Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

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Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!