How to Throw the Best Kids Birthday Party
without losing your mind or going broke
Pinterest is a blessing and a curse. Search for “kids birthday party ideas,” and you’ll be inundated with astonishing decorations, themes galore, and cakes that put most wedding cakes to shame.
But here’s the thing: that’s not what your children will value or remember. You can stay up all night making a gigantic cake covered in spectacular fondant and homemade organic granola crunchies with decorations on everything that doesn’t move in your home… but that’s not what your child will remember.
When Bambino was two, we had a simple backyard party at my mom’s house. The wading pool was out. It was hot. My cousins, his cousins, my grandmother, his grandparents were there. We had pizza, lemonade, and cupcakes. And when my husband put our sweet boy to bed that night, he asked, “Did you have fun today?” Bambino simply answered, “People…” His two year-old self was overwhelmed by the love of all those people gathered around him. And it was the best party review I have ever gotten. People.
The love of the people who surround them, singing and celebrating their life on this planet: THAT is what your child will remember. And that is what matters.
We have fun. And we throw great parties. And sometimes, because we are busy people, we pull all-nighters. But we don’t spend crazy amounts of money, and we have a wonderful time doing it.
Over the years we have developed a few principles which guide every birthday party we throw.
Choose a Theme
Having a theme for a party opens lots of creative doors — and closes others. In other words: it helps you make decisions! We often choose a book as our theme or starting place, and it helps to guide all of our choices moving forward from there.
Home or Park?
We have given parties at our home and at local parks depending on where we were living. Both are great! If your house isn’t conducive to entertaining, check with your local parks department about using a park space or community center. The rates are usually really cheap!
Bambino Plans, too
Of course the party is for him, but Bambino likes to be part of the planning, and he always has ideas for what to do and how it should work. So, we talk carefully about what he wants to do with his friends and incorporate those ideas into the party.
This is another place where Pinterest can suck you in and make you feel inferior for not spending weeks decorating every nook and cranny of your entire house for the affair. But the kids will have fun whether your buffet table has been transformed into a fully-functioning space ship complete with flashing lights and rocket boosters — or not. Keep it simple! I love lots of cut flowers — cheap and beautiful — and a few pops of color depending on the theme.
no party favors
Frankly, this started with our wedding. We couldn’t afford anything nice or meaningful, so we just didn’t do anything at all. No one cared! And I have stuck with this ever since. I don’t want to send families home with a bunch of cheap plastic stuff or bags of candy. So we just don’t do favors.
We always have a theme, and there are always costumes involved. Usually my husband and I make the costumes ahead of time — dragon wings, dinosaur heads, etc. But sometimes making part of the costume is one of the activities at the party — headbands for the Lost Boys, for example. Either way, everyone is appropriately attired for the occasion, and they can take the costume pieces home so the play continues.
have an art project
This is a great way to warm the group up as children and families arrive. Parents gather to help and start chatting with each other. And quieter children have something to work on while the ice melts.
Remember the quiet kids
We don’t have a quiet kid (though he has his moments), but I was one, and as we plan activities I always plan one for the children who don’t want to be in the center of the big group. It is often an art project or even something as simple as some coloring pages on a table.
Plan for Free Play
It is easy to fall into the over-planning trap, but most kids just want a chance to play together. Since we throw themed parties, the play is often fairly suggested — but then we allow time for sword fighting or chase games or whatever imaginative game emerges. And one always emerges. So when I’m planning activities, I start with a list and then eliminate half of the ideas. We won’t need them.
Read a Book
Here’s a free activity that kids love: read a story. You can start with story time as a warm-up with littles, read while they are making something, or use a book to transition to cake time. Choose someone who is a good, theatrical reader. Or even hire a teacher (yes, pay them) from your child’s school to make a special appearance!
Snacks, not a meal
This is another way we save money. We have two good times for a birthday party: 10 am or 2 pm. Either way, we just have to put out snacks and can accommodate all kinds of dietary restrictions fairly easily.
Homemade is great!
I always feel a little insecure about making a homemade cake. I’ll be honest. I took a cake-decorating class in 7th grade, and I’ve watched a lot of Martha Stewart, but I am not a pro. However, I kinda love making cakes for Bambino’s birthday parties, and he loves to help. So go for homemade! It’s cheaper and so much sticky fun!
Ask for help
I love to put most of the party in the hands of others so I can be the photographer. But perhaps a friend can take the pictures, so you can handle the food. Or hire a favorite babysitter to come and be an extra set of hands. And don’t be afraid to ask other parents for assistance. I love helping at a party, and I’m always glad to pitch in!
Planning a child’s birthday party should be fun, simple, and it shouldn’t break the bank! Remember: your child isn’t awake cruising Pinterest at midnight (if they are, we need to have a talk!). They don’t know about those over-the-top parties! Most children just want to spend time with their parents and their friends, eat some snacks, have a cake, and then pass out from exhaustion. Make that happen, and you’ll be the most popular parent in town!