Our editor goes a little overboard when it comes to her kids’ birthdays. Here’s her advice for how to take things down a notch and still throw a fun and memorable party. Plus tips for keeping friends with allergies safe at birthday parties!
In my house, the telltale sign of an imminent kid’s birthday is me hunched over a messy kitchen table muttering obscenities under my breath. There’s glitter, hot glue guns, maybe a sewing machine, Wilton frosting tips. Food coloring gel stains my fingertips as I reach for my beer.
The really crazy thing, besides the fact that I feel the need to make everything from scratch, is that I keep repeating this same pattern. And that’s mainly because I do oddly enjoy it. I am the kind of person who looks at Pinterest and thinks, “Yeah, I could do that.” And, usually, I actually do nail it.
While I derive satisfaction from these crazy projects, I don’t ever want someone else to feel less than because I go overboard. Moms have got enough on them — I’m not here to throw guilt on anyone! But if you are the kind of parent who goes overboard and needs to find a way to bring it down a couple of notches, here are my tips for streamlining and cutting corners to put on a semi-homemade birthday that won’t drive you crazy, but will still make your kid feel special.
- START EARLY
The most mutterings come when I am finishing up things the night before the party. With my son’s 3rd birthday, he’d requested a cat party, and I had a vision of banners plastered with funny cat faces. I started two weeks before the party, using a punch board to easily cut pennant banners from glitter paper while he napped. Doing a little each day was a breeze. I even had his older sister help me glue the cutouts to the banners. That was low-stress and much better than the year I was sewing bee-shaped bean bags the night before my daughter’s Winnie the Pooh party. (This also applies to getting your supplies early; there’s nothing worse than hitting JOANN’s the night before the party only to find out they are sold out of black gel food coloring.)
- CHOOSE WHAT YOU WANT TO GO OVERBOARD WITH
When I was a kid, my Aunt Sally taught cake-decorating classes. She always volunteered to make these elaborate cakes for my birthday. The one that sticks out most clearly in my memory is the choo choo train cake that consisted of an engine and several train cars carrying loads of black licorice, those bright orange peanut candies and haystack candy. It was a sugary masterpiece and I loved it so much. So breaking out my Wilton frosting tips to create super penguin, Cookie Monster or kitty-cat cupcakes is nostalgic for me. (And Aunt Sally did teach me a few things about cake decorating after all!) Sometimes I like to make something special for the guests to take home. For my son’s 4th birthday, a Star Wars party, I bought the cake, but had a stroke of inspiration to make light sabers. I ordered light-up foam sticks and decorated them with silver, black and red duct tape; it was relatively easy and cheap, but the kids oohed and aahed as they turned them on.
- CHOOSE WHAT YOU DON’T AND DO OUTSOURCE
When my daughter was 4, we’d planned her party for the day after we got back from vacation. I was not going to have time to decorate cupcakes to look like all of the Octonauts. I found a free cupcake topper design online, got a 2-inch circle cutter, printed out the toppers on cardstock, and then had her two grandmas punch them out and hot glue toothpicks to the back. The day of the party, I jammed those puppies into my unapologetically store-bought cupcakes. Octonauts cupcakes with minimal work on my part, score!
- ACCEPT HELP (AKA, FORCE OTHER PEOPLE TO DO STUFF, TOO)
For that same Octonauts birthday, I “volunteered” my husband to carve a watermelon into the shape of the Gup-C. This is totally in his wheelhouse. (He carved a watermelon baby buggy for our baby shower.) He griped a little, then was supremely proud of his creation. I’ve also enlisted my woodworking father-in-law to make a Winnie the Pooh-themed signpost. (For that party he and my husband also created Pooh’s and Kanga’s houses out of appliance boxes without me even having to ask!)
- VENUES WITH CLEANUP RULE!
With my daughter’s summer birthday we did her 1st through 3rd birthdays at home because people could spread out to our yard. But my son is a winter baby, and there’s no way we could cram everyone in our small house. Parties at home are cheaper, but require way more cleaning. In my case, both before and after the party. I loved how easy the cleanup was at Hammer + Jacks toy store/indoor play space and Portland Parks and Rec’s Mt. Scott Community Center. (Find additional venues that clean up after you on your left.)
- HOUND PEOPLE TO SHOW UP
You didn’t do this work for nothing. I simultaneously get peeved when people don’t RSVP and am myself guilty of not replying. Evite or Facebook are great for being able to send guests reminders. Because you know, life, it’s busy. I typically send out an Evite three weeks before the party. Then I send one reminder the week before to people who have not RSVPed and then one a few days before to the people who have said they are coming. This (and the fact that we throw good parties) ensures we have a good turnout.
- SMALLER CAN BE BETTER
When my daughter turned 6, she had a knight-themed pool party, but since her party wasn’t until the following week, I wanted to do something to mark her actual birthday. We celebrated as a family by getting free doughnuts from Pip’s Originals, seeing The Wizard of Oz on the big screen at the Academy Theater and making her favorite meal for dinner. I also brightly decorated a cake and invited her two best friends and their families over to share it after dinner. And we had a piñata because we couldn’t have one at the pool, and she really wanted one. It was low-key, casual and fun. Turns out taking it down a few notches is what she loved the most. She wanted to replicate the day when she turned 7 and forgo a bigger party. So we did, right down to the home-decorated cake.
PARTY VENUES THAT REQUIRE LITTLE TO NO CLEANUP FOR YOU!
Is your preschooler super-popular? The Wiggle Room is a great venue for the little guys and can hold up to 87 people. Thewiggleroom.com.
The perfect year-round venue, Oaks Park roller-rink parties start at $125 and include soda, cotton candy and ice cream for guests. Oakspark.com.
Pietro’s Pizza has party packages that start at $7.50 a kid and include, pizza, soda, ice cream, game tokens and decorations. Pro tip: You can add on mini golf or laser tag at the Beaverton location. Pietrosrestaurants.com.
Starting at as little as $100, Portland Parks and Rec’s community center parties are such a good value! Many even include an activity led by someone other than you.
North Clackamas Aquatic Center pool parties for up to 8 kids start at $100 for residents, $120 for non-residents. You can add guests and pizza and/or rock climbing for additional fees. And the staff cleans up the party room for you!
The Garden Home and Cedar Hills community centers offer a wide-range of party rooms and options, including adding on cleanup!
Mid-June through September 30, Bella Organic hosts farm-themed birthday parties where up to 15 guests can each pick a pint of veggies or berries, depending on what’s in season. (Consider those your goody bags!) You’re welcome to bring your own food and decorations, but will be responsible for packing trash back out.
Supplies for when you want make the cake yourself:
JOANN: Multiple locations in the Portland-metro area.
Blake’s Decorette Shop: 11945 SW Pacific Hwy., Ste. 109.
Target: (They have a surprisingly well-stocked cake-decorating section!) Multiple locations in the Portland-metro area.
Cake and cupcake pros for when you don’t:
Toadstool Cupcakes: 3557 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
The Cakery: 6306 SW Capitol Hwy.
JaCiva’s Bakery and Chocolatier: 4733 SE Hawthorne Ave.
Fat Cupcake: Multiple locations
Saint Cupcake: Multiple locations
Petunia’s Pies and Pastries (vegan and gluten free): 610 SW 12th Ave.
Gluten Free Gem (vegan and gluten free): 140 NE Broadway St.
PARTYING SAFE WITH FOOD-ALLERGIC FRIENDS
Keeping a party allergy-friendly is easier than you think. Try these tips, and make your next celebration fun and safe for all.
IF YOU’RE HOSTING
1. On the invitation, ask parents of children with food allergies to contact you to discuss the menu. If you can include safe foods, you will make that kid’s day, and their parents will never forget your kindness. If parents feel safer providing their child’s food, please don’t feel bad. It’s not a reflection on your cooking or your good intentions!
2. Invite allergy parents to remain at the party, if it makes them more comfortable. (This also takes pressure off of you!)
3. To reduce the risk of reactions, wipe down tabletops and have everyone wash their hands with soap and water before and after eating. (Hand sanitizer kills bacteria, but it doesn’t remove allergens.)
4. Consider giving away fun, non-food party favors and/or treats that are safe for everyone. But if you really want to give out something sweet, the following candies are free from the most common allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy and seafood): Dum Dums, Ring Pops, Skittles, Smarties, Sour Patch Kids and Starburst.
IF YOU’VE GOT KIDS WITH ALLERGIES
1. Let the host know about your child’s allergies. Ask if you can talk about the menu so you can determine what food to bring. Some hosts may kindly provide safe food; make sure they know how grateful you are.
2. If you have younger children, it’s totally reasonable to ask to stay at the party so you can make sure your kiddo only eats what is safe for them.
3. If you bring your child’s food, ask them if they want something similar to what everyone else is having or if they prefer a special treat of their choosing. When my son was little, and cupcakes at parties had plastic decorations on top, I’d take one, wash it thoroughly, then add it to the cupcake I had baked for him.
4. Keep a few cupcakes in your freezer so you don’t have to bake before every party. This is also handy when you get last-minute notice of a classroom celebration. Extra cake batter also freezes well.
5. Thank the hosts for including your child!
— Elizabeth Ely Moreno