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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Vacation in a Beautiful Place

Sunset over the Saint JohnFor Labor Day, I thought I would share some lovely pictures of the vacation we just had in New Brunswick, Canada.

You’ve already met the piglets. There were also cows in their native element, but I’ll tell you about that soon.

In the meantime, here’s some shots of the Bay of Fundy, with the largest tidal variations in the world.

Low tide:

IMG_0479IMG_0482And high tide:

IMG_0558The gorgeous hike along the trail in Fundy National Park:

IMG_0523 IMG_0517IMG_0514IMG_0546 Great food, including fiery pickles, homemade ice cream (and meringue from the egg whites left), lots of lobster and fresh low-bush blueberries and blackberries:

IMG_0903IMG_0496IMG_0641 IMG_0660Lots of swimming and fishing:

IMG_0753IMG_0707I’m also, as it turns out from pics, a sap for sunsets, Here’s one advancing across the Saint John River:

IMG_0913IMG_0950IMG_0955Have a relaxing holiday! Look out for a post this week on safer cosmetics and personal care products.

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Our Summer in Photos and a Remembrance

Nothing says summer like rhubarb.

Maya’s been in school a week now, so I figure, time for the photo-essay version of “What We Did Last Summer.” To re-cap:

Way back in May, I dumped my carcinogenic couch and got mad with the other protesters at a rally for the Safe Chemicals Act.

There were real jelly-fish, and fake ones.

There was food — lots of good food.

We enjoyed nearby Brookside Gardens.

And the Kingston Peninsula, in New Brunswick.

We made it to the beach, and met up with the wild horses on Assateague Island.

And, most poignant of all for me, we remembered and celebrated the long, fascinating life of my great-uncle, Russell MacCleery. Here’s what I read aloud about him at our service for family and friends up in Canada:

About Russell

He was a man who knew his way around a story.  He also knew his way around Washington, around a farm, around the state capitol in New Hampshire and other states, the backroads of New Brunswick.  He could shake the hand of a Senator, and then put on overalls and shingle a roof.

He was larger than life. He was born before women could vote, just five years after the first Model T car rolled off the line. In his life, he saw suffrage for women, two World Wars, the sprawling of highways all over the country, civil rights, a car in every garage, and so many transformations over a century of accelerating change.

He worked permanent things into the landscape. Some of the things he created in Washington, I have tried to undo. I couldn’t. They became, by his intention, part of the political structure, embedded.

He loved beautiful places. He fell in love with New Brunswick as a boy and it always got the better part of him, in a way. He was most himself here. He had lifelong friends, and family sitting all around, to hear his stories. And paint cans in the living room, and a box of frosting I once found in his kitchen from the 1950s.

I have sat for hours, listening to him. He could speak for hours! It was exhausting sometimes, actually. And now, I think back on those hours, and don’t regret a minute.

I miss his voice, that sudden guffaw, his good humor, even the anger he still carried towards my grandmother for making him do chores when he wanted to go out to a dance with Sanford instead, more than seventy years ago.

He had a way with a story, even one that told us more than he intended.

He was a natural historian, and capable of so many things, versatile, someone equally at home with cows and politicians.

There are few people with that capacity. I admired him, loved him like the grandfather I never knew, and miss him terribly, both the stories he told us, often more than once, and all those stories we will never hear again.

My Daughter Will Be Fine. How’s Yours?

Preschool

Preschool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an inversion of Project Runway, we were “out,” but now we’re “in.” This week, we learned that Maya could move off the wait list into a spot for the neighborhood’s co-op preschool, which only takes 12 children in her age group.

We were thrilled by this, obviously. The Co-op is close to our house and follows a Reggio-inspired curriculum, with a ton of fantastic literature, music and art.

Of course, getting in, as random as it was (a family is moving), also made us officially feel like Good Parents. We had checked the boxes, found the right school, gotten a babysitter, attended the two information sessions, submitted the application and the check. And, with perseverance and luck, we did it! At 20 months, our daughter is now on the Road to Success. (And we will have ample chance to prove our dedication to the model, as the co-op’s parental contributions are no joke.)

As ridiculous as this seems, for achievement-oriented parents, such ability to deliver the goods does feel, truthfully, like at least one important measure of how well we are doing.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on parents when really terrific resources are scarce, and makes parenting into a far more competitive sport than it should be.

When we were on the “outs,” I’ll admit to feeling a mild despair, along with the exhaustion of having to look around for a suitable alternative. We’d visited several other preschools over the past year, none to our liking. I had also been compiling a mental list of back-ups, including the local Waldorf school, and the Audubon Society’s preschool that I blogged about last week (which is lovely, but not that close to us).

The lack of really strong preschool options stunned me, actually, as we began this search. And it’s a sad statement, really, of how we have not updated our educational systems to take full account of the research, which, for more than 20 years, has pointed unequivocally to preschool (and pre-preschool) learning and environment as the foundation for educational attainment for kids.

For just a few examples, we now know that:

Contrast that with the bad news on this front that I heard on the radio in just the past few days: DC high schools fail to graduate (on-time) 60 percent (!!) of students. And Marketplace, a show I normally loathe for its pro-market bias and triviality, ran a decent series this week on projects happening around the country, some financially doomed, to engage low-income children in learning earlier in order to close educational gaps.

Along with everyone else, I’ve also followed the work in Harlem of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone. (I recommend the book by Paul Tough describing his efforts, “Whatever It Takes” which is a fascinating read.) Canada set up a system for students that was intended to provide the safety. security and growth of a suburban upbringing. As Tough writes, his supports are “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods.”

One of Canada’s many key innovations was his recognition that parenting classes – for parents of newborns – and access to high-quality preschool programming, would make kids far more ready to attend school, and would create the building blocks for success even among very low-income families with lower educational levels among the parents.

Canada’s pioneering work has been successful in moving children to become academic successes. And he’s been at it for almost a decade. What’s really amazing is that his set of comprehensive tools, commonsense as it is, and his focus on the critical period of infancy and early childhood, remain largely disregarded in practice elsewhere in the country.

There isn’t the money, nor is there the political commitment, to ensure that every child in America gets a learning-friendly environment at home, and that every child attends a quality preschool. In fact, the new budget fight being waged this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) would slash and burn supports for low-income families in order to pay for military spending, which is just sickening, really. According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md), a report by the Congressional Budget Office “found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.” To pay for bombers, literally. It’s like a bad joke on a bumper sticker.

In short, we have a long fight ahead of us. But the costs of not doing this are astronomical, both as measured in the quality of children’s lives and in the social and economic price.

Of course, if Maya had not gotten into our preferred school, there would have been another preschool, perhaps less convenient or ideal, but still high quality. And her home environment is nurturing in every way I know to make it, based on both my reading and on how my parents raised me.  Put that with the quality of the food she eats and my persistent (albeit quirky) efforts to provide a healthy environment for her, and the advantages compound quickly.

But even as I do what it takes to ensure her health and growth, I also recognize that for every child like Maya, many more children lack basic things, like enough food to eat, or a caring and attentive adult in their lives. (Case in point: I once spent several days sweeping broken glass and wires out of a DC elementary school classroom, helping to get it ready for a teacher friend. The computers given to the school by some foundation were being used as doorstops, because there was no one that could be spared to maintain a network and lab.)

When you have a child, and must engage in the current, demanding contest for resources directly on their behalf, these sharp distinctions become far more real. And it’s far too easy to “get yours” and move on, being happy because this time, you happen to be on the list instead of off.

But if all the more resource-rich parents merely wangle a way for their family, it will never create the urgency we need for change on a much more fundamental level. Simply put, it’s clear that we will never address the underlying causes of poverty unless we take far more seriously what we must do to provide a strong foundation for very young children, from infancy through kindergarten.

We’re falling far short now, both on addressing poverty and on challenging families to do what they can to develop strong foundations in early childhood. Almost one-third of children 2 and under have television sets in their bedrooms. In their rooms! Which makes them more sedentary and emotionally stunted, studies show. And a shocking one-half of preschool-age children do not get a chance to be outside and play daily, meaning that some of that mental mapping is just … missing. Combine that with the chemicals and sugar in children’s foods and it’s easy to see where the obesity epidemic is coming from.

(And I think the official explanations on this point are facile: chemicals likely play a much larger role than anyone is admitting. The Institute of Medicine’s report this week on childhood obesity focuses on diet and exercise, but fails to explain why those factors alone could possibly be enough to cause Type 2 diabetes in children to go from ZERO in the 1970s to far too common today. Having grown up in the 70s, I remember kids eating a lot of Little Debbie snackcakes while watching Three’s Company all afternoon. If those kids didn’t have diabetes, I’ll submit that there must be something more to it.)

To my larger point on early childhood: perhaps it’s hubris, but I can tell you right now, sitting here today, I firmly believe that Maya will be fine. (Or at least as “fine” as someone can be with nutjobs like us for parents.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ok letting all the other two-year-olds who didn’t make the list, or, more likely, weren’t on any list, just watch TV, inside, eating crap, instead of playing outside and attending a really good preschool that will make them into the kind of kids who will be good pals to Maya and help me cross the street in my old age.

It’s as though the project we all started more than a hundred years ago – this task of publicly educating children – remains half-done. What we now know is that the period before kindergarten is just as critical, and may be even more critical, to a child’s success in life than the time after.

So why isn’t there more urgency on this question? There should be a school like our Co-op on every other corner – so many that there aren’t any lists to get in. And if government funds are needed to make it happen, this modest investment would likely pay for itself many times over, in more productive and valuable workers, artists, and innovators (and fewer prison cells).

Sure, most parents want the best for their children. But there’s a lot stacked against their ability to deliver nurturing and challenging opportunities. What I take away from our own relief at now, as of this week only, being on the “inside” of a good preschool for our daughter, is that what we really need is for parents – and the politicians they vote for – to want the best for every child.

How do we get there? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas…