I’m a mom who has hosted many a party for my two young boys. I also operate my own business catering to people with young children, mainly 6 years old and under. I help these people throw wonderful birthday celebrations for the special littles in their lives. I see a lot of happy faces, memories made, and families reunited for the sole purpose of honouring a young person’s birth and life. I also see A LOT of waste. Full drinks dumped down the drain, cakes with only the icing scraped off, and untouched pizzas filed away in the garbage. Having worked in the hospitality industry in the past as well, wasted food has always bothered me; especially when you think of how many people out there would do anything to take home that discarded pizza pie.
No, I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone reading this. I would also be a complete liar if I said I never throw anything away. I grew up in a Polish family and underestimating how much food is needed for an event has never been our problem. I can go overboard and I have a nasty habit of assuming people can eat as much as I can (which is quite a bit). Including children…
Anyhoo, in an attempt to help parents, grandparents, foster parents, aunts, uncles, and anyone else out there who is thinking of throwing their pride and joy a super awesome birthday bash I’m going to share what I have seen work well and what has failed miserably.
Food: There are the typical kid-friendly foods that work well for birthday parties; pizza and hot dogs being the most popular. However, most parents will give their children a snack of some kind before they head off to your kid’s party because 99% of the under-3-foot-tall set are picky eaters who will turn up their noses at whatever you are planning to serve. Soooo, mom and dad may or may not pre-feed their child to avoid embarrassing empty tank syndrome. Have some healthy appetizers like cut fruit or cheese and crackers at the ready.
Having a celebration at home obviously gives you more flexibility when it comes to your party menu however, if you are planning a party at a play centre, bowling alley, or amusement centre you might not be able to bring your own food. If you are having the party outside your home talk to the owners of the business. These days, with food allergies and sensitivities in children on the rise, you might be able to come up with an alternate menu that will take everyone’s needs into account. Regardless of the arrangements, keep the food simple and easy to eat. Here are a few ideas to help eliminate food waste:
- Brown bag it! Make fun little lunches for everyone and put them in paper bags with each child’s name on it. I always recommend talking to parents of invitees and find out about any food allergies. This way you can make sure each child enjoys their customized meal and it’s safe.
- Finger foods. Little hands do better with little food. If you’re having pizza, cut it into squares rather than long awkward slices. Make mini sandwiches and pinwheels. I saw one family bring in hot dogs cut up into small pieces and then baked inside corn muffins (think mini corn dogs). Also try a meal on a stick; cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and some rolled up sandwich meat. Kebabs for wee hands = perfect.
- Keep it simple. I have seen parents fret over why the littles aren’t eating the mini quiches or rice paper avocado rolls (seriously, I have seen this) and then have to deal with hunger-induced temper tantrums. For some parents, this is the hard thing to hear; not every child likes sushi. If you have a mini foodie at home, that’s awesome! However, your son’s classmates likely do not have the same sophisticated palate. If you want to get fancy, save that for the other parents (if you invite them to stay for the duration of the party). Wow THEM with your culinary skills. For the kids, you can stick to ham & cheese or even PB&J and they will be happy. Trust me.
- Offer choice. Kids love, LOVE making their own decisions. Give them the tools to build their own meal and you’re pretty much good to go. Set out a variety of breads, crackers, fillings, and condiments and let them go to town! My boys love making their own chicken and cheese burritos rolled up in mini tortillas. Personally I think they are the driest sammies ever created but they love them. No butter, no mayo, not even mustard. Weirdos.
- Beverages: Forgo the cups! They spill. Provide small water bottles – I wouldn’t bother with full-sized bottles because, even though the kidlets will be running around and working up a sweat, they rarely finish a whole 500 ml serving. There are companies that make 330 ml bottles, so get those. If you can manage it provide juice boxes. Even better, if you can find smaller juice boxes (like Junior Juice) I would go with those. OH! I almost forgot – I see countless juice boxes go to waste because kids forget which one was theirs and they don’t want to risk getting cooties from another pint-sized party guest. Provide markers and label each and every water bottle and juice box. They will likely finish their drink if they know 100% only their own backwash is in it.
Cakes: Kidlets don’t have a lot of room in their tummies. If you try to feed them cake after getting them to eat a whole hot dog, you are going to have many, many plates of left over cake with only the icing scraped off. I promise. I have seen whole pieces of cake thrown away. Heck! I have even seen 3/4 of a slab cake dumped in the garbage because even the parents didn’t want to take it home and deal with it. My suggestion; cupcakes, mini cupcakes, or cake pops. And I’ll say it, cake pops are my favourite option out of them all. Each provides just enough sweetness to round out the meal and you aren’t dealing with a massive sugar overload (and crash). Hire a cake maker to do them for you or invest in a cake pop maker. Dead easy to DIY!
Pinatas: Pinatas are great fun but can be a hassle. They can also be dangerous. I kid you not, there is an online group who talk about pinatas in relation to gang activity and as a gateway to future violent behaviour (www.downwithpinatas.com). Weird, eh? Anyway, pinatas are also messy. And heavy. And hard to hang. And hard to break. And…and…and…How do you still give kids the fun of a pinata while keeping things safe and exciting? Try finding pull string pinatas that eliminate the whole whacking-with-a-stick-and-accidentally-giving-someone-a-bloody-nose-or-swollen-junk aspect. Or you can make a punch box where the kidlets punch through a hole covered with tissue paper and pull out a prize. Just google “pinata alternatives” for a whole whack of ideas. Tee hee…whack.
Loot bags: Ask any parent and many will tell you they hate loot bags. They hate making them and they hate taking them home. Usually loot bags are filled with dollar store toys that break five minutes after the child starts playing with them. Or, worse still, if there are siblings who weren’t invited to the party, seeing their brother or sister come home with a bag full of goodies usually starts a fight. I’ve seen it first hand. Why not try something different? One mom I know gave away home-made candy apples with sprinkles. All of the kids loved them and I was able to cut it in half for both of my own boys to share later. Another mom I know gave away $5 gift cards to the local book store along with a thank you note signed by the birthday child. There are a million loot bag options to replace the candy and plastic toy idea.
Gifts: To open or not to open? That is the question. This topic has been getting a lot of attention lately. We all love the idea of our children surrounded by friends and family and graciously accepting gifts while using their “pleases and thank yous”. It really depends on the setting and the ages of the children but truthfully, I have never seen this happen in groups of less than three kids. Yes, the grown ups love seeing the look of surprise on cute faces and yes, as parents we want our children to show gratitude for the gifts they have been given. But in reality, what I see about 70% of the time is a group of kids very excited to give their gift and watch it be opened but then they want to take off and play again. If it’s a large group of children getting them to sit through the opening of every. single. gift is torture for them. They are having too much fun playing with their buddies. At one party I recall the birthday girl asking if she could stop opening presents because all of her friends were sneaking off to play in the jumpy castle and she wanted to join them.
Granted, this is a situation that is completely up to the parents/party organizers. Showing gratitude is very important, I agree. But if you choose to take the gifts home, ensure the child writes a thank you note or calls everyone to express her appreciation.
Every family, every child, every celebration is different. Do what works best for you, your special little, and your little’s friends. Above all, don’t stress and remember to take in the event because it will be over before you know it. Oh, and take lots of pictures!!!