I know there are people who get their thrills from hosting (or attending parties). These are surely lovely people but I. cannot. relate.
Unfortunately/fortunately, when you have tiny humans living in your house, they tend to enjoy birthday celebrations.
For YEARS I dreaded these parties. Not because I didn’t want my kids to have a great time, but because it just doesn’t feel like something in my sphere of competency and hosting has a tendency to fill me with dread. That said, I’ve now successfully organized a fair number of pint-sized parties (around 15 combined between two children – um, Wow), have survived, and actually find myself tolerating/border-on-enjoying the experience more and more with each successive year.
If you are one of those love-to-plan-all-the-parties people, you’re welcome to stick around, but my suggestions will likely seem rather pitiful for your tastes. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and get the cold sweats a month before a 3-person birthday party, you’re not alone!
I thought I’d share a bit about how I manage kid birthday parties – a topic that is top of mind with a newly-minted 11-year-old in the house.
This was a “little” year. What’s a little year you ask? Once the kids hit ~5 we started alternating “big” (6-8 guests) and “little” (2-3 guests) parties. I plan differently for big vs little parties and I’ve really enjoyed having this routine in place. Levi had a little party in November, and Abby had a little party this March. Friends actually know this fact and it is not unusual to have some ask: “So, is it a big or little birthday this year?”
This year, and recently, I have hosted parties at our house. When Abby was younger and we were living in a tiny apartment, we tended to host things in other venues because it just wasn’t feasible to have people in our space (and with November and March birthdays, the weather isn’t exactly ideal for outdoor activities). Levi has never had a party outside our home but we did: paint-your-own-pottery, skating, and a hotel pool rental for Abby over various years.
A party without a cake is just a meeting.Julia Child
I’m not going to lie – there is little nutritional value at these events. (I did serve fruit kebabs one year, but most guests opted for the cake).
If it is a big year, I serve snacks + cake. If it is a little year, I serve a meal. Levi requested three close friends from the neighbourhood for meatballs, rice, and peas and I set out popcorn as a mid-party snack.
This year Abby asked for homemade mini pizzas, strawberries (I ended up setting out a fruit and veggie selection which was met with lukewarm enthusiasm), popcorn, and Dorito’s.
My cakes are relatively simple. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a cake but that’s mostly because I usually hide money inside (this was a tradition in my house when I was growing up); I will wrap coins in “packets” of tinfoil – and drop them into the cake before baking. Last year Abby asked for a giant cookie cake, which required the bare minimum in terms of preparation.
One year (the “8”) Abby and I made chocolate flowers from a mold someone had passed on to us (which I have since decluttered to a thrift store) + a few pre-fab decorations from the Bulk Barn; the “6” was the year we watched How The Grinch Stole Christmas for Levi’s “big” party. I just iced a bundt cake and topped it with some m&m’s…pretty boring. But when you cut into it it was multi-coloured which is such an easy – but exciting – effect to achieve!
This year one of Abby’s requested activities was TO BAKE THE BIRTHDAY CAKE. As in, bake her birthday cake with her friends after they arrived at the party. Um, sure?! I bought my first jarred frosting to streamline the process and it was…wonderful. It’s so hard to make the right amount of homemade frosting and this way kids got to pick what they wanted. They were so proud of having made the cake + it was still slightly warm when we ate it which was delish.
To make this a little more special, I cut out all the steps in the cake-baking process, put them into a bag and had each guest draw 5 steps at random. One girl cracked the eggs, another added the sugar, etc. It was very fun (though I would never want to attempt this with kids under 10).
These have gotten simpler with age. If you have a destination, these tend to be no-brainers. A pool party, painting pottery – these have built-in entertainment.
Balloons – these are always a hit and kids seem to gravitate to wherever they can find a loose balloon to bat around a room.
A candy hunt – this was a tradition for me growing up and I always do a candy hunt for the kids. One year, when Abby had a “little” party we actually hid clues all around the neighbourhood until they ended up reaching their treat bags. That same year I gave each guest (at a “little” party) a different coloured Hershey Kiss to find (I went to the bulk barn and picked out the same number of pink, blue and green Kisses!). That way everyone had the same number and just because you spotted something didn’t mean it was yours since you had to be looking for your individual colour only!
Left-Right – this is a family favourite (we’ve done this at Christmas as a gift exchange with friends) and how I have distributed treat bags lately. Everyone sits in a circle and picks out a wrapped package. The bags are all different, so the kids have nothing to go on but the size/shape of the bag.
Then I start reading a prepared script full of LEFT and RIGHT instructions.
For example, I could write something like: You would be RIGHT if you remembered that Harry Potter LEFT Privet Drive RIGHT when Uncle Vernon opened the door to his room. Whether it was RIGHT of Ron to pull the bars off Harry’s window will be LEFT up to the reader.
Each time the command is given you pass the parcel in the appropriate direction. Whatever parcel you end up with is yours to keep. I LOVE this activity as it combines the fun of a game with the treat bag (which isn’t my favourite thing at a party as they tend to be full of…little plastic junk that gets thrown out; I’d skip treat bags entirely but they seem so ubiquitous, and I try to make them fun and include tangible things the kids will use). This year I spent 5-10 minutes typing up a script about all the girls attending; there were probably 50+ LEFT/RIGHT commands and it was hilarious to watch them scramble to keep up.
Just One – This is a new game in our repertoire. You pick a word (say: birthday) and all but one person writes a one-word descriptor of that word (e.g. celebrate, candle, baby, balloon, party). But if there are repeat clues, they cancel out. So if two people said “candle” it wouldn’t be in play anymore. The one player remaining (who goes to a separate room at the start of the round) comes back and has to guess the word based on the descriptors. I describe this in more detail in an earlier post which discusses my father-in-law’s hilarious use of words such as insular (for island), hosiery (for stocking), and cylindrical (for candle).
Chair surprise – last year I put little star stickers on the bottom of a few plates and chairs. At one point I told people to look under their plates/chairs and the people with the stars won a small prize. This time I actually hide the items on the cross braces of the table.
Abby wanted to do some traditional games as well – like Pictionary, Charades, and Twister which they all played independent of me! The older the kids get, the easier the party becomes as they are more self-directed.
I’m not complaining about this development.
The kids usually wake up to a helium balloon with a full-sized chocolate bar tied to the end… except I never got around to it this year and Abby never mentioned my oversight so perhaps that tradition has run its course.
They have also traditionally gotten pancakes in bed, but this year Abby (having a sleepover with one friend after her small party) wanted me to make our Christmas morning Cinnamon Coffee Cake. I was happy to oblige.
We’re pretty practical here. I try to get something they want, something they need, and a treat of some sort.
We’ve given both kids desks for their birthdays. Two years ago Abby wanted Blundstones. We buy 90% of the kids clothes second-hand, but these shoes have been worth every penny. And, guess what her big present was this year – another set of Blundstones.
Something she wanted was a hamster wheel (found new with tags at a thrift store for several dollars) as she is set to get a hamster – though the hamster is unrelated to her birthday.
Her treat was a small block of Kerrygold Dubliner cheese (I hid it in the fridge and wrote a little clue to help her find it). She loves fancy cheese. (I’m pretty sure cheese wouldn’t have been a treat to me a kid – and I would have turned my nose up at anything that didn’t include Cheddar or Mozerella in the tagline – but live and let live.)
Sometimes the gifts become a game, too. When COVID hit right before Abby’s birthday in 2020 and everything was canceled, I opted to wrap 9 gifts (most of them very small) and hid them. She got one new clue each hour for 9 hours. Again, most things were tiny like a notebook or new set of pencils or a package of gum but ANYTHING is more fun when it involves clues.
I don’t do ’em. I even forgot to blow up balloons for Levi’s party in November (but one of his friends actually used balloons to cover up his gift instead of tissue paper and saved the day).
One last memory to share: when COVID hit right before Abby’s 9th birthday, everything was canceled, so I tried extra hard to make it a special day in the middle of scary, uncertain days. One of the highlights was when our neighbour texted John a picture of this snowman he had made on his back deck. When we went over to take a picture in front of the snowman he passed Abby some chocolates out through a window. It was a crazy time, but that snowman was such a bright point while navigating a birthday at the start of pandemic life.
And that’s a wrap on parties at the Frost Ranch. Maybe this sounds pretty lame – or, maybe it sounds like I am a party-planner extraordinaire.
I want the kids to have a fun time, so I do put a certain amount of effort into the events, but I’m always relieved when parties are over. That said, I will admit I find them a lot less anxiety-producing as the kids get older. My kids + their guests are so much more independent and their parents don’t hang around anymore either which I always found awkward and stressful.
Maybe I’m also realizing just because it’s relatively simple doesn’t mean it can’t be fun!
Your turn. Do you like to plan parties? Any great ideas for simple games or other ways to make these events extra memorable?
Header photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash
32 thoughts on “Birthday Recap + Notes from a (Reluctant) Party Host”
Those cakes look fabulous! Cake is my favourite dessert, and those look divine. I will tell you one of the many great things about teenagers is that you don’t have to organize anything for them for birthday parties. They do it all themselves, and all you have to do is provide copious amounts of food. Done and done! The last couple of years have just been kids in my backyard (Covid protocols!) for many hours while they do whatever it is they do, and eat.
Yay! I’m already noticing that trend. The kids are both very clear about what they want, while also wanting to take a lot more responsibility for organizing the events. It is much less stressful than when they were young. I mentioned it briefly in the post, but I honestly think having all the parents around was the biggest stressor to me. I always felt like I had to entertain two sets of guests at the party, all while focussing on my own youngster. I LOVE that parties at this age are all drop-off. I don’t ever remember my parents hanging around when I was a kid at birthday parties?!
And yes – lots of food is certainly key for teenager parties 🙂
Oh, I’m a very stressed-out party host as well. I’ve been to so many kids birthday parties where the whole family is invited so there are tons of guests, and people are swimming and it’s a barbecue and the gift bags are all fancy…. I can’t even fathom how they do it.
Abby’s party sounds SO FUN! Having the kids make the cake was a great idea (I know, it was hers- good job, Abby!) I’m sure they loved it. And all the games sound really fun. I’m glad it was such a fun day- and I’m looking forward to hearing all about the future hamster! Oh one last thing- I finally found something that Abby and I DON’T have in common- I’m like you and would only eat cheddar or mozzarella as a kid.
Good to know there is some area where you and Abby diverge. Good cheese and good chocolate have been her thing since she was teeny.
I still just not into cheese and can totally take/leave it (though the Kerrygold Dubliner is likely one of the best “nicer” cheeses for my tastes). There is a steady stream of smoked goudas and Swiss in our fridge…and I honestly never feel tempted to try it unless it really makes sense with a meal we’re having. I think I’m pretty odd in that way as specialty cheeses have made a huge comeback.
And big parties are NOT my thing. I don’t like big groups/events at the best of times and throw the pressure of a party in the mix and I’d be exhausted for a week. As it is, I really do find I get really, really tired after even a little party. It’s just not my “thing.”
So I like having friends over for meals or a small gathering with a few families. But a house full of people and little kids stresses me out because the kids can get wild. So we try to only have people over in the summer or when it’s warm enough in the fall to be outside! But… both our kids birthdays are solidly in the winter – Dec 3 and Mar 1. We had small 1st bday parties for both boys and then have not had parties since. Paul has been invited to several low key “no gifts please” birthday parties at a park. I would be inclined to do something like that if he was born during a nicer time of year! But March 1 is usually cold/snowy/not great for an outdoor gathering. I was thinking I’d hold off on friend parties until he is 5. That is when I had my first friend party. I will keep these ideas in mind when I plan his first party next year. I like the pivot from little to big parties – that is clever!
I will admit to being jealous of friends whose children have summer birthdays and they meet at a park or at the beach or even just host something in the backyard. But March and November are just too hit-and-miss in the weather department to attempt outdoor activities.
We did the first party for both kids and then, like you, held off for a few years (and would just have a little family celebration). I think Abby’s pottery-painting party was when she was 4? In some senses, even having a party at this age was more about peer pressure because at her preschool everyone seemed to be doing parties at this age and it just felt…like I needed to. Levi only had his best friend over for supper on his 4th and 5th birthdays, because I had learned peer pressure and parties for little kids are overrated – haha!
But now they really are a lot less stressful and more streamlined as the kids get older and I don’t have to entertain them/their guests as much AND parents don’t stay.
Love the idea of alternating big vs little parties! I would have never thought of that. I also love the idea of hiding money in a cake! Never thought of that either. Haha! I should do that sometime for my kids without saying anything about it- would probably been a fun surprise, since that’s definitely never been a “thing” here. Then again, I’m not much of a cake baker. 🙁 I mean, I’ve done store bought mixes, but that’s about it. I bake other things sometimes, like bars, desserts, etc….but just not cakes. They seem overwhelming to me and I don’t think I have the right tools to even attempt any kind of cool decorating skills. Unless you count a butter knife and your jar of store bought frosting.
I’m not sure where my Mom got the idea for hiding money in a cake, but it was a birthday STAPLE in my house growing up. And I remember someone else telling me it’s common in another culture? Maybe Germany? It slips my mind, but we definitely weren’t the first people to think of it.
I remember my father HATING this tradition. He would go to take a giant bite of cake and then come across a coin, which was always wrapped up and he hated taking the time to unwrap a nickel or dime.
I go pretty minimalistic with decorations and I’m fine with that. One of Abby’s friends has a Mom who makes her own pinata each year and these epic (and I mean epic – like something you’d see on a Netflix baking show) themed cakes. That is not my thing, but she genuinely LOVES doing it. We all have our “thing” I guess.
I like cake alright, but I’ve never gotten the appeal of gorgeous kid birthday cakes; they get eaten so quickly and most kids as for giant slices and only eat a few bites.
My kids also don’t like ice cream cakes, or I think I’d go that route. But having Abby actually make the cake with her friends this year was definitely the easiest.
And store-bought frosting was just…so easy. I might officially be converted. I make icing so infrequently, and it was just…wonderfully simple.
Having children sounds exhausting. Just thinking about writing clues for some sort of candy hunt makes my stomach hurt. Bless all of you with your extra special planning for the kids!
Your comment made me laugh out loud.
Kids ARE exhausting (and I only have two of them)!
I actually really enjoy writing clues. Of all the party planning, that is actually what I like the best (we also do a giant treasure/clue hunt at Christmas each year and writing the clues is one of my highlights for Christmas prep).
If it helps, all the thought and ideas you have far exceeded what I’ve done for my kids birthdays…and I’m an extrovert who loves hosting! But I also really really love simple kids’ parties. My youngest just turned 3 and all we did was invite his daycare friends+siblings (9 kids total, ranging in age from 18 months to 10). They played in our basement in a totally unstructured manner – I had no games or entertainment planned because I figured someone else’s toys would be enough to keep them occupied (I was right). After about an hour I could see things devolving a bit, so we told everyone it was time for pizza, which we picked up from Costco. They had pizza, applesauce pouches, and then we had mini ice creams. The parents just talked amongst themselves. And then they went back to playing for a little while more before everyone left! It was PERFECT. I had set expectations super low on the invitation (“Please join us for pizza and a treat…no gifts, please”) and everyone commented that it was so nice to see such a simple party that everyone enjoyed.
Apparently the simplicity rubbed off on my oldest, who turns 6 this week. After his brother’s party, he just asked if his friends and family could come play in our cul-de-sac with balls and chalk and stomp rockets and such, and if we could have pizza, juice boxes, and rainbow cupcakes. I have never said YES to something so fast – such an easy kid to please!!! I love some of your ideas, though – I may have to start a candy hunt and the RIGHT LEFT game!
Simple is, so often, the easiest and most pleasant way to go. Very busy, structured parties can start to feel frantic if you’re trying to fit a lot of things in, too. Like if you plan all these games, you feel obligated to fit it all in.
I have to admit I would find having 9 kids + parents in my home VERY overwhelming, though, for sure!! Structured or unstructured. Hopefully other parents feel they have permission to plan similar parties now that they’ve seen how much kids can enjoy relaxed events!
Your 6-year-old’s request sounds like a blast. I do often wish my kids birthdays were in late spring or summer because outdoor parties are just so much fun. Oh well. We’ve made the most of the seasons we got <3
These ideas are all SO cute! I love that the kids MADE THE BIRTHDAY CAKE!!! That is amazing.
My daughter is leaning toward simple this year, which is fine… except I am already stressing about how to make a simple party fun LOL. I may be copying a bunch of your ideas!
My favorite games to play with groups of kids are Poke-a-Prize, which I did during Covid Halloween (in 2020) and treasure hunts. I loved treasure hunts as a kid and I really enjoy making them for my daughter… but it is SUCH a challenge to make the clues challenging enough but not too hard… and to make ENOUGH clues that it isn’t over in five minutes. (It always takes so much less time to find the treasure than it does to make the treasure hunt.)
Yes, making the cake was such a coup. I loved how it turned out (but it would likely only work well for a “little” year and with older kids).
What is Poke-A-Prize? Do tell…
And yes – making the clues takes MUCH longer than the actual hunt. I find the hardest thing about candy hunts or clues is that my kids always have a home-field advantage, so to speak. They know where things are located (even if a child figures out the clue is “microwave” they don’t know instinctively where that is as well as my own kids do)…and so I do find that hard to work around so everything feels fair, but my own kids get to really enjoy it as well without me trying to slow them down from finding all the candy!
We didn’t really have friend birthday parties growing up but I want to have low key ones for my kids. This year our older kiddo turned 2 less than 2 weeks after the baby was born. Her party was two other toddlers and their parents coming over for a couple hours and we had simple snacks and a cake (which was made by one of invited moms which was a LOVELY gift because I would have been struggling to get a cake made at all).
A cake is SUCH a lovely gift. I would never think of offering to do that or even asking a friend to contribute in such a way, but how genius!
I’m glad everyone had a great time. It is so nice to mark our children’s special days, but even nicer if we can do it in a way that doesn’t feel stressful to us as parents.
I love your idea of alternating big and small parties. With our three kids, we did do parties for all of them (the two older kids both have July parties, so those were easy-peasy…outdoors, in our backyard). Our youngest is November 1, so we had a few Halloween-themed parties for her. Like you, I made most of the cakes myself (but they got to choose the flavor/frosting…and I’d make it into some kind of a shape to go along with the theme). A tradition we started with, our first child, was singing to them on the morning of their birthday, as a “wake-up.” We’d wake the other two kids (usually begrudgingly) and we’d all tip-toe to the celebrant’s room and start singing as we walked into their room. This, amazingly, continued through high school, and I really miss it now that they’re all out of the house.
Halloween-themed parties – that sounds SO fun.
Love the idea of a singing wakeup. When I was young we used to drip water on the face of our siblings on Christmas morning to wake them up – much less pleasant than the singing…Sigh.
And I can definitely see the bittersweet nostalgia of missing that tradition now that they’re out of the house.
Friends of ours have grown children; every year they used the same birthday banner. It is SO tattered, but at the start of the pandemic, they mailed it ot their grown son so he could hang it up for his birthday. I just love the idea of having something show up every single year.
How timely this post. Lizzy is turning 6 next Monday and we have agreed not to have party this year so we could “save” money to pay for the extra helper. She agreed. But then I feel bad that during our 5 years here she never had a proper birthday party at home since two out of 5 were pandemic years. So I’m throwing a last minute surprise party for her this Sunday. We are inviting 7 friends over, I ordered a cake, gift bags, and asked someone to organize activities for them for 2 hours. I also want her to have memories of a special day, so I guess I will try one more time. 🙂 I’m terrible organizing games so I think you are actually doing great organizing them specially writing the clues. How much effort!!! I think having a small simple party is a good compromise for someone who doesn’t enjoy the preparation.
Surprise parties – how fun and something I’ve never done for the kids. I bet Lizzy – and her friends – will have a great time!
These games sound really fun– I think we will try Just One at dinner (it’s so great to have so many kids that every meal is a party). We have a bday this weekend– I think we’ll try the clues approach to his gifts– love it!
Can’t wait to hear if any of these ideas go over well in your household.
Enjoy the party; I think clues make everything more fun 🙂
And yes – Just One is a great low-key game that takes almost no prep and with all the kiddos around your table it really would be like having a party at every mealtime.
We’ve done a variety of things, but for Sam’s 16th birthday a month or so ago, he met up with his friends at a park. I provided pizza delivery, money for them all to go get boba (seriously, it’s go boba or go home at their high school), & they did a Magic the Gathering draft. I provided the Magic cards, which are $$, but also serve as their takeaway gift, as well as the entertainment. They played at the park for ~4 hours.
Nick’s birthday has come & gone, and we haven’t yet done anything. We will likely take some of his friends to Top Golf next Friday, as a belated birthday celebration.
I think the consensus is that parties get easier and easier as the kids get older. I think I’m only realizing this in the last year or so as I’ve noticed they seem significantly easier since both kids are just…a lot more independent!
I feel like it should make me sad but it mostly doesn’t; I love how flexible they are at this age and generally pretty relaxed about it all. And I love whenever the takeaway swag can be part of the birthday activity!
I had a few years of stressing over birthday cakes – most notably a swimming pool one filled with blue Jello, chewing gym sticks for diving boards, etc. The cake went soggy from the Jello and nobody ate their piece, as I recall. Live and learn:) I like that left-right idea, especially working the directions into a story. Your kids will always know how much thought you’ve put into their birthdays. And I was considering Blundstones for Noelle and Ada at some point… I have Marks Work Warehouse knock-offs, and they’re just so convenient (but not very supportive for aging feet).
Oh wow. That sounds like quite the cake!
Can’t wait to hear more about the new additions to the family <3
I had to look up Blundstones as I had never heard of them only to realise that friends of my daughters have shoes very similar that are likely to be them.
Birthday parties? I got off lightly there, I am not a fan either. My eldest loathes them so he has never had one. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, when he was little he would have friends over for a play and I would serve everyone some food, no cake, no singing, not allowed. Now he is a teenager the last few years he has been out mountain biking for the day with a friend and despite his birthday being in November we have always managed it.
My daughter had one big party (with about 10 guests plus adults) when she was about seven and decided that was enough of those so now she has several play dates, on days close to her birthday, individually with her friends so she gets one to one time with them, sometimes these dates include a sleepover. We have cake as a family on the day. We have also been camping a few times on her birthday, just family, her birthday is in May so it is usually warm enough to do that by then.
Camping sounds like a great celebratory activity. March and November aren’t great for that, unfortunately!
Like NGS, I am so glad I do not have to deal with this. LOL.
That said, having the party attendees and the birthday child MAKE the cake was pure genius. Good on you!
Also, MARS BARS. OMG. I had one in Canada decades ago (30 years ago now?) and of course here in the US we have the sad substitute of… a Milky Way.
Let me tell you, Milky Ways are not Mars bars. No way. I have not had one since that visit 30 years ago but I can almost taste it! 🙂 WHEN I visit Canada, next, I shall load up, I believe. In the freezer, they should last at least a few years. 😉
Mars Bars are my favourite (it used to be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups). I get them each year for my birthday and Christmas. They are SO sweet and 1-2 a year is plenty, but they are my favourite.
I also learned that what we call Smarties you can’t get in the US, either?!
My mind is blown. I found a site called (seriously) Candy Fun House, which provided a detailed overview of the differences.
Um. Our “Smarties” do not hold a candle to yours! (Fortunately, in case you were wondering, I CAN order them from Candy Fun House…)
Also? WHY don’t we have Coffee Crisp and Aero bars here? I am not a big candy person (far from it, to be honest) but I love these types of bars. American chocolate is … boring. And flavorless. With the possible exception of some “dark chocolate” wannabees (looking at you, Hershey’s Special Dark, which admittedly is my cheapo go-to when I want chocolate) and peppermint patties (I can’t help it, I grew up in the town they’re named for and they used to be manufactured down the street).
You don’t have Coffee Crisp or Aero bars? Really? I had no idea!
I love peppermint/chocolate, but I’m the only one in my family, so I almost never eat it. Such a treat when I have it; same with Candy Cane ice cream. I love it (but try to avoid dairy), but don’t buy it because no one else likes it. How can someone not like chocolate and mint? I can’t remember the last time I had a scoop of chocolate mint ice cream. Maybe this summer? I tend to go with my favourite – one called Mariner’s Sea Salt Caramel or something with PB…but chocolate mint ice cream is just so good!