Birthday Party Survival Guide

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I was one of the unlucky kids who had their birthday in the summer. Turnout for celebrations in the warm months were always dismal. We had camp outs in the backyard, plenty of sprinkler time and Popsicles but I always remember friends telling me they couldn’t come to my party because they’d be out of town. And I always wished I could bring cupcakes during the school year to share with my friends on my special day.

A friend of mine and her child also have summer birthdays. We commiserated the other day. One solution she offered was cleverly-named “half birthday.” Simply bump the celebration day six months into the future. This also works for birthdays that inconveniently fall on a present-laden holiday. We all know someone who has that problem.

But summer birthdays, or any celebration for the small fry during the warmer months can be harder. We have the gifts of more opportunity to go outside, yes. But there is a greater chance that your guest list will be vastly downsized because well, things come up. Out of town trips are planned, conflicting holidays or birthdays, the local town parade, you-name-it. I’ve heard it. And I speak from years of experience. It’s disappointing when so much prep goes into the planning for a get together for your loved ones and some of it falls flat. It’s not to say that I don’t sincerely appreciate the guests who show up no-matter-what. Besides your guest of honor, they totally make it all worthwhile.

If you decide to not go the “half-birthday” route – I offer you a list of tips to help ease the potential disappointment of birthday party planning.

Invitations:

Evite.com is a super-easy way to create a fun invitation and track RSVPs. A simple text message also works. We’ve done paper invitations in the past, but have found that responses are more limited with this tech-free version.

Timing:

Know your audience. How young are the participants? Our kids are preschool age and the current magic formula is between the hours of 11am and 1pm. Unruliness kicks in the early afternoon hours — especially without a nap or proper nourishment. Having a short window of time also lets your guests know you’ll move things along and they don’t have to linger long.

For day-of festivities, we usually have food ready to go right away for guests. Introduce an activity (this year it was cake decorating) which naturally led to candles and cake and finally presents. The show was basically done after that and everyone is “released.”

Venue:

If you’re on a budget, having a home celebration can be pretty easy to pull off. If you can create an open space by pushing furniture to the side, setting out sitting surfaces, decluttering breakables and stocking the bathroom you should be in good shape. One trick I’ve learned in my event planning experience is to set up a food station and a drink station in opposite sides of your space. It helps guests to mix and mingle.

Other easy venue ideas: the park. One year, we had a “Cupcakes in the Park” party and it was a simple and fun event. Our space was free (check your local park department for more information), there was minimal set-up and clean-up. The entertainment (open grassy field and play structure) was right there and we didn’t have to worry about fitting 20+ people into our small living space.

Gifts:

Unless you rely on these celebrations to rotate your kids toys, a simple “Your presence is a present enough – please don’t worry about a gift” noted on your invitation is a nice reminder to guests to not feel obligated to give a gift. We started this a few years but the message hasn’t come through clear enough so we’ve also started coming up with lists of toys we know the kids want and we let our guests know what. It helps with returns and duplicate toys.

Food:

Buy or make what you like. This includes the cake too. Chances are, there will be plenty of leftovers.. This year, in lieu of a store bought cake that I knew my guests wouldn’t eat, the kids and I made small versions of cakes that I knew that our immediate family would enjoy. The kids decorated them and they had a blast.

Platters: pre-made saves time but make sure you like the contents of each (and if not, make your own) and you can break them down into future meals. Veggie platters are great for stir fries, frittatas and sheet-pan dinners, fruit platters are handy for quick yogurts or smoothies. Sandwich platters are more tricky as they can get soggy. If they’re not already dressed with condiments, take them apart post-party and wrap up the ingredients for future meals including bread pudding, scrambles and a quick wrap.

Feed the kids before the guests get there. Distraction is not your friend. Our kids have the hardest time eating anything when their friends are around. We save ourselves frustration and give them a snack before the guests arrive.

Decor:

Keep it simple. Whatever you put up, you will be taking down. There have been a few years when we left up the decorations for a few months. We also try to reuse our decorations and repurpose furniture or every day items we have already to cut costs down.

Activities:

Your kids will most-likely drive the entertainment, but if they need help, provide things like bubbles, crafts or outdoor toys. A simple water table or sprinkler will make for happy kids.

Post-Mortem (or thoughts for next time)

Taken from my many years of project-management and event planning experience, write yourself a “post-mortem” or a “thoughts for next time” memo. It’s like writing your future self a note to remember for when another party comes up. I’ve even gone as far as to draft up few notes and save it as a reminder around the time I’d be planning the next birthday party. It also helps to capture your feelings about the day — what worked, what stressed you out, what not to worry about next time. You get the idea. You will thank yourself later.

Last thoughts — if you ever start to feel overwhelmed, simply breaking down your to-dos in a list will help immensely. Delegate responsibility. And when someone on your guest lists offers to help — take it. After all you are celebrating together. Remember why you are planning the celebration and focus on your guests of honor. Happy party planning.

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