Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Build a Better Birthday Party

From the bean of Green Bean.

To distract you on Election Day.

It was a overcast October morning - at least on this side of the Bay. The sun had streaked across the sky over in our neck of the woods - the less crunchy neck of the woods - but here, grey hung like an unwrung blanket on a clothesline.

I didn't mind. I was here for research. Oh yes, I was here to enjoy my niece's birthday party. To visit with my sister, whom I rarely see even though we are separated only by a black stretch of water. To eat cake and watch my boys fly down the cement slide on well worn cardboard (there's reuse for you!). But mostly, I was here to steal ideas.

I know. It doesn't sound very heroic but I've got two birthdays sandwiching Christmas and only a handful of ways to "green" them - besides cancelling the party altogether.

So, camera in hand, I readily partook of eco-fruits of my sister's labors. I then gathered around with a gaggle of green moms to share ideas for simplifying celebrations. Below are ideas I (and every green mom in a thirty mile radius) has come up with. Maybe you can add a few of your own.


Birthday parties have become so extravagant, that cutting back on the waste shouldn't be difficult - especially in this economy.

  • Send out an evite instead of a paper invite. You can personalize the evite, make it easy for folks to RSVP and, added bonus, everyone can be nosy and see who's coming.

  • Use reusables as much as possible. My sister went out and purchased dozens of utensils from her local Goodwill for her daughters' birthday party. She figures that she will use them over and over again at every birthday, not to mention barbecue, retirement party and holiday gathering. Another friend borrows wine glasses from all of her neighbors instead of buying disposable. Cloth napkins are also easy and I've seen some folks create unique cloth napkins that the children also get to take home as favors.

  • If you cannot reuse, choose the lesser of two evils. Paper plates with high recycled content, compostable cups and utensils made from paper or bioplastic are at least better options that the traditional disposables.

  • Leave the garbage can wanting. Recycle and compost what you can. My sister had her daughter create signs for Recycle, Compost and Dirty Utensil containers.


This is the elephant in the room at every party hosted by a green mom. What to do with the endless sea of gifts and favors and takeaways.


  • Last year, I specified "no gifts" in the party invitations. Mostly, folks listened. We ended up with a plethora of thoughtful cards and only one gift.

  • Request a donation in lieu of a gift - if you are comfortable with that.

  • When giving gifts, gift certificates for an experience (e.g., the movies) or a consumable (e.g., frozen yogurt) beat the pants off of the traditional plastic action hero.

  • Be charitable. One friend never gives gifts. Instead, she and her children pick a charity most related to the party theme and donate to that charity. For instance, if it is a jungle party, they might donate to a rain forest preservation organization. If it is a teenage mutant ninja turtle party, they donate to a turtle rescue organization. Check out Guidestar for a list of charities.

Long gone are the days when a party was a piece of cake and a thank you for coming when you departed. Favor bags have gotten out of control with more and more plastic stuff, pricier and pricier items until a kid never leaves a party without demanding, hand outstretched, "Where's my goodie bag??" Here are coping mechanisms if you, like I, are not brave to answer that outstretched hand with a big fat nothing, you spoiled brat.
  • Give quality. Last year, we handed out a Melissa & Doug wooden musical instrument for one party and Thomas Trains (bought on clearance) for another. The cost was comparable to the usual bag o' junk and I figured those instruments and trains weren't likely to land in a landfill.

  • Give an experience. Some friends give a small gift certificate for an ice cream or a frozen yogurt.

  • Give a project. This ties in with the last category - the Entertainment. Have children decorate something - fairy wings or a hat during the party - and that is what they take home. One friend took it a step further. She put out all kinds of "trash" - Styrofoam, egg cartons, fabric scraps and invited the party guests to make their own puppet for a Muppet party.

  • Give . . . to each other. The gift exchange. Every child attending the party - including the birthday boy or girl - brings a themed item. The item is wrapped and, at the end of the party, each child - again, including the birthday boy or girl - chooses and opens one gift. Themes can vary - a book, puzzle, game, musical instrument, dress up clothes, art supplies - but there is usually a price limit (e.g., $10 or under) and gifts may also be second hand or homemade. My niece's gift exchange is below. She, as the guest of honor, and each of her guests took home their gift exchange item and I heard not one complaint.


I have a feeling that backyard birthday parties of pinatas and homemade cake will be making a come back in this economy. The tiresome round of Pump It Up parties (yes, I've been guilty of a hosting a couple) will probably start to wind down.

In their place, children may learn to entertain themselves - with the swing set in the backyard, the sandbox, legos, the front yard climbing tree, or projects like my friend's scrap puppet project.

If you are still inclined to provide some sort of entertainment, put your money into your community. Hire local talent. My sister hired a friend of a friend who played the guitar and sang children's songs with the party-goers. We're toying with the idea of a puppet show from a local puppeteer who has written his own scrips and handmade his own puppets. It is significantly cheaper than a gymnastics party or jumpie house and gives the gift of imagination. Let's keep art and culture alive. We may need it for morale if the economy continues its current descent.

So there you have it. Every idea I stole from every green mom I could find. With these resources, I hope to build a better birthday party . . . unless I can steal a few more ideas from you?


Burbanmom said...

I love the idea of hiring local talent instead of blowing $150 at "the bouncy place"! Next year, I think I'll locate a children's magician for Ethan. Perfect!

kidletsmum said...

My daughter turned three at the end of September. She wanted a princess party. So, we made princess crowns as a party activity and played with homemade princess playdough (the kids each got a vial of glitter to add to the playdough I made.) Then we blew bubbles, I baked a princess caked, and the kids had a great time!

Their goodie bag was a ball of the playdough, the crown they made, and a sparkly pencil. Use used our existing plates and utensils.

Kellie said...

We hosted Fletcher's last b'day party at a local pizza place. They have "Baby Boogie" every Sunday afternoon where they bring out gads of kid's instruments, blast fun music and the kids dance (and run around like mad). It was a blast and had built in entertainment.

For favors, my husband compiled a CD of fun & funky kids songs and burned one for each child so they could continue to boogie in the car on the way home. I guess the CD will eventually end up in the landfill one day but hopefully everyone will gets lots of enjoyment out of it first.

Theresa/GardenFreshLiving said...

Wonderful ideas!
We did a treasure hunt at my son's Knight party at the park. It was cheap and fun. We broke the kids up into teams with one parent for each team. the kids followed knightly clues to the next clue. (The parents knew where the clues were in case the young ones could not figure it out.) After the hunt, each child was knighted (by me) and given a crystal prize (candy). It was 5 years ago and the kids still talk about it!

Kim said...

Why do the kids need a big party to begin with?

Even when we lived near family we would just invite them over for lunch and cake. We always requested specific items for gifts, usually something we were going to have to purchase anyways. Now that it's just our small family of 4 we do things very simply. I let the person choose their favorite dinner and desert which I cook on their birthday. The weekend before or after I let them choose an activity for the family to attend. For ds's last birthday he chose the movies which is a very rare treat. Dd has chosen tickets to a horse expo being held at the beginning of next year for her birthday later this month. I spend less doing this, there is no waste, and we all enjoy the special activities immensely.

Crunchy Chicken said...

For Emma's 5th birthday party two weeks ago, I sent out evites, we made our own cake, used our regular dishes and cups and silverware, provided organic crackers and apples for a snack and fresh juice for the kids. No candles on the cake (for that I felt a little guilty). What do you do when you're singing happy birthday?

For entertainment, the kids put together jewelry with beads. Sure they were plastic, but I could have used wood beads. The only thing we did that wasn't green was we did Shrinky Dinks. Between the jewelry and the shrinky dinks, that made up their "gift bags."

I think to do this right you need to limit the number of people attending too. It makes for a less crazy experience. I had parents emailing me after the fact thanking me for such a pleasant party. Their kids weren't all overstimulated and hopped up on sugar and they weren't left with a bag of cheap plastic crap to deal with.

Woman with a Hatchet said...

I have purchased a set of reusable plastic (sorry, can't afford bamboo and wanted something light, unbreakable and most of all: dishwasher safe) plates, cups, bowls and utensils that I use for all of my parties. Just recently I made napkins to go with them and have even used this set for a Halloween party at my 2nd grader's school! Even though they weren't color coordinated for Halloween, they were still a success and the amount of trash we produced for that party was significantly reduced.

When I used to mail out invites, they were cards I had created with a picture of the birthday girl-to-be and they were then kept by the receivers instead of being tossed.

For goodie bags, I started making baked goods that the kids could work on as crafts as well and then take home. Think cookie/cupcake decorating. I don't know if the other parents understand what I'm doing or why I'm doing it, but no one NEEDS a small bag o' plastic crap to take home.

Oh and we always bake a cake from scratch. Yum!

Green Bean said...

Burbs: Okay. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks that sort of thing is a good idea bc we're going with the puppet guy.

Kidlets: Homemade playdough! THAT is genius.

Kellie: How totally fun. Love the CD idea. We still listen to one my youngest got 5 yrs ago as a favor. As to the pizza place, way to support a local business! And keep the mess out of your house.

Theresa: Am totally stealing that idea as we're doing a knight party (using sister's castle cake mold and a friend's leftover knight decor) this year.

Kim: It is a good point and does dovetail with the idea that the less we have, the more we appreciate what we have. I suspect more and more folks will be doing that in the harder times to come.

Crunchy: That sounds so nice! I'll have to forward it to my sister for ideas for next year. I think you are right about limiting the number. It makes it a lot easier to manage, keep things straight. I will say that my niece's party had over 50 guests! But it was at a park which helps. I've got winter bdays so that's out of bounds.

Hatchet: LOVE the cookie decorating idea. Totally stealing that one too. And the complete set of plastic reusables, a-okay in my book. That's what we're trying to do for my son's school. Sometimes, bamboo just isn't reachable but at least you reduce the amount of garbage with reusable plastic.

Thanks for all the ideas everyone!! Keep em coming. I've got a January bday party too.

Woman with a Hatchet said...

One thing to keep in mind with the cookie decorating: make sure you have enough supplies!

The PARENTS got really into the decorating at my party. : ) It was a lot of fun for everyone, as it turned out!

Mindful Momma said...

We almost always do backyard birthday parties without any hired entertainment. We do a craft project and other than that the kids have no problem entertaining themselves. I even skipped the goodie bags this year - kids got homemade Halloween lollipops. Just posted about it: http://mindfulmomma.typepad.com/mindful_momma/2008/10/a-greenish-goulish-birthday.html

Jen said...

I love your sustainable party ideas. My friend's mom went together with about three of her friends to purchase two large boxes of wine glasses and mugs. They store them in one woman's basement, and anyone can borrow them when they throw a party.

Green Bean said...

Mindful Momma: I'd totally go for the backyard party but for the time of year. It's often raining cats and dogs and my boys' bdays and our Bay Area house can't contain more than a couple other boys. Gotta go check your post, though, for more ideas to steal. :)

Jen: Awesome idea. I need to figure out how I can do this with. For now, I'm just sharing birthday cake molds.

JessTrev said...

Sorry, late to the party! ;) I have an old post about EGirl's 5th bday. I made homemade bean bags + playdough for the kids (ditto on the glitter). Also got glass frames from IKEA and had the kids go on a nature treasure hunt. They pressed flowers and leaves as one of the activities. We also made bubble solution (would test beforehand it kinda flopped) and used flower petals as confetti. Sometimes we make cakes, sometimes we get ice cream cakes, altho I am daydreaming about *making* the ice cream cake. We had the party at a park but hear you on the weather front. We have winter bdays and a way small house not suitable for parties. Love the local entertainer idea.



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