A potato presents potential for deliciousness.

Supper for a Crowd With a Baked Potato Bar

by Kathryn Walsh

The humble potato can be a busy mom's go-to food. When a crowd is descending, a big batch of tasty baked potatoes is a time-saver and a crowd-pleaser. A baked potato bar is a no-fail way to fill every belly, from the toddler who wants nothing but butter to the famished teen who loads his spud with everything in the fridge,

1. Potato Prep

The first step to preparing baked potatoes is to clean the spuds. Get little ones involved in supper preparation by having them belly up to the sink. Scrub each potato -- russets work best for this dish -- under cold water to remove any dirt clinging to its skin. Inspect each spud for obvious bruises or rotten spots, and cut these out with a knife. Preparing potatoes doesn't have to be a day-of-dinner job. According to the Iowa State University Extension, potatoes can be baked and refrigerated for as many as three days before use.

2. Baking Potatoes

When baking potatoes for a crowd, use both your microwave and your oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut a few small holes in the surface of each potato or prick the skin in several spots with a fork. This step allows steam to leave the potato, preventing it from bursting. Fill a baking pan with a single layer of pricked potatoes and bake them for about 60 minutes. If you're using the microwave, too, load four pricked potatoes onto a microwave-safe dish and cook them for seven minutes. Turn the potatoes over and cook for another seven minutes. To determine whether potatoes are done, stick a fork into one. If it doesn't slide in easily, bake the potatoes for another 10 to 15 minutes, or microwave them for an additional four minutes.

3. Topping Ideas

Choose a theme for the potato bar -- such as Mexican or Italian -- or just set out bowls of toppings. Supply the basics, such as sour cream, shredded cheddar and steamed, chopped broccoli. Add bowls of black beans, salsa, corn and chili for a spicy potato dish, and provide cottage cheese and garlic butter for diners who prefer a simple approach. Because every kid loves eating breakfast for dinner, a big bowl of cheesy scrambled eggs and crumbled bacon will be a hit with little ones. For more discerning diners, a bowl of grilled veggies seasoned with fresh herbs is appealing. Take a cue from "Eating Well" and provide asparagus spears, cubed ham and chives to make potatoes that are elegant and nutritious.

4. Setting Up the Bar

Pick a table low enough for elementary-school kids to serve themselves but not so low that toddlers can dunk their fingers into the sour cream. If you precooked the potatoes, stick them in a warm oven for 20 minutes or so. Let them cool for 10 minutes before it's time to eat. Using a sharp knife, cut a slit into each potato, then push the ends toward each other to create a cavern. Assign an adult or older child to man the bar, helping little ones spoon toppings into their potatoes, and supply this person with a cutting board and big spoons. If diners want, they can scoop the flesh out of their spuds, mix in toppings and dish the mixture back into the skin. The person on duty can also scoop the filling into a bowl for a little one and cut the skin into small, bite-sized pieces.

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