Reader Interactions


  1. If you do want to do “goodies” for the guests, plants are a wonderful option. Three of our kids have spring birthdays and we generally give annual flowers or seed packets with a little pot to decorate and things like that. Six packs of flowering annuals are very affordable and I just cut them into singles. Children at our birthday parties have always gotten really excited about taking home their own flowers. We’ve also offered veggie annuals of popular veggies like cherry tomatoes but the flowers have been the biggest hits with boys and girls alike.

  2. I never really understood goodie bags. I remember having friends who gave them out and they were sort of a novelty because we didn’t do them at my parties. My mom always has us (my sister and I) host activity parties, like making a craft project or baking something edible (like homemade pizza). Come to think of it we never really did those traditional party games, like pinatas or pin the tail on the donkey, either. I never knew I was “missing out” because my parties were fun.

    • Kara,
      That’s often my philosophy – if the child is happy, because they don’t know there’s a world of Chuckie Cheese and copious candy and, and, and…then they are happy. And that’s all that matters. My in-laws offered to bring themed goodies to Paul’s family birthday gathering this coming weekend, and he said, “I really just want balloons and streamers. No, no throw away plates!” Love. That. Keeping it simple can keep everyone happy. :)

      I remember doing a lot of “build your own cupcake” and stuff when I was little, and it’s so much fun! Homemade mini pizzas are on my “someday” list for when my kids are a little older, too. I’m so glad to hear that you have great memories of “make it” parties!
      :) Katie

      • We have done the DIY pizza parties before. The easy solution is to figure out what size bar type pan fits 2 side in your oven. Then make/buy tortilla shess the right size to fit 2 on each pan. The tortilla shells crisp up for a thin crust and you can bake 4 at a time which means less wait time. We use the jar pizza sauce and dice up all the veggies ahead of time. Its amazing how many veggies they are wiling to try when they pick them out themselves. Bake the mini pizzas ~20 minutes at 375 degrees. Each oven is a bit different, so I would suggest a “test run” prior to the party.

        • sorry for the typos. guess my brain and fingers are having a tough time communicating tonite.

  3. Love this post, Katie!

    We just started offering our kids a choice of birthday parties this year. They can choose a “friends” party at home or a “family” party out. The friends party is the traditional one you mention – the family party means they can pick a restaurant for our family to go to together as well as a park to play at afterward. They also get to go to the toy store with Daddy and pick out a gift if they choose a family party (a real treat around here!). So far this year, two out of three kids have chosen the family party and my stress levels have been much lower!

    I also really love Stubby Pencil Studio for finding traditional party favors that aren’t a complete waste.

  4. I just ordered a big flat of succulents and cacti to send to school as end of year gifts. I dread school parties because my two school aged children come home with bags and bags of junk toys that break after 10 minutes and end up in the landfill, or the worst kind of candy (fun dip, anyone?) The bags are never reusable either! And I have to keep the choking hazards away from the littles! At my 5 year old’s last birthday we ate PB&j’s, homemade cake and played in the sprinklers. I gave out inflated beach balls, which are made of yucky vinyl, but they last a long time. Sorry for the long comment, you struck a nerve here! :)

  5. These are such great ideas, Katie!
    We just celebrated our daughter’s 4th last weekend and a couple of things we incorporated into our party to keep the waste down were:

    -we had an ice cream theme, so I found some cute plastic (reusable) ice cream bowls that kids had their snack/ice cream in and then took home as a favor. It worked out great! They also took home the coloring sheet they did, and a felt craft. No goodie bags!

    -It was in my backyard so aside from juice boxes, the rest of the food/drinks were served in washable dishes. You’re right. Putting it all in the dishwasher isn’t much harder than throwing it all in the trash!

    -as for snacks, all we had were bunny crackers, strawberries and then a bit later, ice cream as a treat. I just planned the party to fall between meal times!

  6. I was just thinking yesterday of options for my 4 year old’s birthday party this fall (I am trying to plan early as we are having a baby this summer, haha) so this was perfect to read this morning, thanks!

  7. I love this post! I couldn’t agree more with reducing the waste and general excess associated with children’s birthday parties. I try to do all of these things with all of our parties (children and grown-up!). So much about being “green” really comes from common sense and realizing we can do a lot more with a lot less.

    When I was a kid I was one of the lucky one’s who had a summer birthday so my parties were always swim parties. Kids would show up, we’d swim for 2 hours, sing happy birthday, eat cake, and go home. No fuss, just fun. That’s my birthday party motto.

    My daughter will turn seven on her next birthday and the plan she and I have is that she and two friends will go with me to a museum of her choice and have a grown-up lunch together.

  8. For my kid’s birthday, we only do gifts with the family. For the kid party, we ask each child to bring a book and then we do a book exchange between all the kids. Every child goes home with a new book and the parents LOVE it!

  9. My apologies to all if these ideas have already been offered:

    1. Theme the party for puppies and kittens/dogs and cats. Request good quality pet food donations (or other supplies your local no-kill shelter needs). On the invitation, EMPHASIZE the “no gifts for the child” statement. We were very specific on our invitations, but one mother still worried that her child would be the only one not bringing a gift for the birthday girl. Her fear and the presence of the gift upset another attendee and her mother, and despite many reassurances that the no-gift-giver did the right thing, exactly as we had asked, the tension over the situation has persisted. So emphasize it heavily and if any kid appears with a gift, kindly turn it away at the door. Period.

    2. For the gift bag, take a cute group photo and send each child a copy of it in the mail. Kids love to get mail! To take home, consider giving them a copy of a poem about genuine friendship, in a simple (homemade?) frame with a place prepared for the photo to go. The birthday child may want to write the poem personally (Be sure to help them develop a true definition of friendship. As adults we even need to refresh our thinking on this topic.) Be sure to send the photos promptly, within a couple of days!!! Addressing the envelopes and putting on stamps can be part of the party or have each parent fill out the address for you when they drop off their child.

    Sending the photo in the mail reinforces delayed gratification, hints at the truth that friendship spans time, and reintroduces happy memories. We all need these things today.

    In today’s world there is tremendous confusion about what true friendship really is, and here is a perfect opportunity to talk about that. Design games around friendship actions, rather than competition.

    Blessings to you all!

      • What an excellent, excellent philosophy and focus. One mom brought a present this year and asked, “Where do the gifts go?” I said in genuine surprise, “Oh! There isn’t a place for gifts!” :)

        My son didn’t even know he had one until after the party b/c he had been playing on the playground, so it all worked out. How sad about the guests at your child’s party. [Parents: follow instructions. Thank you.]

        :) Katie

      • Yes, the note is a great idea. We actually sent a couple of additional photos with the group pic. One of them was of the large donation itself on the front steps of the shelter, taken when we delivered all the “gifts.” Our note shared the gratitude of the shelter volunteers for the food. There are so many possibilities for parties similar to this.

  10. So many great ideas! My children are teenagers and older now, but we had some great birthday parties when they were younger! I always lean toward what will be the fun, but cheep thing to do. I usually tried to think of an activity the kids could do that would also function as the take home “goodie”. I hate those bags filled with junk, and my children brought home plenty of them from other peoples parties! My girls loved to string beads and that idea was reused several times in different ways for different age groups with the beaded necklace or bracelet going home with the child. We also did a “red carpet” party with the take home being a photo of the child walking the red carpet in a boa and sunglasses. A group photo is also a great take home (or mailed with a thank you note). A favorite for my son was a pirate party with a treasure hunt (in the treasure chest were the cupcakes!) the take home was a pirate hat the kids made from folded newspaper. Another year he had a battle with swim noodles cut in half for swords with a little bit of pvc pipe stuck in the one end for a handle. The swords wend home as the treat. Sorry for the long comment…..good memories of great times!

  11. Great post, Katie. I’ve been thinking a lot about kids birthday parties this year, especially with my oldest who turned 6 this year, I find that there are just sooo many invites.

    I have tried to previously encourage only small, useful gifts, like craft or art supplies, hair clips, cute tights or socks, books, or even nothing at all. But, even with these requests we still do end up with a bunch of toys and stuff that she really doesn’t need.

    I’m glad to hear someone else talk about a completely gift-free party. That’s the conclusion that I have been coming to myself, but when I mentioned it to a family member the other week, they thought it was a terrible idea (but, I should have expected that :).

    I’m not saying that we won’t still give a family gift to the birthday child, but my idea for my daughter’s next birthday is that instead of gifts, we will ask that other kids bring supplies to fill up shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child (her birthday is in November). I would love to see the kids get excited about giving and packing up these boxes for other kids, rather than just giving and getting more stuff when they already have so much. In my opinion, it’s a beautiful way to teach them that yes, we want to celebrate them and how special they are to us, but that their lives are about more than themselves. I want my kids to grow up with an attitude of serving and giving generously to others. Why not learn it on their birthday?

    • Steph,
      PERFECT idea for the Operation Christmas Child with that timing. My school students always got really into that, and my son did too, even at age 2, when I was still teaching part time. Kids really LOVE to give to other kids, and they value the feeling of giving so much at young ages.

      You should see one of the comments on my post describing what we did last year. Guy totally ripped me apart, terrible mother, kid will be scarred for life, lots of capitals. I couldn’t believe it! But most people will get the picture when they see the happy faces at the party…

      :) Katie

  12. Thank you for this. I hope your post helps get the word out and encourages moms and kids to think it’s okay to skip the gifts for birthday parties–for givers and receivers. I love the idea of gifts, but practically, I don’t want a pile of cheaply made plastic junk cluttering up my house! And the piles of plastic packaging it comes in makes it worse!

    We try to give consumable gifts, like art supplies. But we’d be thrilled to bring a gift to donate to charity, or be worker bees for someone’s gathering. I just wish we’d be asked to!

  13. I will confess that children’s birthday parties intimidate me. I struggle trying to find the line between celebrating and setting apart the day as special and my minimalism. I’m glad that there are others out there who want to celebrate in a non-traditional way in today’s culture- such an encouragement!

    My oldest turned 3 this spring and this was her first birthday party with friends. We invited 3 of her playmates over on a weekday (party and playdate in one) and did a Sharpie tie dye craft. I bought a pack of little camis that they can wear as a beach coverup or night shirt, and they all created their little masterpieces to take home. Their goody bag was a simple glassine bag to hold the still damp shirts, a pack of character band aids, and a chapstick. I guess the theme was useful!!

  14. My 6 year old loves pinatas, but I refuse to pay for one. We have a cousin whose birthday is the month prior to my sons and she typically has a pinata with a pull string. Since the pinata doesnt get broken, they give us the pinata to reuse for my son’s birthday. At his party, they use bats to break it open. I like to fill with pencils, erasers, and stickers instead of candy.

    We have done a “Earth Day” themed birthday party before. I put all the recycling on a picnic table and the kids made crafts out of the toilet paper tubes, plastic bottles, etc. They had a blast. Some parents seemed annoyed, but oh well.

  15. I just heard about a birthday party for a 10 year old girl that cost her mother $18,000! All of the ideas mentioned here are really SOOOO much more fun – and appropriate – for any child (or adult). Simple is better is so many ways!

  16. On her personal blog, SortaCrunchy, Megan T. shared the idea of a book exchange for a party. We’ve done it twice! Everyone brings 2 gently used books and goes home with 2 books. No treat bags required. It’s nice because the urge for guests to give a gift is fulfilled, yet our number of books stays constant.

    • I love this! Especially since I was thinking of asking for more books for my son’s 1st b-day party, not because we need a great # of books, but because I know he’d love to hear some new stories and see new pictures. Thanks for mentioning this!

  17. Love this! We’re been hosting simple parties for our kids for a few years now. I’ve found that most kids don’t like cake, but love ice cream so we skip the cake and make ice cream cakes or ice cream cone clowns. We request no gifts and my kids are ok with that as we’ve explained the gift is having friends over and for the kids to get to know our kids and our family better, not about gifts. At our house gifts come from grandparents, aunts and uncles who simple feel like the must give something to spoil the little ones. No gift bags here, just loads of fun. Painting, playing, scavenger hunts, singing and dancing.

    • What a fantastic way of communicating to kids what the real “gift” of a birthday party is – friendship and shared time together! Thank you for that!

  18. This last year for our “no gift” parties we did a raggedy ann theme (and donated toys to a local foster kids group) and a cat party and donated pet food and toys to our local animal shelter. I even dressed up like Raggedy Ann in a borrowed costume and read the kids a story.

    You can see my braveness here :) :

    The girls like it- although they would really like a party filled with gifts for them, too. But really, who wouldn’t when you are 6. In reality they do get a ton of gifts from all the grandmas!!

    I did give my daughter the option this coming year if she wants to have a party with gifts- but she can only invite 1-2 friends and it will be a very simple party. So far she has opted to have the larger party with no gifts (donations only). But I think it is good to give her the choice, and either way makes me happy because I am not overrun with stuff.

    I also happen to pride myself (lol) that my parties cost under $20. All I do is cake, cupcakes and fruit juice (sometimes sparkling to make it special). That’s it!! Just schedule the party at around 1 pm-3pm and you do not have to worry about feed folks lunch or dinner!!

    I generally use things from around the house to decorate for the party and I have bought disposable colored plates and cups (not so green). But it’s cheap and waste is still kept to a minimum.


  19. GROUP PARTIES! Our playgroup has 8 kids with birthdays in the fall, so we all go in together and rent the community pool. I think it cost us each $12.50 last year and everyone had a blast. It’s easy to have “no gifts” because nearly everyone at the party is a birthday kid. And, all the kids would be going to each others’ individual parties anyway, so there’s no party burn-out when you celebrate all together. We do the same thing for the 3 boys with summer birthdays and do a “playground party” with cupcakes.

    For an “at home” party, I also second the idea to decorate T-shirts. It’s a fun activity and everyone goes home with a “wearable” favor.

  20. What a great post!

    We had a Zero-Waste SuperBowl party for about 60 people. It was awesome fun. There was a Wings Contest, which provided for meats, but I also had out chips and dip. Were people ever surprised when I put out *real* plates and flatware. I had a blast during the game keeping up with dishes with a few friends pitching in. We just kept washing and drying them and putting them back out. We made tags for glasses (which were Bell jars) and had a recycle bin out for the glass bottles and tin cans from drinks (others provided drinks, I also had a huge vat of ice tea made).

    My son would love your pick-up-trash-day idea for his 10th this summer. With some popsicles and cupcakes, and the park setting, what could be easier? We’re doing a 5th birthday tea party for my daughter next week with tea, scones, cookies and teacakes. I’ll have sugar cubes for her- shhh, it’s a surprise! I plan to use an ice cream maker and let them help make the ice cream, old fashion style, and scoop it on their plates. We’ll use real plates, again. :) And teacups, of course.

  21. I love these ideas. My oldest daughter has 6 kids and we have been discussing birthday parties as of late. 4 of her kids are in school now, so she has quite a few invited to parties throughout the year, not to mention what to do for her kids. While the thoughts have not been so much for the environment, but the overwhelming gifts that are given and the need to outdo other parties. She has said that 2 of her kids were invited to a party with a request for a food donation for the local pantry instead. I love the idea of having a party at the park!
    Thanks for the ideas!

  22. One of our favorite things for party favors is bubbles. I just buy the pack that comes with little individual size bottle of bubbles. It’s fun for the kids, gives them something to do, and isn’t a toy that has to be kept around for long :)

  23. Wonderful idea! It’s just a fun activity, that happens to get your body moving and your heart pumping.

  24. I totally agree with you on the goodie bags! I shudder in horror when my kids come home with goodie bags full of cheap trinkets which are forgotten about a few seconds after they get home.

  25. Wow! This is an amazing birthday event! This is what we need, not only educational and environmental, but also, enjoyable for our kids! Glad you shared this idea!

  26. My daughter will be having her 5th birthday party in a month, so this post was super-timely for me! Gifts are my daughter’s primary love language, so it’s been really hard to figure out how to handle the whole gift/party favor thing (because she wants to give gifts as much as she wants to receive them). I love the idea of requesting donations for a local kid’s charity–I think that will be the perfect compromise for us!
    We are big believers in simple parties, though we have family who aren’t, so there’s no way to shield our daughter from the fact that some kids have pony rides, magicians, etc. My daughter requested a tea party this year, so my English MIL is going to help me make a few simple, traditional finger foods. For party favors, we’re going to send each girl home with a SMALL bag of English tea cookies (excuse me, “biscuits”) nestled inside a vintage teacup from Goodwill. I think that will be a good compromise between my daughter’s desire to give gifts to her friends and my desire to avoid perpetuating the sugar-and-cheap-plastic-gift-bag tradition.

  27. Kudos to you for starting good traditions and being a great example to other parents. I especially love the corporal work of mercy side of the party!

  28. Having been the recipient of way too many toys at birthday parties in years past, I always try to be mindful when we choose a gift for one of my kids’ friends (we don’t get a lot of “no gifts please” invites). Now that everyone is reading age, books are a go-to, but before that it was usually something “to do” (like a small craft that didn’t have a huge finished product or a small Lego set if the friend was so inclined). We also like to give games since it’s something the birthday child can enjoy with their family.

    When the kids were smaller, we did some group parties, but always at home where they could just play games or head out to the skating rink at the park. Now we let each child choose one friend and then one parent takes the two kids out for an event – a football/hockey game or to the children’s theatre. Since it’s only one friend, there’s only one gift coming in and it ends up being a really special time for everyone.

  29. There are so many great ideas in both this post and the comments – thank you!

    We have been requesting no gifts for my daughter’s last two birthdays – 4 and 5. For her 4th, we asked that each family donate a few dollars that can be used to help purchase a half a sheep from Heifer. My daughter was just as happy to gift the sheep to someone in need as she was to open presents (she did get a few from family members). My experience with my kids has been that they know what we teach them. When we, as parents, convey our excitement in giving to those in need it is transferred to the kids!

  30. For one of my sons, whose birthday was in September towards the end of soccer season, we rented the local indoor soccer field for an hour, in addition to the party room, and invited his friends, some from his team, church, etc, and their siblings, so we had children of all ages. I found some soccer fabric and cut out little neck scarves, and one team wore them so we could tell who was who. They all ran and laughed and played on the field (regular shoes, no special equipment required) for an hour before heading to the party room. I had made a huge sheet cake and decorated it like a soccer field, and my sons helped by making Lego players, referees, and fans in the stands. We even had a dog-chewed man being carried off on a stretcher! Although we always put on invitations that the only present requested was their presence, there were a few gifts received.

  31. Maybe it’s because we have to contend with a number of food intolerances for my youngest daughter, but I actually do prefer to feed the children a full meal at birthday parties. We usually do a bbq and salads (another “no presents please, but a small salad would be appreciated” idea to increase adherence to that request), and cake with fruit salad. We don’t have lollies/candy but just one bowl of potato crisps to nibble on while the meat is cooking. The only sweet things are drinks, where we offer juice, cordial or water.

    The benefit that we have seen with feeding the children adequately at the start of procedings is that we tend to have very few meltdowns (minimal sugar, reduced hunger), and can have the party at lunch time before the kids get too tired. It has worked for us, and reduces the stress of finding “party” foods for our wheat-free, dairy-free, soy-free, low fructose (no fruit, onion, garlic, honey, etc) daughter.

  32. Last year, for my daughter’s fifth party, we did a book exchange – each person brought a book and left with a different one. The kids enjoyed this. Other years for kids’ parties we’ve done a craft like painting on canvas board and the kids took home their painting (of course) instead of a goodie bag. Food is generally simple and healthy. For my middle daughter who didn’t want to ask for donations to a charity – she did want gifts (!!!)- she requested $. I know that not everyone likes this idea but at least she was able to put the $ toward something she’d already been saving for. I must admit to strongly encouraging family only – or one close friend only – celebrations. Any time we host an event we use a collection of thrifted, free or virtually free, real dishes and cloth napkins and I recently purchased a lovely fabric flag banner from Stubby Pencil Studio to reuse for all birthdays in our home.

  33. I enjoyed reading your article. You offer some great ideas for a birthday party and teaching your kids to give back to the community at the same time.

  34. Well I really like the alternatives of gift very much like Please bring food for Kids’ Food Basket instead of a gift.The Food in the party must be simple and healthy.Thanks

  35. Well I like this post..The birthday child may want to write the poem personally (Be sure to help them develop a true definition of friendship. As adults we even need to refresh our thinking ..