It’s that time of year again: The holiday season. When everyone is scrambling to create perfect Thanksgiving recipes, rounding up holiday decorations from the garage and scoping out the best bargains for Christmas gifts. Meanwhile I’m in the background cramming for some exam while trying to plan my little one’s birthday party. Every year, I do the same thing; three weeks before the party I run around like a headless chicken – as if her birthday isn’t on the same date every year – trying to put together a cost-effective and epic birthday party. Pulling these shenanigans during undergrad is one thing, but during grad school is just PITIFUL. My kid is at the age where the birthday parties matter. Get-togethers with close family and friends just doesn’t cut it anymore. Now, I am forced to step up my game, especially since the invites to her friends’ and classmates’ parties started rolling in. So below are a few tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years to help plan an awesome yet budget-friendly celebration.
Like many other parents, I DESPISE places like Chuck-e-Cheese. They’re overcrowded, expensive as hell and just an overall pain in the derrière. I cringe at the mere thought of them. A private facility with a lot less mayhem, no set up/clean up, hosts that keep the kids entertained for you, all the while not having to spend an arm and a leg is the ideal situation and below are a few places I’ve come across on my search:
Children’s Gyms – these are indoor facilities that offer multiple activities such as dance, karate, gymnastics, etc. for children as well as parent/kids classes. Booking a birthday party typically includes rental of the entire facility for 2-3 hours, 2 party hosts, setup and cleanup, and they provide paper plates/napkins/utensils. All you have to do is drop off the decorations the day before and show up with your child, birthday cake and food on the day of the party. The price is more than reasonable and since many are privately owned, they are pretty flexible in regard to the hours for the party.
Backyard – I know, I know. Throwing a party at home is a hassle, but it saves so much money. Get some teenage nieces and nephews to come over and put them to work. Have them blow up balloons, set up the decorations and tables… All the annoying things that you don’t wanna do. If you’re having trouble getting them to help, I find that bribery usually works … Also blackmail – Just do what you gotta do to get the job done. Once that is taken care of, you’ll be able to focus on cleaning up the house and cooking – which you can hire people to do, there’s a Groupon deal out there with your name written all over it.
Art Studio – There are plenty of artists who will be more than happy to host a small birthday party for a child over the age of 5. Head over to the local art district or google children’s art classes/studio and call to find out more about prices/rates. It’s like Painting with a Twist, but for kids. It allows them an opportunity to express their creative side while supporting a small business. Take the artwork home and be sure to hang it up in THEIR room!
Museum – If you’re kid is a total nerd like mines, they may request a birthday party at their favorite museum. – She took a trip to the science museum during Summer camp and hasn’t stopped talking about it since – So when I found out they did birthday parties there, I was not about to pass up the opportunity to allow her and her nerd crew (which I am proudly a member of), a full day of admissions to probably one the dopest museums I’ve been to in a long time. The prices will vary depending on the museum and packages they offer, but it’s definitely worth every penny. The set up is very similar to what I described for the Kid’s gym. A private room (not facility), they do an activity with the kids, free all-day admissions for your guests, no setup or cleanup, and decorations/invites/thank you cards/goodie bags/plates/utensils/etc are provided. All you have to do is show up with your birthday child. Whenever given the option, I always choose packages that do not include cake and food because I come from a large Caribbean family and prefer to prepare our own cuisine.
For preteens and teens:
Skating/Bowling – Very inexpensive and something to enjoy with just a few of their closest friends.
Mobile Video Game Truck – Definitely for the gamers! A little more on the expensive side, but you get four hours of unlimited play and games. Most trucks are about the same price as a Chuck-e-Cheese party package. All you have to do is provide food and a place for the truck to park.
Food & Activities
Always consider something that can stretch as opposed to items that are already in individual servings. For example, pasta can stretch a lot further than 8 slices per box of pizza. If it’s a small gathering than pizza or sandwiches are perfect, but if you’re from a large family or expecting a lot of guests, you may want to consider meals that can go a long way.
For the young people:
- Taco bar*
- Pasta bar*
- Popcorn bar (Can double as goodie bags)*
The real food:
- Rice or Mac n Cheese (if you can get away with kraft, go for it – add some ground beef to really wow them)
- Leg quarters (split into a leg and thigh to create a 2-piece)
- Salad (whatever type of salad that your budget allows, most people don’t eat it anyway)
Activities – Set up Game stations that everyone can enjoy. Here are a few really simple (and inexpensive) ideas:
- Freeze dance
- Potato sack race
- Egg relay
- 3-leg race
Gift guide – with the invitation, include a Gift Guide that lists the birthday boy/girls favorite color, hobbies, characters, shoe/clothes size etc. Or have them write a wish list – I prefer the gift guide to avoid duplicate gifts. Plus it allows the guest to purchase something a little more personalized.
Avoid Characters – Save money by using solid colored plates and silverware. If the party is a character theme – only purchase select items such as the invites or balloons with the character printed on them. You’ll likely never use it again anyway so don’t waste the money.
To-Go Containers – As previously stated, I come from a large Caribbean family. One thing I cannot be bothered with is people asking for aluminum foil or something to wrap up their leftovers with. For that reason alone, I serve the adults in to-go containers. That way, their leftovers are ready to go with them.
Dollar Tree – Hands down my favorite store (following Target of course). If you didn’t have time to order goodie bags and décor from OrientalTrading.com, then head on over to the Dollar Tree and collect most, if not all, the necessities for the party. Try to stick to items that come in bulk, especially for the goodie bags.
Butcher/Latin Super Market – If you plan on cooking, always check these stores first since they tend to have the best prices for meat and produce.
Thank You Notes – Include them in the goodie bags
There are plenty options available to plan a wonderful day of birthday festivities for your kids while in grad school. We, as parents, can be real suckers when it comes to making our children smile – Even if it takes away from SOME of our study time, it’s totally worth the sacrifice. Try to reserve the more extravagant gatherings for the milestone birthdays like – 1st, 5th, 10th,13th, 15th/16th so on and so forth. Obviously, this varies by culture and/or religion, so you do you.
* Taco Bar – What you’ll need
- Taco Shells – Hard and Soft
- Meat – Ground beef/turkey or shredded chicken
- Toppings – shredded lettuce, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, black beans, corn, refried beans, etc.
- Optional – Purchase small soup bowls and serve cooked rice so guest can create their own burrito bowls.
*Pasta Bar – What you’ll need
- 3 types of pasta, cooked al dente and drizzled with olive oil (ex: Gluten free penne, Brown rice fettuccine, Veggie rotini noodles)
- Minimum of 2 sauces – one red and one white
- Add-ons – Chopped chicken/meat, Chopped veggies – artichoke hearts, pimentos, roasted peppers, etc.,
- Optional – salad and breadsticks/garlic bread
* Popcorn Bar – What you’ll need
- Popcorn – Large basket filled with plain/lightly salted popcorn OR 3 flavors of popcorn (ex: Sweet- Kettle or caramel, Savory- Butter or Salt, Specialty- White cheddar or jalapeño)
- Variety of spices: Cinnamon, brown sugar, cumin, cayenne, garlic powder, Parmesan, etc.
- Variety toppings- Candy, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, bacon bits, jerky, cheese wisps, powdered sugar, etc. – Perfect time to clean out the pantry with items you purchased but never got around to using. If it’s not a health hazard to anyone, set it on the toppings table.
- White or Brown Paper Bag – as containers for guests to fill with popcorn creations