I have nothing but respect for the people who do Instagram-immaculate birthday parties. The carefully constructed fondant cakes are amazing. The elaborate themes are clever. The look of joy on the birthday kid’s face makes it clear the kid comes away feeling special and loved.
But here’s the thing. With my three kids celebrating birthdays within five weeks of each other, those all-out parties are just not going to happen at my house. Or more accurately, if they were to happen, my kids would find me hiding in a closet, covered in a thin veneer of frosting, party hat askew, mumbling mild obscenities about Pinterest. It’s really in the best interest of the whole family that we cut corners.
Here are my tips for how to have a low-stress (seriously) birthday party, no matter how many kids you’ve got, gleaned from years in the birthday trenches.
Don’t worry about invitations.
Sending out an invite to the whole class? If you’ve got a class list, go the Evite/Paperless Post route — something where you don’t need to worry about buying invitations and stamps. Just inviting the neighbors? Group text is awesome. The invitations are a lovely touch, but at least in my experience, I end up losing them/not inputting them into my calendar/realizing thirty seconds before the party that it’s time to go. Save money. Save time. Go electronic.
Pick a venue that will cause you the least amount of stress.
Having a party at home seems like it would be less stress. You don’t have to worry about reserving a place. You don’t have to put a strict limit on guests. You can’t really be late if you’re already there (always an important consideration with young kids). And of course, you don’t have to worry about the cost of an out-of-home party.
But there are a few drawbacks, not least that with three children under 8, it is virtually impossible to have a clean house. No sooner is one room clean than three other rooms are trashed. Not to mention the ridiculous mess that will be your house after the party — because there is truly no better party game than “throw all the toys on the floor.” Except maybe “grind the goldfish crackers into the rug.”
It also puts all the pressure on you for keeping kids occupied. When they’re very young, that’s not such a big deal. But once they hit about the age 2 mark, apparently more is needed than throwing some Sophie the Giraffes on the floor to chew on.
If you’re going to have anything but an intimate party — more than six kids or so — outsource if you can. There are a number of affordable options for birthday parties. The community centers have lots of great party packages for kids of all ages that clock in at around $125 and up. Mimosa Studios’ pottery-painting party starts at $15 per kid. Many venues also offer a significant discount if you can have your party on a weekday, including Bricks & Minifigs and J.J. Jump.
However, if the cost of having an out-of-house party will stress you out more than worrying about a huge mess — then have it at home! It’s your party. Figure out your biggest stressor and work around that. You can always keep them occupied at home with some in-home entertainment. Many local kindie musicians will perform at your house for under $150. And go all-out and let the kids (I repeat, the kids) touch some live snakes with the Reptile Man’s traveling zoo ($225).
By the way, if you’re lucky enough to have kids with summer birthdays, heading to a local park is a great birthday party option. Then you don’t have to worry about cost or mess! Just be sure you get there early enough to snag the picnic area of your choice.
More people = more work
I used to think if you hit a certain number — say 10 kids — it didn’t matter how many more kids came.
This is false.
One memorable time, we invited my daughter’s entire class, expecting about half the class to actually show up. Instead, we had Every. Single. Kid. Plus their parents. Plus their siblings. Our house is just not that big, folks! (Although, despite being cramped, it actually was a lot of fun — even if we did run out of cups)
For my oldest, who tends to be less of a social butterfly, we’ve had no issues with limiting the party to three good friends who come for a sleepover. If you can convince your kids to do the sleepover, for the love of sanity, do it! Pizza + cake + movie + pretending you don’t hear them still talking at midnight + pancakes = easiest birthday party ever.
But for my daughter, narrowing it down to three friends is just not an option. It’s tricky when kids are young, and their best friends aren’t necessarily set, to figure out who to invite. And some schools actually require that the whole class, or all boys and all girls, be invited if there’s going to be a party.
Here’s my suggestion. If you don’t mind a crowd, go ahead and invite the class — but be prepared for them all to come. To limit numbers, it is totally acceptable to say “no siblings allowed,” particularly if you are renting a space where you pay by the guest. If the kids are older and space is an issue, you may also want to give the parents the option of doing a drop off. I’m surprised to say, it can actually be easier that way.
Don’t stress about the food
In my experience, it’s totally quantity over quality when it comes to kids’ birthday parties. My go-tos are cheese sticks, tangerines and goldfish. Get ’em a bit of protein, fight off all the germs they’re no doubt spreading all over each other, and dampen the effects of the sugar rush. If grown-ups are coming, mimosas are never a bad thing.
Keep in mind if you’re having the party at a venue outside the house, they often limit the food that can be brought in, or require that you order food from them if you’re having any. Check their rules before you book.
Let them eat [store-bought] cake
When my firstborn turned 1, I made a Smitten Kitchen banana cake, decorated to look like a monkey. The cake was decorated with cupcakes, cut in half, for ears, and an extra cupcake for a “smash cake.” Our party would be a small affair, just the then-three of us, plus my in-laws visiting from Delaware. I left the house for seriously 5 minutes, during which time my son smashed his head into the coffee table and my father-in-law ate the smash cake. Yes, he ate the smash cake. After valiantly holding back tears and assuring him it was no big deal (it was suchabigdeal you guys), I questioned whether our relationship could ever be the same again.
Here’s the thing: It was a cake.
I am personally a huge fan of the elaborate cakes that look just like a snake or a princess or a Lego block, or whatever. As long as I don’t make them. In my mind, if it has a candle and the kid gets to blow it out, it does the trick.
These days, I leave the elaborate cakes to the pros. When I do make the cake, I use a mix, put on some frosting and call it good. And no more smash cakes!
To party [favor] or not?
I am totally guilty of going to the dollar store and stocking up on every manner of plastic thing because — well — a dollar! I’m going to let you in on a secret. Parents don’t like them. Kids might like them for the three seconds before they break, and then they don’t like them, plus tears have been shed.
If you’re going for party favors, something useful or disposable like pencils, crayons, stickers, or a glow stick works much better than $11 worth of dollar store finds.
Also, if you are going to a venue where you are paying a significant amount for each child, I really don’t think party favors are necessary. I still do them because, well, I don’t know. Twelve pencils for a dollar! But you shouldn’t feel like you have to.
Don’t skimp on what’s important
For me, the highlight of every birthday party is the happy birthday song. There is something magical about your kid being surrounded by the people he cares most about as they sing him into a new year. And that moment of anticipation and joy as they make a wish and blow out the candle is truly something special. No matter where the party is, or how many people are invited, or whether the smash cake gets destroyed ahead of time, this aspect of the party will always remain in our house. Is it the same for you? Maybe not. But whatever your tradition is, whatever it is that you think is really important, do it. In the end, that’s what you’ll really remember. And chances are, that’s what your kid will remember, too.
Alison Wilkinson is the web editor for PDX Parent. She is probably hiding in a hole this month, conserving energy for birthday month in March.