Planning a Birthday Party: Tips and tricks for a successful celebration

How do you celebrate a kid’s birthday? Whether you are an old-time minimalist like myself, or someone who goes all out, we all want a memorable get-together.

Here are tried-and-true ideas and suggestions from my own “kitchen cabinet” of experts to help make your child’s special day  fun for everyone.

First, you’ve got to plan. Here are some things to think about:

Who’s coming?

This can get tricky with school-aged children. Some have directories of classmates’ contact information, for those who choose to discreetly have only a few friends over. The daughter of my colleague Perrine is in an elementary school that encourages all-girl or all-boy parties. This makes the list more manageable.

Some schools encourage birthday kids to invite all the students in a classroom to avoid hurt feelings. Another friend, Gretchen Klaehn, is a firm believer in this: “It can get expensive, but not everyone will be able to make it anyways. I just don’t like anyone being left out.”

On the other hand, my coworker Bambi warns of “over-inviting.” One year she invited everyone from every activity her daughter was involved in. They all showed up: A sleepover with 20 girls made for a very loud night.

Read: “How to throw the best 1st birthday party for your baby”


According to the mothers I consulted, old-fashioned paper invitations are still favored over emailed or phoned ones, especially for milestone birthdays like turning 5 or 10. Most say they’re more apt to remember a party if there’s a piece of paper or a card. Bambi believes paper invitations are more appropriate for friends, but she sends texts to family.

My friends have seen good intentions become epic fails. There was a woman who invited through Facebook Event. She’ll never do that again: Guests either got the wrong day or time, or they forgot about it completely. Leaving it up to the child to notify friends doesn’t guarantee a party, either; forgetfulness leads to no one showing.


Think simple. Oftentimes guests will eat whatever is offered, so I feel a responsibility to offer healthy choices like pretzels and hummus. Wash and cut veggies ahead of time for snacks that are quick and easy to replenish. Incorporating a theme can lead to great ideas. Jen, a mother of two, one year creatively arranged her fruit-tray items to look like ninjas for her son’s party.

Different kinds of sliders can be perfect for little hands, and kids love them. And anything that can be precooked, like pulled pork in a slow cooker, can be a help. For a morning party, serve breakfast pizza, muffins and fruit.


Under $50

Jen has hosted a Scooby-Doo party, where each child was wrapped in toilet paper like a mummy. The kids enjoyed doing this to each other, and cleanup wasn’t bad, either. She gave the mystery gang silly string and sent them outside to “shoot” the invisible monsters in the yard and trees. Zoinks!

My husband’s aunt Colleen once had a lady come to her son’s party with a truck full of reptiles. Each was taken out separately, so the children could hold the animal while they learned about its history and habitat. It was a great way to instill respect for small creatures.

For those warm birthday evenings, buy water balloons, squirt guns and glowstick jewelry to cool down with water “laser” tag. A campfire, s’mores and ghost stories round out the night.

Piñatas are still popular and can fit most themes. Supervision is required! They can also be quite heavy, so consider where they’re being hung.

My former schoolmate Glen Merrill found out the hard way that there’s a stuffing limit: “We invited the entire kindergarten class and bought the largest piñata we could find. I was still worried that it wouldn’t hold enough goodies for all the kids, so I unsealed it and stuffed it with more loot and candy. Did you know if you overfill a piñata you can beat on it until everything is powder, and it still won’t break?”

$100 to $200

Accommodating a large crowd doesn’t need to break the bank. Face painting always goes over well with both boys and girls, especially with their favorite cartoons. Rent a costume and have a character come to life. One parent I know of dresses up like Spider-Man each year. He gets to geek-out and have a blast playing with the kids.

How about a drive-in? Collect large boxes from businesses or grocery stores, and use scissors and paint to turn them into kid-sized “cars.” My brother Jim fogs his yard ahead of time to cut down on mosquitoes. Inexpensive projectors can be purchased or they can be rented by the day from places like Target (5 percent off for cardholders). Specify pajamas as attire and make popcorn. Use the side of a shed or house for the movie screen.

Or—with planning and help from friends—hold a scavenger hunt or carnival. There are thousands of ideas online for both. Tailor it to be modest or elaborate. Buy small toys from places like Oriental Trading Company and use them for treasures and prizes.

Another coworker, Danielle, once hired an ice cream truck: My dream come true! She reserved it a few months ahead of time and could specify the sweets offered to keep the cost in check. Truck owners can be made aware of dietary restrictions, too.

Over $200

Make a princess’ dream come true with a castle bounce house. Or maybe a slip and slide. These daylong rentals are set up and taken down for you. They also tire the kids out with good old-fashioned play. Sumo wrestling is another fun idea. These costumes come in both child and adult sizes.

Sometimes going with a professional is the best choice under the circumstances. When my coworker Laurie was on bedrest with her second pregnancy, she needed help to make her daughter’s birthday special. She hired a tea party. It came complete with racks of dresses, shiny jewelry, a silver tea set and petit fours. An assistant did all the work and she was able to enjoy everything from the couch.

For all the effort and anticipation, however, some things just don’t go as planned. Entertainers such as magicians and costumed characters can be a great idea, but keep in mind the age of the child. To a toddler, clowns can be very scary. And all animals are unpredictable, especially ponies, who may not feel inclined to walk on party day.


Gone are the days of plain bakery cakes. My friends and acquaintances said make-your-own sundaes are a crowd pleaser. This choice offers control for those with allergies. Kids love cupcakes and cakes made from small molds, like footballs or crowns. They also enjoy decorating their own cupcakes, but be aware: This can get messy. Danielle advises thinking twice about dark frostings like blues and reds since what will be on the cupcake will also be on the child. Laurie avoids gluten by making a refreshing and sweet watermelon “cake” instead.

Gifts and goodies

Should you encourage gifts for the birthday boy or girl? Presents are usually expected but not always. Several of my friends have been asked to donate to a cause instead of giving a gift. Colleen’s kids were asked to bring an item for Wanderers’ Rest Humane Association. This got the birthday kid and guests excited about contributing to animals in need instead of focusing on excesses. Another request was for a donation to the American Cancer Society because a sibling was going through chemotherapy.

Although invitations may specify “no gifts,” some guests may buy something small anyway. My friend Amy has twins who have their parties together. In this case, she asks the guests to bring only one present.

Goodie bags are controversial: Kids love them, parents don’t. Some offer bags for those under age 8 because after that they do craft projects to take home. Others would rather get candy or one really nice thing, like a reusable cup, than a lot of unusable toys.

Every child’s birthday is special. Now, more than ever, there are endless ways to make memories and party in the house.

Read: “16 Candles: Putting the ‘sweet’ into a Sweet 16 birthday party”

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