover potatoes on the counter to cool and they were still slightly warm by the evening! I've read that people cook them in batches and keep them in a large cooler to keep warm until serving time, which would help if you don't have a double oven or roaster.


That covers the potato cooking, so let's move on to the best part -- the toppings!

Here's the list of toppings I used to serve 50-60 people:

Large crockpot in photo; recipe below.

Small crockpot -- 1 block of Velveeta and a small jar of salsa.

Both years I've bought too much, so a small or medium sized jar is probably plenty.

Crumbled Bacon
I bought the 4-pound pack at Costco ($14.99) this year and we probably could have used two 4-packs; the bacon is very popular.

Sharp Shredded Cheddar Cheese
I bought the big 2-pound block from Costco ($4.79) and shredded myself.

Chopped Green Onion
2-3 bunches are plenty.

Sliced Black Olives
I used one small can I already had in my pantry but probably should have used two.

Sour Cream
Large 3-pound tub from Costco ($4.39), used almost all of it.

Grilled chicken, diced
I think we used about 2-3 pounds of chicken. I bought the multi-pack of chicken breasts at Costco ($19.52, but prices vary) -- can't remember how many pounds, but it was probably 4-5 and we knew we'd be able to use it for other stuff. 

Sauteed tricolor peppers, onions, and mushrooms
I bought these at my regular grocery store -- one small container of pre-chopped peppers (it was cheaper than buying the peppers whole), one large sweet onion, and a container of sliced mushrooms. I added some salt and pepper and sauteed in olive oil so our dairy-free guests could partake.

Steamed Broccoli
Barely steam the broccoli and it will stay nice and firm (I probably overcooked ours just a bit this time). It won't stay warm, but it won't be soggy, and the potato and other toppings will make it seem warmer than it is. : ) I bought the large bag of precut broccoli at Costco ($4.79) and used more than half of it -- the rest will go in a chicken casserole tonight. ; )

We used almost all of the 3 sticks I put out. I used another stick when preparing the potatoes.

Salt and Pepper

The first year we did this I had other families contribute toppings and desserts, but we ended up being short on desserts and it was a little difficult to coordinate who was bringing what toppings (an online sign-up would be the best way to handle that, but for various reasons we couldn't do that last year). This year I decided to just do the toppings myself and have others bring the desserts. This team and its coaches are very dear to us, so I really view this as my gift to the team. Nevertheless, if you want to divide up all the parts of the meal, it should be very easy if you just list out everything you need on a google doc or some other online form and have people plug their name in.


I'm not really a big chili fan, but it is one of the most popular toppings at the potato bar -- probably a toss-up between that and the bacon. First, a funny story: When I was in junior high and had to take a Texas history class, one of our assignments was to bring our favorite chili recipe and the best recipes would be chosen for a cook-off. Being a Michigan transplant, my mom didn't have a Texas style chili recipe for me to borrow. I copied down her one chili recipe and took it to school. My science teacher found it and promptly made fun of me for bring a recipe that had kidney beans in it -- "Kidney beans?! Texans don't put beans in their chili, just meat and heat!" I was so embarrassed.

Fast forward to adulthood, my husband loves to make hot, meaty, and beanless chili, but it requires half a day to make and several scoops of sour cream added for the more sensitive mouths to enjoy. When I need a quick and easy chili recipe, I turn to my trusty Southern Living cookbook. And guess what? Their Easy Texas Chili recipe has beans in it! Man, I wish I could show it to that mean science teacher. ; )

Yet, beans on potatoes always sounded like carb overkill to me, so I searched all over Pinterest for what kind of chili people use on potatoes. Every example I found used a bean chili; even Wendy's uses a bean chili on their potatoes, so I finally decided I was overthinking this and just made the Easy Texas Chili. The only problem is that when made in the crockpot, it turns out way too watery. So this year, I adapted the recipe and it turned out perfect. We only had about a cup left over out of a triple batch.

Easy Texas Crockpot Chili 

(fills a large crockpot)

4 pounds ground beef
1 large onion (or equivalent of 3 small onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 (16-ounce) cans chili hot beans, undrained
1 (16-ounce) can mild chili beans, undrained
2 (12-ounce) cans tomato paste
3 cups of water
3 tablespoons chili powder
2-3 teaspoons salt to taste

Ingredient note: I use the two different kinds of beans because I like the variety. I use Bush's Best Chili Beans, Red Beans, Hot Chili Sauce and Bush's Best Chili Beans, Kidney Beans, Mild Chili Sauce (in honor of my science teacher). They are both gluten free. Or I really like the Westbrae Organic Chili Beans, which also has the different types of beans in one can, but it is not labeled gluten free.

Cook ground beef, onion, and garlic ahead of time in a Dutch oven; brown beef until it crumbles. Drain and store until day of the party. About four hours before the party, combine the ground beef mixture and all other ingredients in the crockpot and cook on high until bubbly. If it looks too thick you can add a little more water.

I feel like now I should, in the spirit of Pioneer Woman, say, "Here's the handy dandy printable," but I don't know how to make a printable version (another reason I could never be a food blogger). I guess you'll just have to cut and paste. : )


I bought cups, plates (buy sturdy ones!), and utensils at Costco last year and saved all the leftovers to use this year. I bought fall colored napkins at the dollar store last year and still had plenty for this year.

Keep your food stations spread apart if you have a big group of people. I had the line for the potato bar start in our living room and made sure nothing was in the way of the line. Drinks were served at the little kitchen desk. Desserts were on the kitchen counter. Trash was on the opposite end of the kitchen.

The drinks we serve are simple: chocolate milk (cross country team favorite), apple cider, and a beverage dispenser with water. We went though about 3 gallons of the chocolate milk and 2 gallons of the apple cider (Costco, $4.39).


Ha! Who knew that you needed a strategy to eat at a potato bar? Well, my darling husband wishes he had done things differently this year and had a helpful tip: Instead of just smothering your potato with your favorite topping, such as chili and cheese, top half your potato with your tried and true favorite and then use the other half to try something new. Thankfully, he got a second chance with leftovers. We both discovered this year that the grilled chicken with queso and sauteed veggies was our favorite! Just a little wisdom from the pros. ; )


I think that covers everything, but feel free to ask any questions or share your own favorite tips!

Oh, forgive me, but I have to share one more cute story. When I went to the regular grocery store to get the last of my supplies, a darling old man pushed his cart up to me in the produce section and asked, more as a statement than a question, "Have you seen the potatoes?!" Well, I certainly had potatoes on my mind, but since I bought those at Costco I couldn't imagine how he'd know about that. He then pointed at the potato section and showed me that the 10-pound bags of potatoes were on sale for a dollar! He was so excited about that amazing deal that he just had to show me. It was so cute! I felt so bad, but no matter how good a deal that was, I just couldn't make myself put another giant bag of potatoes in my cart. I'm sure I'll regret that in a week. : )

Happy potato eating!


  1. Thank you for the detailed post!! I will be using this info next year for our cross country team : )