Birthday Party Season – A Simple Guide on How to Throw a Good Children’s Birthday Party

Summary: Birthday Party Season – A Survivor’s Tale

Ah yes, Birthday party season. It generally kicks in around May and winds down around August. During the summer months we go to about one party per week and sometimes two…occasionally in the same day! After going to so many birthday parties over the last four years some common patterns emerge. The first have to do with party invite etiquette. On the child’s first birthday party it’s really about friends and family. The child has no idea what’s going on and this is generally where they get their first unrestricted taste of sugar. It’s wild to watch their eyes light up like a crack addict taking a hit. There’s no turning back at this point, so if you’re a strict “no sugar” type parent, don’t give the little one any cake. It corrupts their taste buds forever.

However, by the time their second birthday rolls around they’re starting to get a grasp of the idea of presents and special occasions. At this point your invitee list will expand a bit to include a couple of parents you see regularly during play groups or daycare. Your child may have a favorite friend or two, so make sure to invite them as well.

At birthday number three, the madness really kicks. Your child will be looking forward to their birthday. They’ll talk about what presents they want and what they want their cake to look like. They’ll definitely have their list of favorite friends. You to will have your list of friends and family. This is also where the invite list starts to get complicated. Do you invite all of your child’s classmates from preschool or just some of them? Do you invite every child and parent that also invited you to their party? Do you have enough room? What is this going to cost? What is the theme? If your child has any contact with the outside world, either through television, school, or by way of friends, there is a good chance that horses, Star Wars, cowboys, Sponge Bob, Shrek, cars, or princesses are probably in order. What about entertainment? Most likely jump houses, pony rides or piñatas will be on your child’s fantasy list of must have items. Are you going to have a take home gift bag? If so, are you going to build upon the theme of the party or you just throw some bubbles and a couple of plastic trinkets in a plastic bag and be done with it. And what about the location? A big backyard bash, indoors, at the park, a home or public swimming pool, or at the beach?

For the invite list, a good rule of thumb is to never distribute invitations at preschool or day care unless every child is invited. If you’re only selecting a few, then mail them directly or use an online equivalent such as If you were invited and attended another child’s birthday party then it is also proper etiquette to return the invitation to your child’s birthday party. If you were invited to, but didn’t attend the party, your obligation to return the favor is not as critical.

Now on to the nuts and bolts of your child’s birthday party. After being to so many parties as well as being the host to several of our own, I’ve noticed that work wells and some things that just need to change. Some of these observations are universal while some are my personal pet peeves that are hopefully shared by at least some of you.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry…

Food is a general barometer for overall party success. If the food is mediocre, or just plain embarrassing, it kind of drags down the whole event. There are few things as primal as the consumption of food so make it special. The easiest way to do something special it to avoid the crap that everyone else keeps tossing out party after party. This means no more Costco catering. Kirkland Signature Pizza has got to go. Same with cheap supermarket cakes. Whenever I go to a child’s birthday party and I see stacks of white pizza boxes covered in barcodes, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I immediately start scanning the tables for an alternative. Sometimes I can squeak out a meal out of the “fixins” such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, crackers, sliced fruit, and whatever else comes in “stick” “slice” or “dip” form.

At a recent Costco catered skate party at our local roller rink, the day was saved when the host brought in a jar of organic peanut butter, a jar of organic jelly, a loaf of organic whole wheat bread, and organic baby carrots and ranch dressing. Hallelujah! I knew it was meant for the kids but I now had a viable escape route from the Costco pizza gut bomb.

Now on to the cake. Please stop feeding us shit supermarket or Costco cakes that are loaded with hydrogenated fats and contain more sugar than flour. It’s just not acceptable. Drop 40 bucks on a decent cake made at a local bakery. You know, the kind with real butter and cream and more flour and sugar.  If you have to cut something else out of the party budget for the cake, then do it. You want your party to be memorable? This is the where you throw down the cash. We’ve always ordered our cake from The Buttery, a respected bakery in Santa Cruz. It costs a lot, but it is so worth it. You kick out that cake and people hover around it like it’s the baby Jesus. They “oooh” and “aahh” at its splendor and look forward to taking home any extra pieces.

Crappy unhealthy birthday cake ingredients list

Shit supermarket cake. Don't feed me this. It's embarrassing.

Don’t want to spend 40 bucks on a cake? Then bake a pan of brownies and stick some candles in it! Kids don’t care and it will be ten times better than supermarket crap.

So what foods should you bring if you want to delight your gests rather than just merely fill their stomachs? Pizza delivered from a good local pizzeria is always a hit. Set up a barbecue and grill hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, fish, corn on the cob, and make sure to throw in some Boca or Garden Burgers. A deli plate with a variety of breads and spreads is always appreciated. Go to trader Joe’s and get a big container of blueberries. How about fresh strawberries? Baby carrots and ranch dressing is always a safe bet and a favorite healthy food for most young kids. Homemade foods like lasagna, pasta or salads made with organic baby greens. Oh, and never buy the big plastic tubs of pre-cut summer fruits from Costco. They cover them in citric acid to retain the color, and they just taste awful and make your tongue tingle.

Timing is Everything…

How old your child is and how much responsibility you want to assume will pretty much dictate when your party takes place. If you have the party at lunch or dinner time, then a decent meal is expected. If you don’t want to bother with serving people food then have your party mid afternoon and serve snacks and cake. If your kid is three years old and under, the party must start by 11am or after 3pm. Kids need naps. If you don’t want a bunch of grumpy, strung out kids, and irritated parents at your party, do not violate this rule. Keep parties under 2 hours and have the event run smoothly and quickly.

Location, Location, Location…

In real estate they say that location is everything. Children’s birthday parties are no exception. Don’t try to serve food at the beach. Sounds fun but it sucks…especially for the family organizing the party. Wind, sand and food don’t play well together. Have your party on some nice solid ground. If you have it at a park that has picnic tables you better reserve the tables through the local parks department if possible. If not, then expect to get there by 8am to claim your tables. Just tape down some colorful plastic tablecloths on the ones you want and hang a few decorations. It’s now safe to leave and prepare for the party. I’ve never seen anyone re-claim a decorated table.

Community pools that can be privately booked are a great way to go. The kids swim until exhausted then gobble up some food and then go home. Little mess, no dirt or sand and you can even take a shower! Went to one party at Simpkins Swim Center and the host gave out Disney themed towels for the giveaway. How cool is that?

Tis Better to Give Than Receive…

Don’t open presents at the party. The Birthday kid will either have a meltdown or just loose interest. The other kids will want to see what’s inside and will pester the parents and the birthday child to open them up. Cards will be lost or misplaced, wrapping paper will go everywhere, toys will get broken right away, kids will fight over who gets to play with each toy first, and the birthday child will cry…it’s just awful. Tell everyone right up front. We will not open the presents today!

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of…

You want to impress your buddies? Then put up a 52″ plasma screen with a kick-ass surround sound system and put it in front of a $3,000 leather couch.

Kids however have different dreams.

One of the most obvious are Jump Houses. Jump Houses are just awesome. They’re a great way to have a “big event” type atmosphere at even the most rag tag backyard party. Just set it up and the kids can just come and go as they please without any pressure to do a synchronized activity.

Piñatas are really fun and cheap. Kids love them. Unfortunately, kids will also jump off a freeway overpass to get a piece of candy so take precautions with a piñata. If the children are five and under don’t even bother blindfolding them or spinning them. You’ll be there all day as they keep missing over and over and when they do connect the blows are so soft it hardly makes a dent. Let them get in a good hit with eyes wide open. Also, the parents need to hold the children back while the child is swinging. It’s truly frightening to watch a bunch of children dive to the first piece of candy that falls out of the piñata while the other child is still swinging the stick like a madman.

If three year olds swinging sticks make you cringe you can also get a smashless piñata. They have a trap door on the bottom and kids take turns pulling on long ribbons that attach to the belly. Only one of the ribbons opens the trapdoor and releases the candy. It’s less risky and you can reuse the piñata. There are also converter kits that help you to change your “smash-my-head-in” piñata into a “pull my string” one.

Pony rides. Most kids love pony rides, especially girls. In my area expect to pay $250 to $350 for a couple of ponies and a crew. Depending on your income level and priorities the cost of having pony rides at your child’s birthday party may be a ridiculously high extravagance, an affordable luxury, or just a minor expense in an already big budget bash.

Get Creative and Start Planning

A great party doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does take some planning. Just sitting down for a few hours to plan the big day will do wonders for your stress level and for the quality of the party experience. The great thing is, at least for most men, all we have to do is just show up and carry some stuff. Chances are your female partner will be doing all the serious planning. So stay out of her way and just approve of what every she’s doing. I’m sure it will be awesome.

And for all the women reading this don’t play the martyr. You know that that your family’s social life would be nonexistent if it wasn’t for your diligent planning. You also know you prefer it that way. Do you really want your man sticking his nose in your planning? Do you really want to answers questions like “Uh, what’s a gift bag?” or ” Uh, why do we need a theme?”

Heck, my daughter wouldn’t even have presents if it wasn’t for my partner’s skills. Whether it’s Christmas or her 5th birthday it’s just as much as a surprise to me when she opens her presents!

“Wow! Is that what we got her? Cool!”

Now get out there and start partying!

That’s it for now.

File Under: Kid’s Birthday Party Tips and Tricks, Children’s Birthday Party Planning, Advice on Creating a Great Children’s Birthday Party

11 Responses to “Birthday Party Season – A Simple Guide on How to Throw a Good Children’s Birthday Party”

  • Sarah Tena Says:

    Hi, mother of 2 here, I have a 1 year party and 4 year party coming up. This was great, hilarious, and so true! I’m sending this to my mom. As a matter a fact, I just volunteered to bake for a friend’s child so we didn’t have to eat store bought cake. Hope I can deliver!


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Hello Sarah, thanks for your comment. Good going on making a real cake. I refuse to eat store bought cake. Just…can’t…do…it. I’d like to start a movement to banish the cheap and easy catering. All the parties just start blending together. No variety. Used to be when you went to a party it had a special vibe that was unique to that family’s viewpoint. You may not like everything, but there was no mistaking they put some thought into it and had distinct preferences. Now kids parties are mostly clones of each other. How sad.


  • Brenda Says:

    Too true about those hideous store bought cakes. The ‘ingredients’ lists scare me to death. And as you say the cake is the highlight of the party so every parent should have a go at making one.


  • Jamie Says:

    What an absolutely delightful and refreshing blog. Not the usual syrupy stuff. You’re so right about the store bought cake it’s…
    I will most certainly be returning.
    .-= Jamie´s lastest blog ..Magic Genie Jasmine Child Costume =-.


  • Nick Says:

    I agree with you on 99% of everything you said. That is with the acception of opening presents. I fully understand the point you make and it is valid. But if you’re having people over I would almost consider it rude to take a present from them and not take the time to open and thank them personally.

    I love your comments about food! You are absolutely dead on. Food will make or break the entire event. I too can’t stand the cheap pizza but pizza from a local restaurant can be fantastic. If I had to choose between good food or a good location I would go with food first. However, that’s just my opinion.
    .-= Nick´s lastest blog ..School Break Activities for Kids =-.


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Yeah, i figured the presents one was not going to be widely supported. I just think it really drags down a party and makes a huge mess. Of course if you do it later, you must follow up with a hand written thank you card.

    I’ll take good food as well. Serve some killer sushi or Thai and I’ll go to party in an alley and sit on garbage cans if need be.


  • Michal Levison Says:

    HILARIOUS!!! Great post…We just threw our daughter’s second birthday party and I think I abided by most of your guidelines – local pizzeria pizza, local gourmet deli wraps, and all the sweets were homemade (except the Costco rainbow cookies). Cupcakes, birthday cake, cookies, etc. were made by mom! As were the tutus, halos, party hats, etc. that the kids wore throughout the party.

    It’s more work and planning, but SOOOOOOO worth it.If you’re interested in seeing the results:


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    All I’ve got to say is WOW! It’s a shame that in three years she won’t remember how awesome it was…you will though!


  • jennie Says:

    Oh I wish i hadn’t just read this! I have two kids 16 mos apart and as the littlest one turns two in two weeks I was going to break down and…buy costco sandwhiches, fruit plate, cake, etc. to my husband”s dismay! But wait! Why? because we for the last 4 birthday events we have…roasted a whole pig, bbq a ton of various meats and vegetables, bought ridiculous cakes from vegan bakeries (allergies), planned unstructured activities (last event kids potted plants for favors and activity…imagine a gang of 3 and unders with shovels and clay pots, two flats of flowers, buckets of rocks, soil, water…)and I was just about to stop the madness and planning to go generic…but darnit saw this post and back to the drawing board 🙂 roasted pig here we come again!


    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Well, perhaps you have a well earned pass coming due. Your parties sound amazing! I still wouldn’t do Costco but maybe you could skip the pig and the elaborate activities but still keep it real. We just had our third “Halloween Birthday Party” for my daughter this past May and we swore that this one would be the last. I’m going to post the highlights soon. Yes, the haunted house was amazing, the dry ice was a huge hit, and the zombie in the coffin was groovy, but we can’t sustain that elaborate of a production again. However, we will never serve shitty food, even if we had a party in an alley with folding chairs. That’s a non-negotiable demand.


  • christmas crackers Says:

    xmas crackers…

    […]Childrens Birthday Party Season – Tips for Throwing Great Kids Birthday Parties | Straight Dope Dad | A Father's View on Parenting[…]…

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