Children’s birthdays are exciting events that give every kid something to look forward to all year long, but for the adults tasked with planning a birthday party, the to-do list can build up and quickly become stressful. Whether you’re planning a Pinterest-worthy celebration for dozens of guests or a small family affair that just focuses on having a great time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when realizing just how much preparation is involved.
In this article, we put together a step-by-step guide on how to plan a birthday party that is sure to be a success. The tips below will help you to plan a birthday party for any child between the ages of one and 12. Older children (13 and up) are usually willing and wanting to help with their own birthday planning. However, until you reach that long-awaited stage, use the tips and tricks below to make planning a birthday party easy!
1. Create Your Guest List & Budget
Before you begin any birthday planning, it’s crucial to set your budget first-thing in order for your plans to go accordingly. Setting aside an up-front budget ensures that you don’t blow too much money in one area of your party and not leave yourself enough room for another. By deciding in advance how much cash to allocate to each party category in advance, you can more easily enforce your budget (as long as it’s realistic, of course).
However, before you can choose the budget, you need to start by determining an estimate of how many people will be attending and who those people are. There are two main reasons for this:
- If you are planning to play host to a big crowd, you’ll probably want to consider choosing a budget-friendly location that won’t need much in the way of décor (i.e. a local park or skating rink); this will leave you with more funds for food and activities.
- Many people have food allergies that you may not be aware of. Unless you know every person who will be in attendance at your event, you may want to dedicate some cash to buying a variety of alternate snacks.
To sum up, start by getting your guest list in order, then create your budget.
2. Choose a Party Theme
Next, it’s time for the most exciting part of planning a birthday party – choosing a theme! Kids’ parties allow for lots of creativity when it comes to the theme. There are all kinds of party themes available, for kids of every age and interest. You could go with something classic and fun (such a farmyard theme), or add a more personal touch with a theme that reflects your child’s interests (such as a Space theme for a science fiction fan).
You have the flexibility to choose how involved your party theme will be. You can go all-out with a Hawaiian luau, or you may just need a simple setup with a theme that matches your child’s favorite color or animal. Preschool-aged children probably tend to be less picky about their party setup, allowing you to choose a more generic theme such as pirate, princess or dinosaur. Older kids (elementary and up) will probably enjoy something closely-tailored to their interests. If your child loves a certain character, TV show or toy, search for a party theme for it. If you can’t find one, discuss possible alternatives with him/her to agree on something he/she will love.
The theme will really help set the basis for how you decorate the event, the types of foods you serve, and which activities may make sense for the party. If you have a party theme in mind, a quick Google Shopping search will reveal which online retailers carry your desired theme. If you have party stores around, give them a call and get a price comparison if they carry your theme. Many party themes, especially currently popular ones, include a pretty full line of tableware, decorations, themed favors and invitations. Comparison shop for the best prices.
3. Selecting Your Venue
The next piece to the puzzle of planning a birthday party is a final decision on where to host the party. The obvious choices are your home or a public venue. Here are a few pros and cons of each:
- At your home:
- Pro: you can set up the party more easily
- Pro: it’s easier to get the food to the party
- Pro: you don’t have to worry about coordinating your own travel to a separate venue
- Con: you’ll need to clean your home before guests arrive as well as when they leave
- Con: you may not have the room for all the guests
- At a venue:
- Pro: easier setup/tear down; minimal cleanup
- Pro: depending on the location, activities and food may be handled for you
- Pro: more space for each guest
- Con: venues can tend to get pricey
- Con: children will need even more supervision than they would in a home
An important element in every child’s birthday party is an adequate amount of room for games, play time and activities. A park is a great option, but if you want to limit how much you have to do in the way of activity planning, consider venues like arcades, bowling alleys, skating rinks, indoor trampoline gyms or pools.
4. Send Out the Invitations
With most of the major details figured out, you can now start preparing invitations to send out to prospective guests. Most themed party invitations include spaces for the party date, time, location and RSVP information. Make sure to include any other information your guests need, such as if they need to inform you of food allergies, if they need to dress up in a certain theme, etc.
Classic snail-mail-style invitations are still popular. Most current party lines also offer matching themed invitations with space inside to write your information. The invitation package should come with envelopes, but will obviously not include stamps. If you choose to send out snail-mail invites, you lose the advantage of a quick response, you need addresses of everyone you want to invite and it’s going to cost a little money.
A quick-and-easy alternative is to send out digital invitations via an email platform (such as Gmail) or to create a social media event (such as Facebook) and invite people. This method is free, very quick and instant, but can take the personal touch out of a classic birthday party. When you plan a birthday party, it never hurts to go above and beyond!
5. Iron Out the Menu & Acquire a Cake
If you’re planning your birthday party at home or at a place that doesn’t cater, trying to plan for snacks and meals for a party can be frustrating and overwhelming. The tips below may help you decide what you will and won’t include in your party smorgasbord:
- If you’re hosting the party during the day, you will most likely need to serve a full meal along with enough snacks to keep everyone satisfied until they go home.
- Summer Party? BBQ! Winter Party? Pizza! … Well, maybe it’s not quite that simple, but summer goes great with classic hamburgers, hot dogs, chips and other cookout foods, while winter parties hosted indoors may be better off with order-in food like pizza or easy-to-prep meals.
- Can you easily incorporate the party theme in to your foods? Check online for food and dessert ideas relating to your theme.
- Do you have guests coming that have food allergies or special diet needs? If you aren’t sure, consider buying a few alternative snacks to cover your bases.
- Consider a potluck! Having guests chip in on the food can really help to take stress off of you and your wallet. If you do this, mention it in your invitation and remind people to bring only what’s within their budget.
Now on to the second-most anticipated event of every party — cake and ice cream! Themed birthday cakes or cupcakes are always a great way to go, but it’s planner’s choice how to decorate. Many party stores sell themed cake decorations and kits, as well as cupcake rings and decorations. This is a quick, easy way to complete your ensemble.
If you’d like something more personal, many bakeries can print an image onto one of their cakes for you. Most places, however, will only print images that belong to you; if you want a themed or licensed image, a cake decoration is probably the best way to go.
Lastly, if you’re the crafty sort, most bakeries also sell generic or blank cakes and a plethora of cake decorating supplies. Frosting, sprinkles, candles, edible decorations and more can allow you to craft the perfect custom cake for your little one.
6. Plan Games, Activities, and Favors
In the event that you’ve decided to host your birthday party at home or a venue without scheduled activities, the task of planning party games and events is left to you. Children — especially younger ones — will be far more interested in stimulating activities than they will the food, decorations or cake design.
Birthday party supplies and activities will vary greatly depending on the time of the year, the venue, and the theme. Water balloons, foam noodles and absorbent toys are perfect for pool parties; tag, scavenger hunts and flag football are great ideas for a party held at the park; and things such as indoor crafts, classic party games and even competitive video games are sure to keep kids entertained when it’s too cold to play outside.
Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Piñatas and Musical Chairs are timeless favorites at birthday parties, but also consider activities like crafts, face painting and bubble blowing machines.
If you really want to go all-out, there are options like renting a bounce house or having your party at the pool. For events like these, be sure to have plenty of adults around to supervise and assist in case of emergencies.
Many birthday parties also include party favors that the guests can take home. Simple mystery grab bags of candy and small toys make exciting party favors and at-the-door handouts for entering guests. Favors can also be incorporated into games and activities. Play games and hand out prizes, hold scavenger hunts, or have the kids decorate their own party hats or favor cups to take home.
Some Final Birthday Party Planning Tips
The last section of this article contains some additional tips to help you smoothly plan for your big day. While not required, the below suggestions can help take additional stress off of you and will help make the party more fun for everyone!
Allot Estimate Times for Each Activity
With kids, it’s not easy to create a minute-by-minute schedule for a party; you never know when a spontaneous game of tag will take over. However, to help make sure nothing is rushed or forgotten, jot down your visions of the party: what time to serve food and snacks, how much time each activity and game should take, when you plan to cut the cake and when you’d like to open gifts. Give the kids a reasonable length of time to participate in each game and activity, then dedicate some time to eating and clean up, and finally some time for gifts and general horsing around.
If you’ve rented a venue or party accessories, give yourself enough time to clean up/return anything rented so that you won’t get charged any extra money.
Make an Emergency Plan
Finally, be sure to have an emergency plan in place in case something goes wrong. Maybe the weather ruins your plans for an outdoor party or the bakery made a mistake with your cake. Try to give yourself enough time to respond accordingly if one of the major areas of your party doesn’t go as planned.
Enlist the help of any willing adult or responsible teen to assist in watching the little ones! Don’t try to do everything on your own; you’ve got enough to worry about and any help will be welcome on the day of. Planning in case of constituencies is the mark of a great birthday event planner!
If you’re super-organized, designate someone to be in charge of transporting food, someone else to be in charge of documenting the day with photos, someone else to keep track of which gifts came from which guests (for thank you cards later), and still others in charge of keeping an eye on safety.
The General Party Planning Timeline
You’re now on your way to planning a fantastic birthday party for your child, but how do you know when you should be sending out invitations, ordering the cake, shopping for the essentials (tableware, favors, decorations), or securing the venue? Below is a quick timeline to help you optimize your party plans.
Two months before:
- Determine the theme, budget and guest list
- Book your chosen venue and reserve any needed equipment or party supplies (helium tanks, tables & chairs, etc.)
Five weeks before:
- Send out the invitations
- Shop for your party essentials (tableware, decorations, favors, games and other accessories). If shopping online, order your supplies as early as possible and check that everything is in order when it reaches you
Two weeks before:
- Finalize your food menu and order your cake. If your bakery routinely gets a lot of business, you might need to place your cake order sooner
- Create your ideal party schedule and finalize your back-up plans
One week before:
- Call anyone who hasn’t RSVP’d
- Confirm the venue and any entertainment or party rentals you have booked
- If you’re having a large party and you know your child will be receiving lots of new toys, consider going through their current toys to make room for new items
Two days before:
- Shop for the party food and prep anything you can. If you’re planning to order in large quantities from a restaurant, now may be a good time to call and place your order
- Wrap the gifts
- If holding the party at your home, make sure that areas that will be occupied are clean and free of hazards
- Finish buying any supplies you may still need for food, games or activities
The day before:
- If you plan to take pictures, make sure your camera is fully charged
- Do all the decorating & assembling
- Prep any remaining food items you can and set up the party area
- Confirm your cake pick-up time with the bakery, or make the cake. Leave candles, matches and decorations in a place where you can easily find them in the midst of all the hubbub
The day of:
- Finish any remaining food prep, last-minute decorating and any other remaining assembly or set-up
- Put out the favors and food
- Attach a sign or balloons to your mailbox so guests can find you
- Do a final sweep to make sure everything is ready for when your guests arrive
Congratulations! You’ve made it through all the hard work and planned a near-perfect party. Sit back, relax and enjoy yourself; you deserve fun, too!
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