The Ultimate Birthday Party Planner

Getting Started

We know — it’s hard not to be intimated by the over-the-top, gazillion-dollar parties some kids have these days. But there’s no need to spend tons of money or time to plan an amazing event. The best parties are totally personal, so think about what your child loves — whether it’s blocks, baseball, puppies, or princesses — and go from there as you brainstorm games, cake ideas, and goody bags.

Birthday party invitation

1. You’re Invited

  • Send out your invites about four weeks before the party.
  • The traditional — and least expensive — approach is to mail out store-bought invites or ones you’ve made yourself.
  • Rubber-stamping is a fun, easy way to make a bunch at once.
  • Or print them at home using your computer software’s clip-art to add cool graphics.
  • Want someone else to do the work? Check out the free printable invites we’ve created just for you.
rocket ship made from a toilet paper tube

2. Inspired Activities

  • Keep kids busy and protect your table by laying down a large sheet of kraft paper. Supply plenty of crayons for scribbling.
  • Hosting preschoolers? Have them create collages using leftover craft scraps from your own stash.
  • Cut lengths of ribbon or yarn to make bracelets and necklaces. String on foam beads, attach stickers, or glue on rhinestones.
  • Toilet paper tubes are easy to paint and decorate. Kids can turn them into cars, rockets — even binoculars!
  • Headed outdoors? Set up sport stations in the yard. Wiffle bats and balls and cushy footballs are always a hit. Playground balls are great for impromptu games of kickball.
  • Decorate dollar-bin flip-flops. Cut bandannas or ribbon into short strips and tie onto the tops of the thong.
  • A treasure hunt for pirate’s loot (gold chocolate coins) can be played indoors or out. Start things off by handing out eye patches, bandannas, and a treasure map.

Party Themes

3. Favorite Childhood Parties — Updated

Classic: T-Ball

Modern: Extreme Sports

Plan It: Invite your child?s buddies to bring their skateboards and scooters (protective gear too, please!). Give them free time to practice maneuvers and compare cool tricks. Move on to quieter activities like decorating stickers for their boards. Serve up an “extreme float” made with ice cream, seltzer, and a colored sports drink.

Classic: Princess

Modern: Fairies

Plan It: Host this party outdoors and have the girls decorate headbands with ribbons and artificial flowers. Face painting is a must — use eyeliner to draw on swirly designs and body glitter for extra sparkle. Send them on a hunt through the backyard for pretty jewels, then serve fairy juice and magic cake.

Classic: Arts and Crafts

Modern: In the Garden

Plan It: Have your guests paint small terra-cotta pots as soon as they arrive, then teach them how to plant flowers in their pots (marigolds are a smart choice). Serve lemonade and cupcakes decorated with ladybugs. Send guests home with wildflower seeds along with their potted flower.

Classic: Puppet Show

Modern: Original Movie

Plan It: Make this party a full production. Have your guests make up their own script and choose props and costumes. Capture their performances on video and host a screening later on — complete with bowls of popcorn and an awards ceremony.

Classic: Dress-Up

Modern: Project Runway-inspired

Plan It: Give each girl a plain T-shirt, denim skirt, or beach cover-up (check eBay or thrift stores for bargains). Make sure there’s plenty of fabric paint, glitter glue, rhinestones, and trim for everyone to share. When everyone’s finished, have them model their designs for judging. Pass out ribbons for a job well done.

Classic: Petting Zoo

Modern: Animal Charity Event

Plan It: Instead of a traditional party, have your child and her pals do something special for abandoned pets in need. Set up a lemonade stand or a bake-sale table in the front yard. Let the guests make signs and sell for an hour or so, then serve refreshments. Donate all the profits to a local animal shelter.

Classic: Tea Party

Modern: Let Them Eat Cake (and Tea)!

Plan It: Give the old-fashioned tea party a Parisian twist. Partygoers make giant paper flower blossoms to tuck into their hair, and then pile on strands of plastic-pearl necklaces and bracelets. Hand out paper fans, then serve tea and petit fours.

All Kinds of Goodies

4. Order Great Stuff Online

Check out the deals we found at four of our favorite party sources. A must if you’re looking to buy inexpensive craft supplies in bulk. We found a pack of 50 craft-foam flowers for only $4, and a dozen plain wooden yo-yos, just waiting to be painted, for $5. Grab those great deals right away — no auctions to worry about. Where else could you find a dozen stick-on jewel earrings for only $1.25 — including shipping? We love the small Zig Zag pots — only 99 cent each! They’re great for holding snacks or craft supplies. If you need extra party chairs, the plastic chairs for kids are a steal at $7 a piece. We spotted a dozen sporty key chains for $10 — that’s 84 cents each! You can pick up a pack of 10 colored takeout containers (perfect goody bags) for $8.

5. Baby’s 1st Birthday

No need for a massive party — keep that 1-year celebration simple by inviting a small group of family and friends. You’ll want lots of pictures of this milestone, especially the classic messy moment when your kid dives into her cake. And why not start a birthday tradition you can do year after year? A few we like:

Baby girl eating a cupcake

  • Make a HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner from paper or fabric, then laminate it so you can use it every year.
  • Take an annual picture of your child wearing a special birthday hat or crown.
  • Create a tablecloth keepsake. Ask guests to use fabric markers to write birthday wishes to your child each year.
Game board birthday cake

6. Birthday-Cake Creation

Sweet Game! Frost half of a sheet cake with yellow-green frosting. Use Starburst candies to form the path to the other half. Use various kinds of candy such as gumdrops, licorice, lollipops, and taffy to create a Candy Land-like game.

Cupcakes that spell out a happy birthday message

7. Cool Cupcake Idea

Letter Perfect: Frost half the cupcakes in chocolate and half in vanilla, then coat edges with white or brown sprinkles. Use #8 frosting tip to pipe out a birthday wish.

Birthday party goody bag

8. Goody Bags

  • Shred magazine and catalog pages to make quick, colorful filler for gifts and goody bags.
  • Send guests home with something to nibble. Decorate mini candy bars and bags of candy with custom “wrappers.” This works great for packs of crayons too!
  • Stick-on tattoos make great party favors. We especially love these from Tattoos for Tots ($3.99 per pack; Each child-friendly image is labeled so kids learn about animals, fruits, and nature.
  • Party bags aren’t the only way to package goodies. Use take-out containers, poster tubes, even paper party cups.
  • Let the season inspire you. In the summer, nothing beats water squirters or beach toys. Come fall, kids can’t get enough of those tiny pumpkins.
  • Cut pieces of construction paper in half, fold, and staple together to make a mini book to go along with stickers.

Winning Birthday CakeCelebrating a board game lover’s birthday? Our Winning Birthday Cake video shows you how to create an edible game board of your own.Play Video

Your Ideas

9. Top Reader Tips

Birthday parties had become so expensive in New York City that when my son, Noah, turned 2, I decided to throw a big group bash with seven of my friends. We chose a local sports complex with enough activities to keep all the kids busy. In lieu of gifts, we asked guests to bring clothing and toy donations for a local children’s charity.Melissa Goldstein, Chappaqua, New York

Last July, I held an outdoor luau when my daughter, Chloe, turned 1. It was one of the least expensive parties I’ve ever thrown. We decorated with paper lanterns, leis, and grass skirts. Food was easy — we ordered Hawaiian-inspired pizzas topped with pineapple. Melissa Atkins, Luray, Virginia

To cut food costs down, I started having my children’s birthday parties between lunch and dinner, at around 2 p.m. I keep it simple with a few snacks, cake, and ice cream, and everyone is always satisfied. Annette Terrana, Buffalo, New York

For my triplets’ third birthday, I rented out a large gym and filled it with toddler-friendly toys like slides, basketball hoops, and tons of assorted balls. The kids had a blast, and the parents thought it was the most practical party they’d been too.Kim Whorton, Birmingham, Alabama

When my daughter, Meghan, turned 4 in January, we decided to bring the beach indoors. We filled her baby pool with uncooked rice and gave each guest a bucket of sand toys I had found on clearance. The kids played with their “sandbox” for hours. Jeanne McCullough, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts

Party Timeline

10. Party Organizer

Use this handy timeline to help you plan your bash.

4 Weeks Before


  • Mail out your invites. Include specifics such as when the party will start and end and a date to RSVP by (at least two weeks before the party day).
  • Arrange for an entertainer if you’re going that route; save money by hiring your child’s music teacher or dance instructor.
  • Shop for party goods, decorations, and goody bags. If you’re ordering anything online, do it now.

1 Week Before

  • Follow up with any guests who have not RSVP’d.
  • Buy your food and drinks.
  • Bake your cake or cupcakes and freeze, or order a cake if you’re not baking.
  • Plan out activities, and make sure you have all of your supplies.

1 Day Before

  • Assemble goody bags.
  • Review party manners with your child. Practice welcoming guests and thanking them for presents.
  • Defrost and decorate your cake or cupcakes.
  • Prepare any food you can ahead of time.
  • Set the table and arrange additional seating.
  • Make sure your camera or camcorder battery is charged.

Party Time!

  • 15-20 minutes: Keep kids busy as they wait for other guests to arrive with a quiet activity such as an easy craft, or leave out a few age-appropriate toys like coloring books and puzzles.
  • 20 minutes: Kids will be ready to move on, so lead them to a high-energy game or the party’s main activity.
  • 15-20 minutes: Help them wind down with a quieter activity such as a classic game of Bingo or trivia questions.
  • 20 minutes: Time for food, cake, and presents!
  • 10 minutes: As the party draws to an end, hand out goody bags and make sure your child thanks his guests for coming.
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