Who are we kidding? I know that in the early years, my children’s parties were a test of just how long my body could run on coffee, adrenaline and icing alone. They were over-prepared and over-catered affairs that had me jumping through hoops that no one had set for me, but me. Everything had to be perfect - the children would remember these events for the whole of their lives. Adults had to be catered for too, with a table and menu of their own. I gave in to the pressure of trying to impress the grown-ups as much as the children.
As the children have got older, I’ve taken a chill pill; and have found that when you focus completely on keeping the children happy, it makes for a much more fun party and a smoother ride for the planner/organiser/games instigator and of course, cook. So, with the benefit of experience and precious hindsight, these are my tips for staying happy, healthy and sane in the run-up to a (virtually) hassle-free birthday celebration.
Bear in mind that this advice is given to you by a food-obsessive and, secretly, my favourite party was when I over-catered so massively that I was able to send all the adults home with their own food platters, so they could have a Saturday night off from cooking once the children were in bed. I really don’t advise doing this, as I was cooking for days before the event. Do as much, or as little, as interests you.
However, do remember that sitting down and sharing food together is the cement that bonds all human relationships, even nascent ones; and will probably be the only point in time that the children will refrain from running around in concentric circles whilst screaming at the tops of their lungs and laughing maniacally. Bonne chance et bon courage!
1) Choose a theme.
This will guide your thoughts, ideas and workload, but make it age-appropriate. An English Cream Tea theme for a first birthday party allowed me to indulge my, frankly knackered friends while their youngsters happily sat and gored voluptuous, weaning-friendly berries with their newly-budded teeth. The birthday cake was an extension of this theme, as you can see, and a strawberry shortcake stack was a treat children and adults alike.
Older children will invariably have some ideas to contribute. Pirates and princesses, horrible histories, a day at the movies, and Super Mario make-your-own-pizza parties all provide inspiration for the food to prepare and allow everyone to dress up easily. And I do mean everyone. Make all feel welcome by encouraging parents to dress up and express their fun-loving proclivities too! Being inclusive about costumes, games and food adds to the ambience.
2) Book early.
This will give you the pick of party slots. Try to choose a time that naturally falls over a mealtime appropriate to the age of the children invited. When you are going to the trouble of catering, feeding the children at a time they are likely to be hungry will see the minimum amount of waste. In addition, you’ll be the playground pariah if you send over-excited children home still needing to be fed because the only slot you could get fell between lunch and tea.
Early invitations will also potentially allow you to change dates (especially if hosting at home), when you realise you’ve arranged the party for Easter weekend and everyone is away! (Yes, really. I am that mother.)
3) Get help!
Whether you’re hiring-in entertainers or any other professionals, always ensure you have an early commitment to help from the real experts – other parents. Safely supervising, feeding and clearing up after tens of under-10s needs all hands on deck. Don’t try to do it alone.
This approach helped me answer the thorny question of whether to provide alcohol for any attendant parents, too. I’ve never thought this was appropriate at a children’s party, and because I’ve learnt to say “yes” when someone offers to help me (and a clear head is a necessity to really help make a party swing), I always invite people back or to stay late to say “Thankyou” over a glass of wine afterwards. Many impromptu “aftershow” parties have started this way!
4) Choose hot food.
People always assume that cold food is easier to prepare, but I find nothing as soul-destroying as spending the morning of the party making endless sandwiches that go curly and barely-touched, because the children see the same food at every party.
For a “Grease”-themed party, I made all the food in just two slow cookers (one my own, one easily-borrowed). Taking my influence from American diners and food the children would have eaten if they had indeed been “stranded at the drive-in”, I turned platters of tortilla chips into striking table centrepieces and a sustaining meal by topping with a made-well-ahead flavourful, yet mild chilli (“con carne” or “sin carne” – your choice) and sprinkled with pre-grated bags of cheese to make mountains of nachos. Good quality “franks” were brought along in the second slow cooker. Simply plugged in when we arrived at the venue, the slow cookers reheated gently and thoroughly whilst we all watched the children enjoying their first hour’s activity. Five minutes of teamwork before the children came into the party room to eat, saw hot dogs, chilli dogs and nachos ready to go, and going down a storm with children and adults alike.
The beauty of choosing dishes you can cook in advance is that the birthday children can help out. They really appreciate their parties if they have engaged in the process, and can beam with pride on the day when they are complimented on their (invariably lavishly over-adorned) cupcakes. (On that note, presentation is paramount at a child’s celebration. Arrange all dishes on large, beautiful platters and cakestands so that they are showstopping and enticing).
Obviously, the other benefit of making-ahead is that it spreads the workload to create a less frenetic timetable near the main event. Something like the chilli mentioned above can be made up to a month ahead and frozen. Once defrosted, you can add some chopped fresh vegetables for crunch if you so desire, and then reheat. However, don’t fret too much about making the party food healthy. Most people understand that parties are about joy, and spending the whole time cajoling little ones to eat their broccoli is no fun for anyone.
Especially, your offspring! I was shocked by just how many of my friends can describe their childhood birthday cakes in reverent detail. So this is where I recommend you focus your energies. Whether bought or homemade, your chosen cake will be in everyone’s photos of the moment the birthday girl/boy blows out their candles; and may be used as evidence against you in therapy sessions for years to come.
Even the grown-ups remember the birthday cake at the parties you’ve hosted. People still comment on the chocolate piñata cakes I’ve made for my children in the past. They are very easy to make with the right equipment, as they are essentially a large chocolate shell filled with sweets; but it’s all about the spectacle. They make for dramatic theatre when bashed open by the birthday child spraying a rainbow of jewel-coloured, wrapped sweets for all their friends to pounce upon.
Making exciting birthday cakes doesn’t have to be hard, so don’t be put-off doing it yourself. I’m simply discerning about helping my children to choose designs that keep me within my very limited cake-decorating comfort zone! Most of the real-life cakes pictured here were borne of ideas that I knew to be achievable with a block of sponge cake, a bread knife and enough icing to cover a multitude of sins.
Beware the current trend of cakes (especially cupcakes) that look delicious, but are so disappointing to taste. Elevate a bog standard sponge to one people are happy to cram into their cakehole by packing the mixture with flavours like lemon and vanilla seed, chocolate chip marbling, or white chocolate and raspberry.
6) Party bags.
These are regarded as an immutable entitlement by children’s party invitees. One friend forgot to bring them to her daughter’s party and she was still being hounded in the playground by disgruntled seven year-olds, three weeks after the event! The spirit with which they were traditionally given, and received, has been forgotten in my opinion, so I try recreate that generosity of spirit.
Far nicer, I think, is for the birthday child/children to make their own tokens to give to friends to thank them for their gifts, and for coming. Now you know I’m going to suggest food gifts, but they can be made well-ahead of time and show genuine gratitude and a personal touch. They’re also a great way to fill a wet afternoon.
Peppermint creams, chocolate truffles and buttery fudge are all incredibly simple for children to make, work out far cheaper than sourcing fiddly bits for girls and separate fiddly bits for boys, and look beautiful in brightly-hued napkin- or doily-lined jars, tins or boxes. Equally, a be-ribboned children’s cookbook from Usborne or The Book People, or a pretty/cool notebook containing some of your child’s tried and tested, hand-written recipes (with space for their guest to fill with their own favourites), is a legacy gift; a passing of the foodie baton. As such, they are always appreciated.
Kate Rowe is a witty cook, food writer and mother to two daughters who believes that ‘Food is the way to bond, nourish, educate and show love’. She shares her passion for food in our blog through her mummy friendly recipes and with an extra pinch of humour.
The Half-Pint Mummies have a few additional suggestions if you are looking for an entertainer for a childrens party - there are hundreds out there and in our experience the best include the following:-
Bertie & Boo - available as a single or double act - magic, games, dancing and songs. What we especially loved was that they take the children as they arrive and engage their attention immediately. This removes that awkward moment of your children not wanting to leave their parents.
Mr Marvel - magic and games but the look on the childrens' faces when he pulls a REAL LIVE rabbit out of a hat will live with you forever. We love how he entertains before lunch/tea and then brings out his karoke/foam and bubble machine afterwards giving you time to clear up before the kids leave for home. There are lots of different Mr Marvels and all the ones we have experienced have been fantastic.
Sharky and George - Good old fashioned fun whatever your child is in to as they do it all from Girly to Disco to Survival to sport parties - certainly parties to be remembered (we heard on the grapevine that they have been used by The Royal Family - whatever is good enough for them ...!)
Funky Moves Dance - if your child is into shaking his or her thing then this is the one for you - get their feet moving and burn off some energy. Your child is able to pick his/her favourite song and the professional dancers teach all the children a special routine to the music - next stop Britains Got Talent!