Your Next Family Dinner Winner: A DIY Baked Potato Bar

Melissa sets up a baked potato bar with plenty of fixings, then lets her family members put together their own meals. Learn about her tricks.
Melissa d'Arabian

Every Saturday we do a family movie or game night. On the menu is some version of a DIY dinner: Make your own pizza, build your own burrito bowl, taco night, you get the idea. Lately my kids are very into the baked potato bar. And because I love to buy potatoes in the 10-pound bag (compare the per-pound price and it’s hard to pass up that bag!), I am all for this fun and inexpensive movie night meal.

Now that I’m a bit of a potato bar expert with more than a few under my belt, I want to share some surprise bonuses to putting this on your menu. I mean, of course baked potatoes are tasty, but check out this list of truly awesome extras.

Bonus 1: Making a ton of potatoes doesn’t really take any longer than making a few. So this meal is ideal for slumber parties, classroom get-togethers and casual entertaining. The only limit is the size of your oven, and a standard oven fits a lot of potatoes.

Bonus 2: Leftovers are awesome for kids’ lunches (see Bonus 1 above for how easy it is to make a few extras).

Bonus 3: You can easily make double and take a bunch to a neighbor, and that will make both you and your neighbor happy. In fact, even if you think you don’t know anyone who could use the gift of a meal, just trust me on this and make double the potatoes; by the time they are out of the oven, I am 100 percent sure you will be able to think of someone who would love to have a meal delivered.

Bonus 4: Potatoes can be topped with almost anything, which means a baked potato bar is an excellent way to use up leftovers — think pork chops, taco meat, rotisserie chicken or leftover veggies.

And Finally, a Picky Eater Bonus: A baked potato bar (or any make-your-own setup) is a great opportunity to introduce new foods to picky eaters in a low-pressure setting. Set out chicken curry, Brussels sprouts or roasted root veggies as a topping option. Your child may not eat it, but even seeing the item will help demystify it, which will increase the chances of your child eating it next time (or 15 times later, as the case may be). Our rule: The potato must have at least one protein and one vegetable added. This gives the kids choices with boundaries, which is a great strategy for busting pickiness.

So let’s talk logistics. First up: the potatoes. Making great baked potatoes is easy. Wash and dry russet or Idaho potatoes (the big brown ones, as they are starchy and fluffy), and leave the skin on. Rub them all over with a little olive oil or vegetable oil, then sprinkle liberally with kosher salt, pressing it gently into the skin. Pierce a few times with a fork, and bake them right on the oven rack (I place a baking sheet or large sheet of foil on the rack below to catch errant salt or splatters). Bake until the potatoes yield to pressure, about 45 minutes for small potatoes and 1 hour for larger ones.

Your Next Family Dinner Winner: A DIY Baked Potato Bar

And the toppings? The list is endless, but our family favorites are cheese (we’re classicists, what can I say?), crumbled bacon (which does not count as the protein — yes, I’m looking at you, Valentine), plain Greek yogurt (instead of sour cream, as we eat too much of it for it not to bring some nutritional punch to the table), shredded chicken, sauteed mushrooms and garlic, sauteed spinach (add a dab of cream cheese, a splash of milk and a little Parmesan cheese for a quick creamed spinach), chopped tomatoes and green onions.

But don’t let your imagination be limited! Pick a theme and go with it. Black beans, cilantro, red onion, salsa and carnitas are great for Southwestern night. Or marinara sauce, chopped chicken, Parmesan, spinach and chicken sausage make a tasty Italian night. Or go BBQ with rotisserie chicken, barbecue sauce, slaw, chopped tomatoes, cheese and Greek yogurt. Or make a slew of veggie side dishes (like a sweet saute mix or roasted carrots and radishes or  roasted broccoli) to top the potatoes for meatless Monday.

What’s your favorite DIY dinner? Tell me in the comments below.

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