Tips for throwing a successful birthday party for a two-year-old (or even a three to four-year-old)

February 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

birthday party lunchboxes

My attempt at food styling. Contents of lunchbox: Dinner roll, zucchini slice in the shape of a butterfly and a scrap of green paper. Lunchboxes actually served contained no scrap of paper, rather a 'bed' of carrot and cucumber cut into matchsticks. Containers were from Ikea.

Recently I held a birthday party for my two-year-old child.  If there is one strong characteristic I inherited from my parents it’s a love of entertaining guests.  It’s a bit of a paradox though, because truth be told I am inherently lazy and birthday parties can be a lot of work.  So, like the wardrobe challenge I’ve just completed, I aim for getting the biggest bang for my buck.  I don’t just mean I try and keep the costs down, I mean I try to create the best experience for my guests with minimal effort on my part.  Here’s my top five tips:

It's all about the vibe. Aquarium decorations.

  1. Planning is key.  Now, I am no master planner like Nicole of Planning With Kids, but I am a keen amateur.  I spent a lot of time making lists and menu plans and researching on the internet.  I tried to create a bit of a timeline for the day of the party and the week leading up to the party.  There were many draft timelines created and then scrapped because I came to realise a particular idea was logistically impossible or too stressful to implement.  I started to think I needed a Gantt Chart, but I don’t really know how to prepare those. Several ideas were from the Planning With Kids blog, especially a post about children’s birthday party food.  There is a lot of excellent tips about parties at the Planning With Kids blog and if you are planning your own party I encourage you to check it out.  In fact, there are a lot of good ideas generally on that blog, so check it out anyway.  I looked at other blogs like Baby Bunching and also at some trusty Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks for practical tips and recipes suitable for entertaining with and for children.
  2. It’s all about the vibe.  This starts with the invitation.  People start thinking about the party and what to expect as soon as they receive the invitation.  I think it is very helpful to busy mums to have all the details in writing and it creates a sense of occasion.  It may sound a bit over the top, but I tried to use language that implied there would be fun for the children and relaxation for the parents. I guess I could have directly said it, but it’s not my style. Of course, if you want to have a theme, then the invitation is the place to start that too.  Once people are at the party decorations also help people feel the sense of occasion and also a sense of fun.  It’s hard to be stuffy when you’re surrounded by ridiculous and colourful objects.  We had previously created an ‘aquarium’ from blue streamers and sea creatures cut out from cardboard.  I brought those out again and hung them from light fittings in the kitchen/living area.  They were appropriate because the two-year-old is very interested in fauna of all sorts.  I tried to run that theme through having sea-themed serviettes and paper plates.  I know, not so classy, but like I said, I’m inherently lazy.  The children also decorated biscuits cutout in the shape of what were supposed to be starfish and jelly fish.  Very few people realised this.  In fact, I’m pretty sure hardly anyone noticed there was a theme, so you may want to model someone else’s tips for a theme party.  In particular, the theme fell apart with the lunchboxes I made up for each child.  There were no sea creatures inside, just insects, but it was still fun!  The lunchbox idea was taken directly from Planning With Kids.  I did a few things differently.  I decided to use reusable lunchboxes instead of cardboard ones because I thought that they would be easier for the young children to handle and they could take them home with things inside as ‘goodie bags’, this second part was not a great success (see point 4).  I also decided to fill the box with a relatively healthy meal because of the young age of the children and I was conscious vegetarian families were attending.  We still had birthday cake and biscuits and that was plenty of sugar for the little tykes. Did I mention the children were also only given water to drink to add to parental relaxation?  My concession was that they each had individual water bottles with commercial characters on them.  Adults just used the aforementioned paper plates and plastic cutlery. Preparing the lunchboxes and also plenty of food for the adults added to the relaxed vibe.  The parents didn’t have to waste their meal time fussing over getting children’s food dished up and it was also easy for little hands to manage feeding themselves.  Plus, it meant parents knew exactly what their children were eating because they weren’t picking at food all the time.  I know that part of the fun of a party is the endless eating, but with really young children it can lead to tears.  Quite literally. Another key to keeping the vibe relaxed was that I prepared a lot of the food in advance. I didn’t want my guests to turn up and feel like they had work to do.  Even if you can manage on your own, if other people, especially other mothers, see you fussing about in the kitchen they will want to help you out.  This can be social, but I thought it would be nice for the parents to sit around instead of doing ‘their usual duties’.  Overall, my strategies were a success.  They food was eaten with minimal fuss and mess on the part of the children and the parents sat back and relaxed.
  3. Be prepared to take a leadership role on the day of the party. People attending the party will be looking for direction, most likely from the mother of the child who’s birthday is being celebrated.  This also starts with the invitation.  Of course, make sure there are all the usual details of where and when et cetera, but it can also be helpful to have other details.  I made sure to have some directions for people who had never been to our house, a finish time and details about catering.  The finish time lets people know in a polite way when they are expected to leave or pick up their children.  The details about catering mean that guests will know in advance whether they should bring something, whether you are just serving snacks and how likely it is there will be something that suits them and their particular diet.  I also realised after sending the invitations that “picnic lunch for kids and parents” implied the parents were staying.  Probably already implied because the invitees were so young, but it occurred to me in the future that I may need to be specific about whether parents should stay or not and if they do whether or not they will be fed as well as the children. An unusual direction I gave parents was ‘cards happily accepted, but no gifts please.’  The reasons for this were, some mothers had mentioned to me at previous parties how tricky (and expensive) it can be to find a present and honestly, I felt we just didn’t need anymore ‘stuff’.  Also, I guess, it added to ‘the vibe’ (see point 2). Without presents, there was less danger of a competitive and materialistic veil coming over the party, which strangely can occur with gatherings of mothers and children.  I felt the danger was small with ours because I knew most of the people attending quite well, but I want to encourage my children to see the joy in birthdays as more than what presents you get, so the ‘no presents’ rule is likely to carry on in years to come.  As mentioned in point 2, people will be asking to help you out.  And I mean like all. the. time.  Sometimes you will need their help and that is when your planning will be very useful, because you will know what they can help you with.  Your plan will also mean you have some idea of when you’d like to have the children play games, that you will have to initiate and direct. It’s not the time to be a wallflower, it’s time to take charge!
  4. Be flexible. As much as I espouse the gospel of planning, don’t be rigid in sticking to the plan on the day.  Our invitation read “picnic lunch for kids and parents”. The plan was to have everyone outside a large part of the time enjoying our freshly laid lawn.  This turned out to be a bit of a joke.  It poured with rain and my house became filled with noisy children and lots of mess.  Of course, keeping it outside is a great idea.  Either in your yard or at a local park.  Most children are more relaxed outdoors and also, then the inevitable food crumbs and smudges of icing stay outdoors too.  We improvised and laid the picnic rug on the floor.  I also had several games planned that we never got round to playing because the children were too excited to focus on play that required adults telling them rules.  Most children were about three years old and two activities was about all they could handle over the space of about three hours.  And that was with a lot of supervision from their mothers. We played pin the pirate on the treasure map and decorated some biscuits.  I had also planned to give away some ‘goodie bags’ at the end.  Actually my plan was that each child would place their decorated biscuits into their lunch box and I would insert and chocolate frog and thank-you card for them to take home.  Again, this turned out to be a bit of a joke.  Of course most children ate their biscuits after decorating them. I should have realised this would happen, it just wasn’t what my three-year-old would do.  In the end I handed out the cards without the chocolate frog, because I thought the parents would be grateful for their children to have no more sugar.  The cards were handmade by my kids and inscribed in advance. People seemed to genuinely like them, so I’m glad I still handed them out, even though at the time I thought it may seem a little lame without a present.
  5. Less is more. All my planning encouraged my to keep things as simple as possible.  I can have grand dreams when it comes to parties.  If you are lucky enough to have mostly decent folk at your party, then they will want to do nothing more than kick back and relax or run around like crazy critters depending on their age.  While I encourage you to create ‘the vibe’, I don’t think everyone has more fun if you have spent hundreds of hours creating extravagant food and decorations.  Or spend huge amounts of money on catering and commercial decorations.  All we had decorating our home was a lonely ballon out the front to mark our house to guests and the ‘aquarium’ hanging from some light fittings.  Children and parents alike were charmed by those simple ocean decorations made by my mother and my children. I know this may sound corny, but birthday parties are a big part of childhood memories.  When my children look back and remember their parties I want them to remember what a fun time they had with their friends and family and how special those people made them feel, not what big toy they received.  On a lighter note, simpler also often means less clean-up.  We still all made a royal mess of the place, but I think it was worth it.

The Aftermath

I’d love to hear your stories and tips about children’s parties.  They were some of the happiest memories of my childhood.

God Bless,

Aunty Tess

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§ 2 Responses to Tips for throwing a successful birthday party for a two-year-old (or even a three to four-year-old)

  • The zucchini slice looks fantastic. Thanks for linking to my blog and also for the kind words. I completely agree with the last point less is more – it is easy to overdo it with parties.

  • Oh timing is everything, just came across this as I’m gearing up for an impromptu party for my 3 year old tomorrow.
    After years of handpicking, colour coordinating, dressing up, hand making, and overplanning parties for my eldest this is what I’ve got planned: Lots of food the parents will like – bought, gourmet. Lots of food the kids will like – bought – junk. A cake from local bakery. Spongebob. Mini chinese takeaway boxes that I’ll dump lollies in for lolly bags. And instead of a CD of thoughtfully handpicked songs, I’ll have Foxtel AIR active on chart countdown. Oh, and champagne. Tonight, instead of baking, packing, folding, wrapping, hanging, coordinating, etc, I’ll be watching a DVD with my hubby and a glass of red. Winning!
    I’ll bet my little boy will be THRILLED!

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