Tips for acing your kid’s birthday party

Guest post by Christina Simon

My three-year-old son enjoying on of his parties.
Depending on where you live, kids’ birthday parties can be a really BIG deal. I live in an area in Los Angeles where the competition heats up starting as early as preschool to see who can have the most “fun” party. I put “fun” in quotes because it’s also code for the most expensive or elaborate party. The most extravagant parties we’ve attended have been at the American Girl Store and private parties featuring numerous entertainers, petting zoos, food stations, fancy catered menus, and over-the-top party favors.

My daughter is ten and my son is seven, so we’ve had a LOT of birthday parties over the years. Most of them have been incredibly fun and very special. I tend to give my kids options for their parties that fall somewhere in between extremely low-key and overly elaborate. With birthday parties for kids, you never know what can happen. Seriously, we’re talking about little ones, so expect the best… but prepare for anything.

Expect minor problems

Sure, a few of our parties had minor problems. I won’t go into detail about the party where one of my friend’s kids punched my neighbor (a grown-up) in the stomach. The party where the puppet lady was an hour late and got my daughter’s name wrong? Don’t even ask! Then there were the Funky Divas, a fabulous dance group that coordinates parties where the girls put on costumes and perform, dance, and sing. The only drawback? After the party, my husband told me several of the dads had their eyes glued to the Funky Diva dance teachers. Gross.

If you’re theming it, pick a theme that you can pull off

At age two my daughter wasn’t in preschool yet, so her friends were kids in the neighborhood. I invited a singer/storyteller to sing and read stories to the kids in our back yard. I set out blankets and everyone sat on the grass, eating treats and listening to songs or running around. Most of the kids were mesmerized by the singer’s beautiful, soulful voice. After songs and story time (I selected three of my daughter’s favorite books), she concluded the party by leading us in a stunning, R&B rendition of “Happy Birthday” to my daughter. That party remains one of our all-time favorites.

When my daughter turned nine she wanted to have a party at a local cooking school. I agreed, but let me say this: it was definitely over-the-top. After selecting the menu they would cook, my daughter and about 15 friends (boys and girls) spent the morning and early afternoon making an amazing selection of salads, pizzas, pastas, cookies, and other foods, and learning cooking techniques with professional chefs. Then, after cooking an entire meal — and I mean really cooking: chopping, slicing, dicing, baking, and supervised sautés — the kids were ready to eat. This party is still the one my daughter loved the most. I think going over the top for your kids parties once or twice is worth it. The cooking party was one of our favorites parties ever… and the most expensive. (Editor’s note: To me, this is the type of thing you could probably recreate on your own at home with a few alterations — kid-sized chef’s hats are pretty easy to come by!)

Joint parties = potential for a whole lotta stress

Both of our kids were born in late July — what could be more perfect than a pool party? Nothing, right? Well, not exactly. I planned a pool party at our former apartment complex, which had a beautiful hotel-like pool. We invited a very small group of families to celebrate my kids at a combined party. The logistics of the party were complicated since getting in and out of the building was a nightmare. On top of that, it rained! But, we raced through the party, sang “Happy Birthday,” and served the cake. Mission accomplished.

Does your family have a favorite birthday party memory? What has and hasn’t worked for you?

Comments on Tips for acing your kid’s birthday party

  1. We set a budget of $200 or less per party for all supplies. For my older daughter’s first birthday, we tried to keep it really simple with a cookout. I spent well over $200 on hotdogs, veggie trays, fruit trays, cake, drinks, ice cream, birthday plates/napkins/silverware, and a few decorations. Plus, I had the stress of cleaning the house! 🙂

    Since then, we only invite a few close friends (we’ve never had more than 10). My favorite party was at Pottery by You, a paint-your-own pottery place. Each kid got to decorate a plate, and the birthday girl got a special plate. We’ve also done parties at Build-A-Bear, and Maggie Moo’s (an ice cream shop).

  2. I set a limit of $100 and that includes the gift. Thus, if they want a more expensive gift, then the party has to be cheaper and vice versa.

    The best parties, according to the kids, are the ones where I planned treasure hunts. One treasure hunt used word clues, one used coordinates and paces to locate a treasure chest pinata.

    This past year, my 10 yr old had a water gun party, which was just inviting some kids and their water guns over and giving them some boundaries to play in. This was cheaper because he got a new refurshed nintendo ds for a gift. (I did break the $100 rule here and went up to about $130). Then, we served banana split cheesecake per my son’s request. We’re trying to make it as much their party and their decisions as possible.

    Next month, I’ll throw a party for my turning-8 yr old and it will be a camping party. We will put up the old tent in the front yard (don’t have a back yard), cook smores over the fire pit and let them sleep over in the tent with my husband supervising. I’m on nursing duty with the baby. However, my son is very much ‘daddy’s minion’, so I’m sure he’d much rather have him out there.

  3. My daughter has a had 2 great birthdays, both potlucks in local parks. The parks provide the entertainment, I provided a dish and dessert and a cooler full of juice boxes and water. Everything else fell into place and was wonderful with minimal stress, money, and effort.

  4. The best birthday my mom ever threw me was a pirate themed party. All the kids came dressed as pirates, we had a treasure hunt, and a pirates fun facts trivia game my dad created.

    Last year I helped my mom throw my younger sister a “fly away to hawaii” party. Basically, her birthday is in winter so we threw a party at an indoor pool complete with plane ticket invitations and grass skirts.

    The best thing about both parties was that the themes made them seem extravagant but they were relatively cheap.

  5. For my sweet 16 my mom surprised me with a double decker bus with all of my friends in it! We drove around town for an hour and finished with ice-cream at the local drive in. It was sooo awesome! I still remember it as the coolest sweet 16 ever!

  6. I like the ideas & tips! The only thing I know so far for my daughter’s first birthday is I’m baking a rainbow cake or cupcakes, the rest is still up in the air.

  7. I grew up in the countryside, which definitely helped with the cheap parties. My birthday is February, so there were often parties that involved ice skating on our pond. When my siblings were growing up, Mom would borrow a friend’s horse or use her own and give pony rides. The treasure hunt comments above bring back memories of doing something like that one year, which was fantastic. I think it was a major project, with Mom and I creating the clues together. (Although she made sure that the clues I’d be following were ones she’d done on her own.) Scavenger hunts were good, too.

  8. My older daughter is 8, and our local bowling alley does parties for about $12.00/kid, it sounds expensive, but it includes 2 hours of bowling, the shoe rental, 1 pitcher of soda (which the adults drank, lol) per 5 kids, and 2 slices of pizza per kid and fries. We brought in the cake and ice cream. They gave my daughter a real bowling pin to keep with her name on it. We are going to drill a hole through it and make it into a lamp.

    It was the first time we had done anything like that, and considering her birthday is in winter, and we live in a pretty small apartment, it really was great! This year for the little ones party we are having it at the pavilion at the park near our home. She loves the playground, and I know the kids will have a blast. For the older kids there is a pool next door with water slides.

  9. My mother threw the BEST parties for me when I was little. The formula was very simple: invite only closest friends (7 tops), make the theme very clear so kids can dress up if they want, make the cake vaguely theme-related (cactus cake for cowboy party), provide a vaguely theme-related game or two (pin the tail on snoopy for Charlie Brown party), let us hang out and play the rest of the time.

    I realize now the work that she must have put into these parties, but they were always way cooler to me than the destination parties that some of me other friends had a Chuck-E-Cheese’s or the zoo. I always felt very comfortable “hosting” my friends in my own home and I was always proud of the cool stuff my mother and I planned together.

    My brother had a King Arthur-esque party with pillow-jousting and sheild/crest making. We all wore random renaissance faire clothes and ran around whacking each other with pillows. My “alien/weird” party mostly involved putting my hair up in 10 pigtails and wearing a clashing pair of tights and top. I think there was an “alien” cake with blue frosting.

    Again, my favorite part of the party was (and is) looking around my home and seeing everyone I love the best. Thanks to my mom for realizing this.

  10. wow. elaborate parties! O_O I just always had slumber parties with my besties and girl cousins! My mom bought pizza, an ice cream cake, and lots and lots of candy! I usually got a vhs as a gift, so we’d watch that. And the theme was usually whatever the table cloth was. : ) Those parties were AWESOME! Oh, and I would always hand make all the invitations myself. I remember making a special invitation for my brother that would say, ” you are invited to leave the house on my birthday party.” lol

  11. These ideas all sound awesome! No kids yet, but we’re such geeks that our own parties are kid-like. My husband’s b-day is July 5th, so nobody ever shows up because they’re out of state or partied out. So on July 4th we brought a bunch of food and drink in a cooler to the park to see fireworks, but went early with badminton, a frisbee, and Apples to Apples. I secretly invited a bunch of friends and the best part was it was a huge party atmosphere anyway!

    When we were kids we always just ran wild in the yard playing games, having pizza, and drinking juice. We slept like babies!

  12. The best party my parents ever had for me was not a birthday party but a Halloween party. We had my aunt with a penchant for theater dress up as a gypsy and do fortune telling for all my friends (with details about their lives supplied by me)and we had a haunted house complete with peeled grapes for eyeballs, cold spaghetti for brains etc. and of course, bobbing for apples. That party made me very popular for a while!

  13. My mother planned and executed incredible parties for my brother and I growing up, but most consumed time more than money. She was a kindergarten teacher and my aunts were also educators, so a lot of thhe favors and food was homemade. I think my favorite party was circus themed for my 4th birthday. We had animal and circus costumes, an awesome lego circus cake and a bunch of games in the yard (beag bag toss, horseshoes, fishing in a kiddy pool). We even splurged and hired a local farmer to bring his pony to ride in the backyard.

    Oriental Trading is a great catalog for favors and party supplies.

  14. My parents threw great parties that were usually fairly simple and inexpensive. Scavenger hunts were a hit a few times as were parties as restaurants. I also remember a few great volunteering parties. You can find simple projects for even younger kids, some that are done at home and others that are done at the site. It’s free or close to it, and the kids will really have a good time (trust me–I’m a volunteer manager). Just make sure that you balance service time with time for festivities. Check out for some ideas.

  15. Wow. I never realized people spent so much on kid parties. I don’t mean that in a rude way – it literally had never crossed my mind. My mom always made a cake from scratch and we had backyard parties when I was little and sleepovers with a couple of pizzas when I was older. None of my friends ever had elaborate parties either, not even the financially better off ones. Theme parties really speak to me, but I will probably follow in my mom’s footsteps in regards to cost.

    • Me neither, and my parents were well off growing up. Really I thought those parties were great though. All of my friends and I always had fun. We just ran around and entertained ourselfs mostly. For me a fun party just calls for your friends and good food.

  16. I don’t remember what kind of parties I had as a kid (I think they involved hanging out with a few friends) but I to remember the cakes. My mom decorated the most fabulous cakes. One year It was an igloo with little penguins made of frosting. One year it was a jungle with a frosting gorilla holding a banana. For my baby’s first birthday party, we are going to celebrate that we survived the first year as parents so there will be good wine and all our friends there. I’m looking forward to that in another 8 months!

  17. I never realized people spent money on parties like that either until just recently. A friend of mine had her child’s birthday party at a country club. There was a magician, a professional photographer, and they hired someone to come in and do mix your own ice cream a-la Marble Slab. She always buys her daughter VERY elaborate birthday outfits with tutu’s and shirts with her age on them. The outfits cost like 150 bucks. I had no idea kids had elaborate parties.

    I had a party at McDonald’s in kindergarten and that made me pretty darn popular. The whole class showed up and mom never expected that many kids to come! Needless to say we didn’t do that one again 🙂

  18. Y’know, my brothers and I had a reputation for having THE BEST parties when I was a kid. It was real suck-up-to-get-an-invite stuff.

    And my parents were poor. Like, really, REALLY poor. We didn’t even have enough money for a TV, never mind expensive birthday parties.
    But my parties still kicked arse, just because my parents put so much effort and enthusiasm into them.
    We never sat around in pretty outfits, watching puppet shows and eating cake made by strangers. They were creative, chaotic, joy-filled explosions of activity and irreverence.

    I’d say my most memorable party was based on that TV show, The Crystal Maze (if anyone here remembers it). My dad wore a bald cap and played Richard O’Brian, and took us around the house having converted every room into a different “zone” with fun themed challenges.
    There was blindfolding, climbing, sorting through a “muddy swamp” (my dad dug up a load of the garden and added water), spraying each other with shaving foam and sliding down a sheet of tarpaulin covered in soapy bubbles.

    It was cheap, although it must have took an extraordinary amount of creativity and effort (and cleaning up after!) for my parents to pull it off the way they did.
    But my god, it was that rare wet-you-pants-with-joy level of fun!

    Now I’m a parent, I’m fortunate enough not to be in the same financial position as my parents were, but you better believe I call them for party planning advice before I call some dull children’s magician from the Yellow Pages!

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