How to Survive your Child’s Birthday Party (booze optional)

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of parents like the realization that their child’s birthday is on the horizon. The first order of birthday business is invitations. If you plan on ordering customized invitations from an online vendor, you will need to start hammering out concrete details of your child’s party about two months in advance to avoid excessive shipping fees. The online stationery companies feed off of the procrastination of parents. The standard shipping option allows enough time for the cards to ship from the company to the Far East and back, and then the parent realizes she still has to mail out the cards and allow time for an RSVP response. Thus for the parent enjoying Christmas and not thinking about Junior’s upcoming February birthday, the clock is already ticking.

When choosing your shipping options, here is a translation: Standard shipping – Good job, a-hole. You got your sh*t together this year and get free shipping. We’ll screw you next year though. Expedited shipping – You’re savvy enough to order a customized invitation, but not smart enough to order them on time. We like people like you. The shipping cost will equal the cost of the invites. Rush shipping – You’re an idiot. How could you forget your child’s birthday? As punishment, the shipping surcharge will cost the same as a first year’s tuition at Harvard. You are our favorite kind of customer. Overnight shipping – Go to Walgreen’s stet and buy some cheap invitations. You can’t afford the shipping rate.

Of course, to design an invitation, one must know certain details, such as location, day and time. Text or Facebook message “save the dates” are becoming more common for the frantic parent who realizes the child’s birthday is two weeks out and hasn’t ordered invitations yet, let alone determined any relevant details. A message like this might read, “Save the date for Jake’s birthday party. Saturday, sometime in the afternoon(?), our house (I think…). Invitation to follow (maybe).”

Which brings us to venue. One would think choosing a venue, such as a bounce house place or dude ranch or Versailles, would cost an arm and a leg and be the most expensive option. Often times, holding the party at your own house is more expensive. All of a sudden you have to worry about entertaining the children (whatever will they do?!), feeding the kids and adults, elaborate decorations and a clean house. For the busy parents without time for party prep, a soiree at home might entail extra maid service, a caterer and a bounce house. The best option to avoid an exorbitant food cost is to hold the party at a non-meal time, but surprisingly, people will chow down any time of day, especially in the mid-to-late afternoon.

We have attended some stellar children’s birthday parties over the past six years. Some favorites include a carnival themed party with multiple elaborately constructed boardwalk type games, kitschy candy machines and batteries of balloons. This party was impressive because the family enlisted their friends and family to help with the food and set-up, and I can’t imagine the quantity of man-hours and manual labor this party required. The hosts also displayed amazing food, including a recipe for chile con queso that we tried to later replicate.

Another memorable party utilized the “farm it out” approach, and the family invited every child they had ever encountered. The family spared no expense, with catered barbeque, pony rides in the street, a craft station with an activity matching the theme and a magician. The activities were nicely staggered, and the party flowed as naturally as the hundred dollar bills fleeing their wallet in droves.

One party took place on a riverboat cruise with a master of ceremonies. I felt like I was at a rehearsal dinner. Except everyone was dressed in pirate costumes playing musical chairs.

As a parent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you occasionally attend amazing birthday parties and wonder how yours could ever match up. Perhaps you don’t want to cash out an IRA to fund your lovely three-year-old’s bash. It’s important to remember that a successful birthday party, defined as children and adults enjoying themselves, does not require a ridiculous amount of money to be spent. Simplicity is key.

Children love crafts. Set up a craft table that ties into the theme of your birthday party. The activity could be as easy as coloring a sheet of paper that you have copied with a picture of a princess or Spiderman on it. Check out Pinterest if you are not easily overwhelmed. I have never been on the site because I would mentally shut down from feelings of failure and inadequacy. Children also love being outside. Set up a baby pool or a water table with some cheap plastic boats and scoopers and watch them entertain themselves for an hour. Throw in some sand for the kids to make sludge. Nothing makes a party-going parent happier than a mud-caked kid and that forgotten change of clothes.

Regarding food, it is important to include some heavy hors d’oeuvres because parents are usually hungry, especially the ones with babies. In my experience, if I had to shower and apply make-up to look presentable for a party, and then also outfit my children in a costume or party attire, and possibly feed a baby pre-party, I seriously doubt I spent a lot of time eating leading up to the event.

Party food can also be inexpensive yet appealing. You can’t go wrong with chips and queso, chips and guacamole, and/or chips and salsa (sense a theme, here?). The frozen aisle at the grocery store offers some budget-friendly options that are easy to heat up in the oven and can be purchased in bulk packages. A fruit and cheese tray can be prepared at home and doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Buy the pre-cubed cheese to save time, or cube it yourself to save money.

On the topic of beverages, it’s always nice to have accessible coolers where parents and children can serve themselves. We recently threw a children’s birthday party where we opted not to buy packs of individual juice boxes or bottled waters and instead used pitchers of lemonade, tea and water that guests could serve themselves. Not using bottled water is better for the environment, and you don’t see a bunch of half-emptied (or half-filled, if you are one of those) bottles to clean up and recycle after the birthday party. Just make sure to replenish those pitchers!

On the subject of whether to serve alcoholic beverages at a children’s birthday party, I’m sure reasonable minds could disagree here. If the start time is ten o’clock in the morning, most hosts will probably not serve alcohol, (save the raging alcoholics or filthy rich), unless it’s a high-end shindig with options like bloody marys and mimosas. I am a fan of afternoon parties providing some adult beverage options. I certainly don’t expect beer or wine, but a little booze sure makes a children’s birthday party more tolerable. As a hostess, you can bet your fancy gift that I will have some wine in my red plastic cup. How else am I going to converse with that parent of a classmate whom I have never met in my life? Or calmly smile when the kid high on sugar and Adderall wanders around my formal living room contemplating which breakable item to pick up first?

We usually serve some decent beer and wine at our birthday parties, unless it’s Cinco de Mayo, where margaritas will make an appearance. Just make sure you try out your signature drink recipe first if your guests will be doing their own mixing; one year the recipe we chose was way too strong, and we didn’t realize our error until we conducted a taste test shortly before the party. Pre-mixing your cocktails might be the preferred route, and if you’re a real high roller, I’d go for broke and hire a bartender. Oh wait, this is a children’s party, right? Maybe hire a clown then. Yeah, a sober clown.

If you do choose to indulge, don’t overbuy on the booze, or your afternoon guests may linger into the evening, enjoying the free beer while you are left cleaning up debris.

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