40 Tips for a Hassle-Free Birthday Party: Ideas for Food, Location, Favors, Gifts, and Games

From games to goody bags, your guide to the best party ever.

Manners & Responsibility: Kids at Parties

    Timing, Invitations, Cakes

    Kids love their birthday even before they quite know what it is. And what’s not to love about cake, presents, friends, and family? Some parents thrive on the planning, decorating, and hosting; others want to make the event as fuss-free as possible. No matter what your party profile, here are plenty of ideas to help you get started on a celebration your child will love.

      Making the Most of Baby’s First

      Your baby’s first year — and yours as his parent — is a milestone worthy of a party. But this may not be the year for a big blowout. Your newly minted 1-year-old may be overwhelmed by a large crowd.

      1. One way to keep your event simple yet celebratory is to host an open house, particularly ideal if some of your guests are driving an hour or two to get there, or have their own kids with their own schedules and needs. Have your party from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., and allow people to come and go as they please. That way, there’s no pressure for your child to be “on” at a certain time, and you’re not attempting to plan your event around naps, meals, or moods.

      For bigger parties, which are especially ideal for toddlers and preschoolers, here are real-life tips that will make your day fun and festive.

        Timing and Invitations

        2. Any mom will tell you to be clear on the invitation what time the party ends. An hour-and-a-half party is the gold standard for 2- and 3-year-olds.

        3. Indicate on the invitation whether you’ll be serving lunch, so people know whether or not to feed their kids.

        4. Remember to put an “RSVP by” date on the invitation, but don’t panic if it appears no one is coming to the party! For some reason, many of us can never get around to letting people know we’re coming (we are much more likely to call if we’re not). The RSVP date allows you to start your follow-up calls without feeling like a nudge.

          Let Them Eat Cake…

          A big birthday cake will allow for a more dramatic blow-out-the-candles moment.

          5. Try a theme cake if your kid’s mad about Barney or Clifford. Costco is known for making great-tasting, inexpensive sheet cakes with lots of characters and designs to choose from.

          6. Ask your local bakery about a cake featuring your baby’s photo.

          7. Ambitious? Make your own cake (from a mix or scratch). Get ideas and tools from Wilton.com.

            …or Cupcakes

            Cupcakes are less hassle. There’s no cutting, and they’re easier to serve.

            8. For a photo-worthy effect, buy a cupcake “tree” to serve them from (again, Wilton.com has them).

            9. Ice cupcakes in different colors and arrange them in a fun pattern, or one that spells out your child’s name or “Happy Birthday.”

            10. Put out sprinkles and other decorations so each guest can create her own masterpiece.

              Favors, Entertainment, Gifts, Food

              Let Us Entertain You

              Should you hire entertainment? It’s not necessary for the kids. But it may make the party more enjoyable for you.

              11. If you can’t afford the cost of a magician or clown (they can be pricey in some areas), consider hiring a couple of teens to do some face painting.

              12. Or, if you’ve ever taken a parent-child music class and have the book and CD, try adapting the classroom activities to your party by providing the kids with inexpensive instruments, music, and space to dance.

                Do Me a Favor

                Kids adore goody bags and may even expect them, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune.

                13. The parents will love you if you opt for one biggish item rather than an assortment of small toys that often end up scattered all over the house.

                A box of sidewalk chalk, a tambourine with the child’s name on it, a set of maracas, or a travel-sized doodle board will make most kids happy. Parents will also appreciate if you go easy on the candy.

                14. If you do want to go the more traditional route, visit OrientalTrading.com. There are literally thousands of inexpensive items to choose from.

                  Gift Dos and Don’ts

                  15. Do tell people what your child would like if they ask.

                  16. Don’t open gifts during the party.

                  17. Do send a quick thank-you note. (An e-mail is fine, as long as it’s personalized.) Your effort will be appreciated.

                  18. Don’t set up a gift registry online. It’s too much for a party.

                    Catering to Kids

                    19. Finger foods make everyone’s life easier — you don’t need to provide cutlery, and your guests aren’t trying to chase a toddler while balancing a plate of pasta salad. Sandwiches cut into quarters, veggies and dip, fruit on skewers, bagels, and muffins are just a few party-friendly food ideas.

                    20. If you’re serving a crowd of toddlers or preschoolers who are all going to eat at the same time, chicken nuggets (don’t forget the ketchup!) or Bagel Bites are easy on your budget and quick to pull together. The excited party-goers are often just too wound up to eat very much, which is why you don’t want to spend too much time or money on the meal.

                      Games, Desserts

                      Toddler Games

                      What will kids do at the party? Toddlers and preschoolers are not big fans of complicated crafts and organized games. To accommodate short attention spans and a love of free play, your best strategy is to have several activity stations. Here are a few ideas.

                      21. Put multiple sets of bubble solution and wands on a table. Station a parent there to help kids blow the bubbles.

                      22. Gather all your ride-on toys and group them on the driveway or in the playroom. Put balls in another self-contained area.

                      23. Set up a pop-up tent for toddlers to run in and out of or use as a fort.

                      24. Invest in a nylon tunnel (available at IKEA and Toys ‘R’ Us) for children to play in and crawl through.

                      25. Play freeze dance. Kids dance when the music is on, stay still when you turn it off.

                      26. Sit everyone down for a story when the gang needs to calm down.

                        Creative Desserts

                        27. The only thing my 1-year-old recognized was the Baby Einstein logo. So I made him a caterpillar cake. It was easy, just a few round cakes with different colored frosting. He loved it. —Anna Marie

                        28. Mud cups are lots of fun to serve instead of cake and ice cream. Use clear plastic cups, fill halfway with chocolate pudding, top with a layer of crushed chocolate cookies like Oreos, and then put a gummy worm or two on the top to look like they’re coming out of the earth. —Kris

                        29. Here’s a great idea someone told me about: Scoop ice cream into baking cups before the party and stick back in the freezer. When it comes time for ice cream, everyone has their own cup without the hassle. —Wendy

                          Location, Readers’ Secrets

                          Party Away

                          What if you don’t have the room — or the desire — to throw a party at your house? Here are some low-cost ideas to host a party off-site.

                          30. Churches often rent out their rec rooms, which can come with tables, chairs, and even play equipment.

                          31. A nearby park makes a great venue if the weather is cooperative (if not, have a backup plan or rain date in mind). Reserve a space in advance, if possible, or lay claim to it early on party day before the crowds show up.

                          32. Some fire stations host parties for a small fee. Kids get a tour of the firehouse and use of a room for cake.

                            Readers’ Secrets

                            33. You will be busy, so recruit a couple of family members or friends to run the video camera and take pictures. It’s hard to do everything yourself. —Susan

                            34. If you really want to make the first birthday special, celebrate alone the night before. Take all the pictures then, and on the day of the party, relax. You don’t have to worry about getting that shot of baby blowing out the candles. You’ve already got it. —Margie

                            35. For my daughter’s third birthday, we had her party at a local park. The shelter had electricity so we were able to bring food in Crock-Pots. The kids played at the playground before and after the meal. Cleanup was easy. Having it there really took the pressure off of me. —Michelle

                            36. For my daughter’s first birthday, we rented out a pool-side hotel room. The hotel allowed family and friends to come use the pool. We put tables together and had a beach party. The adults enjoyed the hot tub. Everyone had a blast. —Alicia

                            37. For my daughter’s first birthday, I asked everyone to bring a 2-liter beverage. I provided the cake and meat. On the invitation, I said “no gifts please.” —Vickie

                            38. If you’re having the party inside, line the floor with a plastic sheet. Let kids sit in a circle on the liner while they’re eating. After cake, channel their sugar highs by putting on some kiddy tunes and letting them dance away. —Nisha

                            39. Avoid character themes when purchasing paper goods. Instead, buy solid color plates, napkins, and cups when they’re on sale. Then if you have remainders, you can use them for other occasions. —Tracy

                            40. The biggest hit at our party was blow-up beach balls that had fish inside them, inexpensive items that we got from the Oriental Trading Company. —Kelly

                              Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.