As you drift off to sleep, while you’re still in that magical state between fully appreciating that you are happily lying in your bed and there are no children demanding your attention and deep, welcome REM sleep, your eyes snap open and you realize: it’s time to plan a birthday party.
Your child’s social world is full of potential pitfalls, especially when it comes to birthday parties. Is there anything trickier than planning the perfect birthday party? And by “perfect” I don’t mean the one with the pony rides and the $50 iTunes gift cards in the goody bags; I mean the one where your child is happy, his friends leave happy and you don’t start screaming for Calgon to come and take you away once it’s over.
As a military family, my husband has been deployed on occasion when birthdays have rolled around. On those years, I’ve felt compelled to overdo it a little bit, and one year in particular my son’s birthday party featured over 30 children from his school, live “critters” and no fewer than three cakes (it was a lot of kids!). The party was crazy; lots of planning and it left me exhausted, feeling like I had to outdo myself the next year.
Fast forward a few years when we were discussing birthday parties past and he didn’t even remember that party—the one where I jumped through hoops and took out a second mortgage to make it perfect. He did remember the one where he had two friends over to play video games and eat pizza. We now have family parties instead, like we used to do back in the day when I was a poor, underprivileged kid. I wasn’t really, but to see the look on my kids’ faces when they hear of the things I didn’t have growing up, you wouldn’t know that.
I have learned a few things from the years of parties that we did have, so I’m giving you my easy three-step party planning… plan. And I’m including a little help from my friends, because what’s a party without friends?
Step One: Planning
What should your party theme be? Where should your party be held? You may be wracking your brain trying to come up with the perfect theme and venue, but instead of that, sit back and watch your kid. What does he like to do? This was driven home for me when my son didn’t remember the parties that I planned (I’ll admit it) for me; the parties he did remember were shaped around his favorite things. (Like pizza. Or professional wrestling.)
True, there isn’t going to be a lot of discussion about themes with your two-year-old, until “NO!” or projectile green beans become party themes, but that should also be a guide to keep parties for your youngest birthday babes on the simple side.
When my daughter was into princesses, we had a costume tea party and one of her gifts was a cardboard castle playhouse that she colored with her party guests (A gift and an activity in one. Inspired multitasking!). When my son was learning about daddy’s job in the military, we had a basic training-themed party with an obstacle course set up in the garage—and the kids would only abandon it for the promise of cake. Another year, when we couldn’t come up with a theme (because we procrastinated), we had the party at the place with the bouncy things.
Easy for us, fun for the kids and reasonable with a coupon.
Of course, when you talk of themes, you are getting into goody bag territory. I think this is the trickiest part of the party, but it can be easily handled. One of the parties my kids attended had a “summer fun” theme. The activities were sidewalk chalk, a sandbox, squirt guns and bubbles. The goody bags included a framed instant picture of the party packed in the sand pail with all the toys each kid played with during the party (more inspired multitasking).
Heather D., mom of two tween girls, plans parties with multitasking party favors. “For an ice cream sundae themed part, each kid took home a decorated goblet that was used to hold their ice cream.” The goblets were purchased from the dollar store and sending them home cut down on cleanup. “For a spa party,” continues Heather, “each girl took home her favorite polish that was also used to paint her nails.”
Erika C., mom of one, likes to throw themed parties that include giveaways. “For my Hunger Games-themed party, I made mini lemon poppyseed muffins and put them in containers that hung from handmade silver parachutes all around the house—a decoration and a take-home gift!” Perfect for a teen party.
At my parties, I’ve tried to keep it easy as well. The tea party takeaway was a teacup and saucer (from a set I’d purchased at a thrift store, and the number of cups also determined the number of guests). American flags and dog tags were the takeaways at the basic training party. Mix CDs featuring the kid-friendly, parent-approved music played at the bouncy house party went home as favors (though I’m still apologizing for the “Who Let the Dogs Out” earworm).
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Parties at a separate venue can be great (less cleanup; party supplies included) but also should be checked out to ensure it’s the right place for your party. “My son recently attended a party at a dodgeball park,” says Jennifer S., mom of two. She gave high marks to the friendly staff and fun concept, but “the party room was small and crowded, there was limited parking and the bathrooms were on the other side of the dodgeball court, so parents had to literally duck and run to make it.” Fun for kids, not so fun for parents.
Step Two: Invite the Guests
I believe that there is some wisdom to that whole “getting lost in a crowd” idea, and what’s the fun in that? I no longer feel compelled to invite the whole class (or the whole school; whatever) to my child’s parties. I prefer to have my child pick out a few friends to attend the party, especially if it’s a party at home. Or, if we hold the party at a different venue, there may be restrictions as to how many kids can be invited, which also must be considered.
So, who should be invited? One rule of thumb is reciprocity; if your child is invited to another child’s party, then that other child should be invited to your child’s party. But what if your child doesn’t attend all of those birthday parties he gets invited to? For children in school, it’s best to find out the policy before sending invites to the classroom. Sometimes the school does not allow it at all; sometimes there are restrictions (all students in the class must be invited if invitations are sent).
Jen S., mom of three says that her kids are allowed to “invite the same number of people as years they were turning that year,” for her younger children. At age 11, they could invite two friends for a celebration—like dinner and a movie or a slumber party.
“I always like to have an even number of kids,” says Monica D., mom of two girls. “When there is an odd number, there can be room for someone feeling left out.”
And what about special circumstances, like when you know that someone isn’t getting along with someone else? How do you choose who gets the invite? Erika C. says “I don’t avoid inviting people due to feuds or anything else. That’s their problem to work out—not mine.”
Step Three: Minimize Your Stress
This one is my favorite recommendation, as it can apply to everything involved in your party planning. First and foremost, minimize your expectations; it’s just a party. It’s not the social event of the year (if it is, please don’t forget to invite me). Don’t try for perfect, just try for fun. Jen S. reminds us that the point of the party is “to make your child feel special. And that can be accomplished easily.”
Wendy S., mom of five kids over the age of 15, urges parents to be in the moment. “Chill out, enjoy the day and take lots of pictures,” she advises. “These children are most likely going to be a part of your life for a long time—you’ll see them growing up with your kids, at football games, proms, even weddings in the future. Focus on the fun.”
Minimize your theme—keep it simple. Don’t try to outdo yourself or someone else. Remember that plain party supplies will not only save you cash but can also be used at other parties if you have extra. Jennifer S. also recommends thinking ahead. “I know that I personally spend too much when I’m trying to meet last-minute needs,” says Jennifer. So she chooses her themes ahead of time, shops sales and discount stores and checks out online sources for party supplies and bulk items.
Minimize your goody bag—don’t feel compelled to include a pile of stuff; scale it back to just a few things or one special item. Think quality over quantity. It can be fun to find little toys or treats that fit the party theme, but we all know the fate of most goody bags. “Since I throw away goody bags that come home from other parties, I assume those parents tend to do the same thing,” says Bridgette C., mom of three. “I try to include things that are usable.”
Minimize portion sizes to save time and money—serve snacks instead of meals; cupcakes instead of a cake that needs to be cut; pre-scooped ice cream (kept frozen in muffin tins) instead of scooping it to order. Heather B., mom of three, saves by “making the cake and food myself.” Another good plan is to have the party between mealtimes to alleviate the expectation of providing a meal.
Cupcakes are usually always a hit at birthday parties, and decorating the cupcakes with sprinkles and candies can even become your party activity (multitasking!). Especially fun if you are outside. Or at a venue that is not your kitchen or anywhere you are responsible for cleaning the floor.
For our basic training party, I wanted to replicate the “meals ready to eat” that military trainees enjoy, easily done with pre-packaged lunch kits, which the kids loved. In hindsight, I could have made them myself and put the meals in divided plastic dishes that were then sent home with each child—instant goody bag (and more multitasking!).
Don’t let the fear of another birthday party keep you up at night. Birthday parties happen; but with a little planning—and a lot of great advice from other moms who’ve been through it—a fun party really can be as easy as 1–2–3.
Local Moms Share Birthday Party Tips
How do you save money on birthday parties?
- Jen S.: Discount stores and homemade food.
- Heather D.: I always have parties at home.
- Erika C.: I get crafty. I can’t draw but I can trace and follow directions.
What is your goody bag plan?
- Wendy S.: Candy and stickers—but don’t overthink it because nobody cares that much.
- Monica D.: I base the contents on the age of the party-goer, usually a healthy snack and a small toy or something to do.
- Erika C.: A craft made at the party or something that can be brought home to make, cook or plant.
How do you retain your sanity during and after the party?
- Heather B.: I have a friend or other parents available to help at the party.
- Bridgette C.: I just try to focus on the birthday child and tune out any drama that may crop up.
How do you determine who gets invited?
- Heather B.: The kids make a list and we review it together. If it’s a sleepover, it’s limited to how many kids I can tolerate running around all night!
- Autumn B.: It can be hard, but we try to let the kids pick a few friends from each area of their life (church, school, etc.).
What’s your best tip for a great party?
- Monica D.: Have a backup plan for activities that don’t work out, food that runs out, sick kids…
- Bridgette C.: Let kids open gifts one-on-one with the gift giver, possibly off to the side, which is great for quiet kids and for keeping track of gifts.
Mari Farthing is the editor of MetroFamily Magazine.