My son’s birthday is next week. Boy that comes quick! We’ve been doing some birthday planning around here. I try to work ahead with my kiddos and ask them a month or two ahead of time what theme they have in mind (both have picked themes previously that didn’t have party supplies made commercially and required me to get creative). That also gives us time to talk about and fine-tune the theme to make sure it’s practical and do-able as well!

We have some of our own birthday traditions our whole family really does enjoy. Along the way of having kiddos and planning parties, I’ve learned a few things that work well and figured I’d share them with you, because we’re in this together!

My overall birthday party philosophy is to make sure I plan a party my kids and their friends will enjoy. I have found numerous decor ideas and snack table ideas and so forth on Pinterest that I know kids won’t really care about. I don’t care if I impress the other moms who come to my kids’ parties. I care if my kids and their friends have fun! This perspective helps me remember what matters most (my kiddo feeling special and having fun on his or her birthday) and reduces my stress level and pressure I feel to create a perfect party with lots of small details.

Think about your budget.
This is pretty much where everything always starts, isn’t it? You’ve got to know how much money you are comfortable spending in order to plan well. Personally, I tend to stick with a lower budget because it just makes sense to me for a kid’s party and there’s so much you can do without breaking the bank. Consider costs for the location, food, paper products and treat bags.

Figure out your space.
Obviously you’ve got to have somewhere to have the party. For me, not having it at home is the very best plan. Having it at home adds lots more stress for me. I’m not sure that’s true for everyone, but I’m guessing it’s true for most of us. So figure out where you’re going to have the party. Go back to your budget and decide if you want to pay for a venue and if so what might work with your budget as well as how much space you need and how many people you want to include.

For the first friend party we threw for our daughter, we went to a local bowling alley. It was fun for her but it also meant that we had to keep the guest list smaller and that we weren’t able to have ice-cream because they didn’t have a freezer. But on the other hand we didn’t have to have plan any activities (because bowling!). Since then we have opted to have our parties in our church gymnasium. It’s been a great fit for us because there is lots of space inside, great parking outside and a kitchen we can use.

Decide on your guest list.
Before you mention it to your kiddo, think first about your budget and where you are planning to have the party. Are you having it at a venue that offers a limited number of spaces for kids parties? Are you having it at home and only have room for a few kids? Are you having it somewhere that you can invite as many kids as your child wants? Once you have an idea of about how many kids you are thinking to have, start talking to your child about it. I have done both options of giving my kids a specific number that we have to stay with and just asking them who all they want to include. It totally depends on your situation. Now that we use the gym at church, I don’t give them a set number, but we do pay attention to who they want to invite.

I try to encourage them to include friends they spend time with and enjoy. I’m less inclined to invite the entire class. I like the kiddos to pick kids they will play with, interact with and have fun with. Of course, I’m also an introvert, so I tend to think smaller gatherings are better anyway. That may be just the opposite for you and your family and that’s totally fine! You just need to know up front.

Get out invitations at least two weeks before the party.
I think the earlier invitations go out, the better. If you can get them out a month ahead of time, go for it! I have done invitations three different ways. For my daughter’s first friend party, I sent them out via email with a Google form to RSVP. That wasn’t as successful.

Facebook has worked well for some party invitations. I have done that more for my daughter because she has been with the same basic group of kids since kindergarten. And now that she’s in third grade, I am either friends with their parents on Facebook or can easily find them. So I just make a Facebook event and invite people that way.

Paper invitations also work. In fact, for my son’s party I went the paper route. You can buy invitations and fill them out or make your own and print them. I printed ours. Be sure you don’t forget information and include the date, time, location (with address) and contact information for RSVPing (I usually do my cell phone number and email address). I have also included before whether parents were welcome to drop off and leave the kiddos or if they needed to know anything else. For example, when my daughter had an art party a couple of years ago, I noted on the invitation that they might want to wear something that would be OK to get washable art supplies on.

Decide on activities.
We have a pretty set format for our parties. One of the popular stations that works no matter what the party theme is a coloring table. I print out some coloring sheets are geared toward the theme and put out some crayons. When the kids come in, they immediately have something they can do. Good to see you! Want to color? I leave it set up throughout the party so that if kids want to go back to their coloring they have that option.

I try to plan about two organized activities or games thinking about the age range of kids I have. My daughter (for whom we’ve had the most friend parties because she is older) tends to like activities more than games, but we have done both. For her art party, we had craft stations. For her baby doll party, we basically played lots of pretend and asked the guests to bring a doll or stuffed animal and they could do different things like a diaper toss game but also sit at a table with doll food and feed their “babies.” This past year, she wanted a Barbie and beauty theme, so we had nail painting and lip gloss making.

My son, on the other hand, is younger and more active. He likes games. We have done a version of pin the tail on the donkey that was pin the fire on the dragon for his dragon-themed party. At the same party, the kids swung at a dragon pinata with a toy sword to slay it. I try to keep it simple. But, I do find that having one or two organized activities helps keep the kids engaged and having fun.

Once you’ve decided what to do, then decide your order. We typically do games and activities first, which take about an hour. Then we have snacks for about 30 minutes before finishing the final 30 minutes with opening gifts.

Don’t forget food!
Of course you need food at a party. I usually plan my parties for 2 to 4 p.m. so we can offer snacks but don’t have to serve a meal. This is my plan for two reasons. First, my own kids don’t like stopping their playing and fun for eating all that much. So they want things quick and easy rather than having to sit longer and eat a meal. Second, it’s cheaper.

The biggest thing I do with food is make sure it is what the birthday kid likes. My daughter — bless her heart — doesn’t like cake or icing very much. (I’m still trying to figure out how she belongs to me!) So we don’t have cake. The last two years we had doughnuts instead. (I got all the same yeast doughnuts and then got her a bigger one to put a candle in.) One year we did an ice-cream sundae bar.

These are the cupcakes I made for my son’s dragon party. I topped enough of the kids’ ones with small dragon figures so they got an additional party favor that way. I’ve also used rings as cupcake toppers. This year I’m using small cake pop sticks with printed images of Miles Morales from “Spider-man into the Spider-verse” on them at my son’s request.

My son, on the other hand, loves cake. I usually bake the cake for him because I love baking and it does save funds. Cupcakes are my go-to for kid parties because they are easier to serve. I usually do chocolate and vanilla cupcakes with vanilla icing. They look fancy if you use an icing bag and just plop it on top with a tip so it kind of swirls, but you can totally just use a butter knife or spatula and smear it on. I also like the individual ice-cream cups to serve the ice-cream instead of having to scoop it out. But, you can definitely scoop it out as needed or into small plastic cups or bowls ahead of time.

Along with the sweets, I offer other kid-friendly food. Goldfish are always popular. Sometimes I do pretzels, too. For my daughter’s party we also had cheesy puffcorn and it was a huge hit. I try to offer a fruit of some sort as well like grapes or strawberries. My husband and I station ourselves at the food table when it’s time for snacks and help the kids make their plates, especially at younger ages. We also simplify where we can. Like for my son’s party last year, we used punch cups and filled them with some pretzels and Goldfish so the kids could just grab a cup of them instead of having to scoop them out.

For drinks, we keep it simple and usually have a pitcher of lemonade (with back-up to refill the pitcher) and a jug of water. For my daughter’s baby doll party I did make punch and floated some brand-new, clean rubber ducks in it, though.

Decorations don’t have to be elaborate to be fun.
Some moms are super great at decorating and crafting. I am not one of them. While I can easily make the cupcakes because I love baking, I can’t easily make lots of decorations. Maybe you’re the opposite. If so, go with what works for you. Almost always it’s easier on the budget if you can make something versus purchase it.

This was our table setup for the dragon party last year as well. I found the inflatable dragon for a couple of dollars to add some fun. And my son played with that dragon for a couple of months afterward!

My decoration plan is simple. I buy a plastic table cloth for the food table that matches the theme or colors. I buy the matching plates and napkins and cups of a similar color. I buy a birthday banner that matches the theme and hang it. Sometimes I use crepe paper and balloons we blow up ourselves for the door leading into the gym so people know where to go. I will say that I’m not a mom who lets the kids play with balloons because I have crazy balloon anxiety and can’t handle it. Otherwise, we usually end up making some decorations to hang up that are coloring pages for the theme that we color and glue to construction paper. The kids like being involved with this and it’s fun to see their artwork on display.

Plan for some extras.
Once I’ve made the list of kids to invite, I tally our numbers, including siblings for families we know. For example, when we invite children from church, we usually know the entire family and expect all the children will come. When we invite children from school, we know they may or may not bring a sibling along. So I always make sure to plan for a few extras, because if someone brings a sibling or a cousin visiting for the weekend or whatever, I don’t want them to feel left out when it comes to treat bags or activities. I also make sure to have an idea in my head of how many parents may be there and plan enough food to make sure everyone can have snacks.

I like to fill treat bags with stuff I know my kids would like and actually use. I try to stay away from all candy, because I don’t like all-candy treat bags for my own kids. I like things like stickers, notebooks, temporary tattoos, fun erasers, pencils and small toys. I do usually include a couple of small pieces of candy as well. I look for things I could say yes to my kids eating one or two of after going to a party and eating sweets there.

Make sure you have enough help.
As you assess your venue, number of children, activities and food, think about how much help you’ll need. While my husband and I work well together and get things covered, I’ve found that having my parents come along as well is incredibly helpful. For my daughter’s party last fall, for example, I ran out of time to clean and cut the strawberries, so my mom did that while I set up the party. She also helped with nail painting while I manned the lip gloss making table. Sometimes asking extended family or friends to come along and help makes life so much easier.

Assign someone to take photos.
Who doesn’t want lots of photos of their kids’ birthdays?! With the digital age we don’t have to worry about going through too much film either. Sometimes I use my cell phone, but for their parties I tend to take our digital camera instead. Either way, though, I ask someone else to take some photos. My parents are helpful with that. I want photos, but I can be so busy helping the kids through games, activities, snacks and opening gifts that I don’t get a chance to take many. Having someone else do that for me has been invaluable. With that said, think about what kind of photos you want to have. I always like one of the kids by the birthday banner before everyone arrives. I usually try and take photos of the decorations that way as well. And, of course, I want photos with the candles on the cake (or doughnut!) and while they’re opening gifts. I also like to get a photo of all the kids together. Usually I bribe them and do this after activities, but before snacks so I can say something like, “If you want cake, come over here for a photo first.” Ha! It works!

About the Author: Stacey A. Shannon

Stacey A. Shannon is a freelance journalist and blogger who has been published internationally. She's also a Christian, a wife and a mom of two school-aged children. She started Families with Grace in 2019 to encourage Christian moms as they create homes filled with grace, love and faith.

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