These days, birthday parties for kids can get out of control with parents feeling overwhelmed by something that should really be a great time. If you've resisted your child's pleas to invite his entire class to some far away venue, then you're left figuring out how to make an at-home party work. You don't need to be Martha Stewart to make a fun and memorable party. Here are some guidelines for planning, organizing and "pulling-off" a great home-based party, large or small, whether you hire help or go it alone.
Set the date
When you set the date, if you happen to have a cleaning service, consider scheduling the party for the weekend before your cleaners typically come-that way you won't have to live in a post-party house all week. You can just do a light cleaning and tidying before and after the party, then have the pros follow up with a thorough cleaning. When to set the date? Well, if you're trying to get 3 of your child's nursery school friends together, you probably don't need to give much notice. But, these days, people schedule events well ahead of time. Give it a month to 6 weeks to be on the safe side, especially if you're planning a large or formal party. Giving yourself enough time to plan this event is key.
Decide on a theme
Don't wait on this. Brainstorm with your child about a theme or activity as soon as you set the date. For babies and toddlers, a theme isn't really necessary, but preschoolers and older kids will have specific interests and preferences. If your child loves fairies or monsters, you'll have automatic subject matter. I also recommend easier, more general themes, such as a party based around your child's favorite color. It's far easier to shop based on color (e.g., yellow plates, balloons, favors) than character.
If you do end up going with something like a princess or sports hero theme, there are many way to incorporate it into the party. Whether it's just about decorating your house and the cake with images of a favorite cartoon character, or having a costume party and in-house parade, keep in mind the age and number of kids at your party. Little kids have short attention spans and need lots of help with costumes, and crafts-especially if it involves scissors (In fact, if it involves scissors, don't even go there.). Don't underestimate the power of a simple craft or traditional party games.
Draw up the guest list
As you draw up the guest list, consider your child's temperament and the party theme. If your child is shy in large groups, don't fight it-opt for a small party with 3 or 4 friends and a simple theme. Kids under the age of 5 do better in a smaller group setting. But, if you're heart is set on a blow-out party for a special milestone birthday, then go for it. Just remember the party will be in your home and/or your yard, so you have to imagine what it will be like with 25 kids running around (since they won't be sitting quietly), using the bathroom, eating food and generally being kids. Be prepared to stand firm on the limit of your guest list. And, discuss with your child whether or not they should chat about the party at school (is the whole class invited or not?).
Send invitations about a month before the party. Sounds early, but people tend to schedule events way ahead of time. Invitations can be as simple as a phone call, handwritten or printed note, e-vite, store-bought party invite, or custom printed for more a more formal occasion. Send invitations by snail mail or email if you're not inviting everybody in your child's class-this helps prevent hurt feelings from kids who are not invited. On your invitations, specify the date and time (see next bullet about food), and whether there is a theme (e.g., "Please come dressed as a fairy princess"). Be sure to take into account how much time you'll need for the activity you'll be doing. Do you really need or want 3.5 hours for the party? For a simple, little-kid party, an hour or so may be just perfect. Indicate the R.S.V.P. phone number or email and be prepared to call people yourself if you're not getting the responses you need.
Hire extra hands instead of a clown?
If I had to choose between hiring a clown or an extra set of hands, I would opt for the extra hands, whether they are in the form of a party helper to circulate and collect plates and cups, or clean up spills, etc. Of course, having grandparents and a spouse/partner help out is even better-and don't forget your babysitter. She might love to make a few extra dollars to help with the party. If, however, you are hiring a clown or magician, setting the date and calling well ahead of time will ensure you get the entertainment you want. For very large parties, hiring help for cooking and/or clean up, etc. is a must.
If you find yourself unable to decide about whether or not to hire help with food or entertainment, take a moment to reconsider what the party is all about. If it's your son's dearest wish to have a magician at his 10th birthday party, but you're concerned about the cost of hosting a large event, look at other options that could make this work. You can always have a very small group of kids who can really enjoy magic tricks with a pro and not invite the 40 kids you think you need to warrant hiring entertainment-you'll significantly decrease the cost of the party by keeping the number down. Or, if your son wants a crowd of people, then go for the crowd and play games in the back yard. Same goes for decisions about renting equipment, catering, and bartending or clean up. It's your party, hire if you want to.
Plan the food
Party food preparation can be stressful for parents who aren't savvy in the kitchen. Depending on how much you want to prepare, set your party time on or off mealtime. It is actually OK not to have your party during mealtime (some parents feel pressured to do this). Remember, the kids are coming to a birthday party, not a restaurant. If the party does not include a meal, you may want to have a few healthy snacks on hand, just in case. Better yet, serve cake at a time when the kids are ready for a snack. This takes a bit of planning, but usually, the kids arrive, do a craft or play a game, then have cake.
Depending on your kitchen comfort, party size, and budget, consider hiring a caterer (for part or all of the food), or pick up something prepared. If you are intimidated by baking, buy a cake or cupcakes from your local grocery or bakery, or opt for box mix cupcakes, which are easier to bake and frost than a layer cake. If you're having a large, catered party, you'll need to work with the caterer well in advance to plan the menu and service. But, if it's just you and a few friends to help, take the number and age of the kids into account, as well as the timing of the party. Of course, you can always have food be the craft or activity of the party, such as an ice cream sundae party. Kids love lining up to make outrageous sundaes. Take a photo of each kid with their creation and voila, instant party!
Shop for party supplies
In the weeks leading up to the party, shop for supplies. I recommend opting for biodegradable plates, cups, and bowls, and using plastic utensils, which you can rinse and toss in your recycling bin or thoroughly wash for re-use. For favors and activities, I make a point to identify items or projects that will actually get use and re-use. For example, for my daughter's 3rd birthday she wanted a "rainbow color party" so I decided to set up tie-dye as the primary activity. It was enormously fun for the kids, and the project resulted in a party favor they could take home and actually get use out of. I should say, however, that this craft was pretty involved and a lot of parental help was needed. Keep this in mind when you plan an activity or craft.
In fact, the age of the kids and the number of kids at the party should factor into which craft you choose. Also, did you hire help or did you invite some of the parents to stay and assist? There are tons of great ideas online to help you choose simple games or craft ideas, or more complex projects. If you shop at a large craft or art supply store, you may be able to get everything you need in one stop, from paper plates for the table, to Popsicle sticks for a project. One of the nice things about shopping for party supplies is that you can get it out of the way as early as you like. Paper goods and decorations can wait in the closet until you're ready to use them.
Post-party clean up
As above, if you have a cleaning service, I recommend scheduling your party for the weekend before the cleaners typically arrive. But immediately after the party, either engage your hired party helper to help with clean up, or don't say no if friends and/or family offer to walk around and pick up stray cups and plates. Be sure to give instructions if you want plastics and other recyclables kept out of the trash. And take care of any immediate spills and stains.
Well-planned parties generally tend to "clean up" better, since things were well organized to begin with. Plan on being pooped after the party, no matter the size or event type. Imagine the clean-up involved with your craft or activity before you nail down that theme. Got a terribly busy work schedule and just don't have much time? You may want to seriously consider keeping the birthday party small and easy so you can enjoy it. If you've hired people to help with catering and clean-up, you'll need to check in with them as they finish up. Make sure you've paid and tipped appropriately and double check to be sure they've covered all the bases you agreed upon.
Ultimately, the party is a celebration of a family milestone. The key ingredient is a fun atmosphere with the people your child loves to be with. Stay sane by keeping things simple, or by hiring help. Your child will be delighted with whatever size and shape birthday party you plan...and if you get stressed or overwhelmed, just remember that the party isn't about you, it's about your child.
Christine Koh is a music and brain scientist who writes about child care issues for Care.com and her website BostonMamas.com.