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How to rock a kid birthday party when you’re not Martha

You could host a kid birthday bash at the local pizza arcade or bowling alley—or you could host one at home following this tried-and-true formula.

The friend who brings homemade Bailey’s and perfectly packed biscotti when she comes to visit; the co-worker who steps up to every office occasion with fancy, homemade cakes. I love these people. But, despite being someone who enjoys cooking, I do not routinely contribute “special” culinary creations effortlessly. I do not host elaborate parties. Martha, I am not.

Still, every May, I manage to plan and—with my husband—pull off a kick-ass, old-school, at-home birthday party (or two) for my boys, who were born three days short of two years apart. That three-day birthday spread really is what launched my BRING IT!  birthday bash mentality.

Near the end of my second pregnancy, I started freaking out that I’d be in the hospital on my older son’s second birthday—and, as a result, he’d think that I loved the new baby and hated him. So I planned a huge party for two weeks after the last possible day they’d let me stay pregnant.

And that’s how I found myself making googly eyes out of two types of chocolate for Cookie Monster cupcakes with a two-week-old baby strapped to my chest. (Full disclosure: I had three helpers. Thanks, Mom, Kate, and Mike!) I’ve learned a lot about planning kid parties in the five years since then, including these DIY shin-dig tips:

Nail down a theme. Star Wars, LEGOs, dinosaurs, rocks—let your kid pick, obviously, but consider suggesting a couple of options. It might seem that locking into a theme makes the whole party-planning situation more difficult. I disagree: homing in on a concept can help you focus, reducing the head-spinning effects of too many options. The key is to interpret the theme loosely, to make whatever it is you want to do—or you’re capable of doing—fit the focus of your fête. Case in point: last week, we threw a Harry Potter party for our younger guy.  Party favors included round “Harry Potter” sunglasses (procured in the “peacenik Hippie” section of the party store) and wands (twirly straws); the pinãta was a “wizard” (birthday) hat. Be imaginative, not perfect.

The key is to interpret the theme loosely, to make whatever it is you want to do—or you’re capable of doing—fit the focus of your fête. Case in point: last week, we threw a Harry Potter party for our younger guy. Party favors included round “Harry Potter” sunglasses (procured in the “peacenik Hippie” section of the party store) and wands (twirly straws); the pinãta was a “wizard” (birthday) hat. Be imaginative, not perfect.

Be realistic about your skills (or lack thereof). When it comes to cake decorating and such, know what you’re capable of and don’t cross beyond that line. I don’t do fondant or fussy. I “research” concepts online and then consider how a real person might go about executing them. Can you plop on plastic figures instead of molding shit from sugar-flavored wax? (YES!—and the result will be oh-so-much better.)

Think of it like fashion: only the few can pull off a look just the way it was worn on the runway; the rest of us real-people need to dial it down. Whatever you do, don’t let the kids “research” with you because they are likely to become obsessed with something that’s totally impossible. Decide what you want to do, pull a couple of realistic alternatives, and then go in for agreement.

Keep things in perspective. Last year, I become fixated on making an elaborate dinosaur cake, complete with an erupting volcano and a circling pterodactyl for the boys’ shared birthday party. When my friends invited me out for a drink two days before the party, I declined, saying I needed to make lava out of Lifesavers. (Whaaaat?)

During the morning of the party, I sent my whole family swimming so I could create layers of land and water and sand, and then populate the entire ecosystem with extinct creatures. My kids were just super psyched to have a cake—made of sugar—with dinosaurs on it. And they were equally thrilled with the way simpler cakes I made for this year’s (separate) parties: for one, a Harry Potter face that appeared as if an 8-year old created it; for the other, simple cupcakes topped with (purchased) rock candy. Remember: Sugar + Theme = Win.

Make concessions with (non-themed) concessions. And by that, I mean, don’t make the concessions—unless you really want to. In my real life, I make my own pizza dough and I peel and chop whole carrots. When I’m rocking a birthday party, I order pizzas (or buy the heat-’em-up yourself kind from Costco) and buy big bags of vegetables that are ready to dump on a platter next to a bowl of hummus.

Figure out fun activities—ahead of time. Tug of war, a scavenger hunt (for crack-your-own geodes!), water-balloon tossing, craft-making, what have you. This year, in keeping with the “rock” theme for our son’s party, we dropped small stones (e.g., jasper, turquoise, quartz) into balloons, then inflated them so that each party guest had to pop a balloon to get his loot. You can do this with dollar bills or clues to a hunt, too.

Call in help. Every year but one, my parents have flown, or driven, up from Pennsylvania to celebrate the boys’ birthdays. This is awesome because 1) I love my parents and so do my kids and 2) my mom is much craftier and more clever than I am when it comes to birthday party execution. She embraces the role of co-caterer in these events, which is incredibly helpful.

My advice to you: find a friend who likes to kid-party and get her, or him, to help on the food front. Then appoint your childlike (note: I did not say childish) husband, or wife, or friend, Activity Master—you know, the dude who directs the scavenger hunt, or the pinãta smash, or the impromptu musical parade through the basement when it rains and it totally didn’t occur to you that that could happen.

Rein it in, or embrace the crazy. Give the guest list some good consideration. Because: rain, and then the party is in your house. Which is how, last year, after a long, lucky streak of bluebird-sky situations for our double-boy birthday bonanzas, we ended up with a house of chaos.

Approximately 25  kids, plus their parents, spread around a space too small to accommodate the sort of celebrating that was going on. It was cramped and it was crazy and it was the cause of our hosting two separate (and smaller) parties in one weekend this year but, as our older guy remembers it, it was “epic.” One for the books. Go for it. If that’s your thing. Just have fun.

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