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

IMG_1460

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!

You might also like:

A Greener Easter

IMG_6266

Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!

Merry Christmas! And a Winter Wonderland of Crafts

IMG_5916

It almost snowed today! At least, we got a few half-hearted flurries. Which fit wonderfully with our latest crafty ventures — winter wonderland painted creations. The supplies are simple, the options endless, and — most important — the toddler happy.

We whipped up three crafty projects using more-or-less the same materials: a few pieces of holiday-colored construction paper, some white tempera paint, and silver glitter. Life is just better with glitter, despite the fact I couldn’t really figure out what the sparkle is made of …anyway, even I sometimes think you just have to go for it.

For all these little adventures, the first step is to decorate four construction paper pages (2 pages of red, and 2 of green) with patterns in thick white paint. I did spots and stripes; Maya preferred a more abstract appearance. No matter, it all looks like snowy loveliness.

The “beads” for the garlands are excellent, easy lacing beads for a toddler — especially one, like Maya, who still needs help with regular lacing beads and their smaller holes.

Of course, no holiday theme needed. If you’re feeling like doing less, no reason not to just snip the cardboard rolls into pieces (covered with construction paper or not, as you like) and let the toddler draw on them with crayon, and them lace them onto whatever’s handy for a ribbon.

IMG_5900

What you’ll need for the basic supplies:

  • 2 pieces of red and 2 pieces of green construction paper
  • White tempera paint (I did not use “eco” paint, as the consistency is critical, but did use Crayola “non-toxic” paint)
  • Brushes (small ones — like those in a watercolor set — are fine)
  • Craft glue (I like this one, which claims to be less toxic and safer than most)
  • Decently sharp scissors

Project 1:  Garlands and ornaments

In addition to the above, to make a “garland” you’ll need:

  • Paper towel or toilet paper rolls
  • Ribbon for lacing

To make the garland, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry.

IMG_5902 IMG_5903

Cut to size and glue the paintings onto the cardboard rolls, then let dry.

IMG_5914

Once dry, using the pointed end of sharp scissors, cut through to make “beads” of about an inch each. Cut your ribbon and let the toddler string ’em up! (See image at top.)
To make the “ornaments,” you’ll need:
  • A steady hand for cutting shapes or cookie cutters in holiday shapes
  • Silver glitter

To make the ornaments, trace and cut out — or just freehand — the shapes as you like.

IMG_5908

Paint with white paint and decorate with glue and glitter.

IMG_5911

Cut a small hole and hang from a ribbon, tied with a bow. String onto your garland, if you or your tiny artistic visionary would like.

Project 2: Easy holiday cards

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Glue pen (I used this one, from my pal Martha Stewart, which was just ok)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • White cardstock or all-blank cards from a craft store

To make the cards, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry. (Note: our 4 pieces were enough to make all of these projects.)

Next, cut a simple holiday shape from the painted paper and fold the white cardstock into a “card.” I used a very basic Christmas tree, cut to fit nicely onto the “card.”

Arrange and glue onto front of card. Using the glue pen, decorate with messages and glitter as you like.

IMG_5938

IMG_5935

Project 3:  Holiday door or wall hanging

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Ivory felt (we used a piece about 1 1/2 feet square)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • Glue pen or small-tipped glue bottle
  • Narrow ivory silk ribbon
  • Square piece of white cardstock
  • If adding fringe, a ruler is useful
  • Double slit hole punch — but only if you have it handy

Again, paint and let dry your construction paper. Cut out simple holiday shapes — I used a Christmas tree again, and arrange your designs on the white cardstock square.

IMG_5949

Using the sharpest scissors you have (and fabric scissors if you have them). cut the felt to match the square, leaving 2 1/2 to 3 inches at the bottom for a fringe if desired. Glue the cardstock to the felt, matching the top edge.

IMG_5951

Lay the ruler on the felt just at the white paper, and cut a fringe at about every 1/2 inch, all the way across the bottom.

Lay out and glue on your painted shapes. Using the glue pen or glue dots, add glitter as you like.

IMG_5958

With a hole punch if you have one, or the scissors, punch or cut a pair of slits in the top corners. Cut two two-foot lengths of ribbon. Using the scissor blade as you need, thread the first ribbon through the hole. Then thread the second ribbon through the other hole and repeat on the other side.
IMG_5953
Tie a bow on one side, and then the second side, keeping the ribbons an even length and straight.
IMG_5954

Hang and enjoy! It’s a charming and not too cheesy way to allow your child to make something for display. I’m sure that years from now, taking this out at Christmas will make me smile.

IMG_5958 IMG_6002###

Sitting here tonight, I do have a Christmas eve feeling of being blessed. The craft supplies are tidied up, and there are an abundance of trinkets under the tree.

The flurries evaporated, but for Maya, it’s the first Christmas that she will notice, and today we made our own snow! She’s been talking about Santa all week, with a kind of wistful curiosity. And demanding we play Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, over and over again.

After what we have all been through in the past few weeks, we should all take comfort — and joy — whenever and wherever we can. I deeply appreciate the readers of this wee blog, and hope your blessings are as ample this year as ours do feel to me, just now.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

DIY Gift: Photo or Holiday Card Wine Corkboards

IMG_5853

It cost two dollars and 42 cents, which is cheaper than a cup of coffee these days. When I saw this shabby chic porcelain frame (with emphasis on the shabby) at our local Value Village last week, I just knew it was destined for grander things.

I pondered for a while, then happened across these fun, modern handmade corkboards, and knew what had to happen. I collected our few corks, and petitioned the list serv for more. They came through for me, as always, offering up 40 or so corks from several families. (One woman also mentioned this very cool art supply recycling place in Washington, DC, which is now on my list for a near-future visit.)

The advantage of corks for hanging a photo, besides their nifty visual appeal, is the ease of changing the images. You could use a large-format version of this project for holiday cards or children’s artwork, while smaller ones work well for family snaps that you want to switch with frequency. They also look great in multiples, as shown here.

This project is fast and easy once the supplies are rounded up, and is a great way to up-cycle well-used frames and get more life out of wine corks. Any size frame will work, though I’ll note that 5X7 was a good fit for the corks, including a sideways row. You’ll also need about twice as many corks as you think, given their variance in thickness and length. The trick is to play around until they fit neatly, and to make subtle trims with a very sharp paring knife in any corks that are too long or wide, in places where the cuts won’t show.

I removed the glass so that if I decided later on I would rather have a picture frame without the corks, I could pop them out with the paper and reinstall the glass.

IMG_5849

What you’ll need:

  • Picture frame (there are always tons at thrift stores!)
  • Background paper to fill the opening in the frame in a complimentary color (cardstock works well for this)
  • Wine corks sufficient to fill the opening in the frame, plus some
  • Hot glue gun (a small one works fine) and glue sticks
  • Thumbtacks for photos
  • Paring knife

Directions:

Tinker with the corks you have on hand, trimming as needed with a paring knife, until they fit neatly in the frame without popping up or putting too much pressure on each other. Remove them carefully to maintain your design.

IMG_5852

Cut the background paper cardstock to fit the opening and put it into the frame. Restore the corks. One at a time, glue to the paper with the most interesting part of each cork’s design facing outward, using a thick strip of glue, and press each for a moment.

Once finished, let it dry for a few minutes, then use the thumbtacks to add a photo or two. Hang and enjoy!

IMG_5856

IMG_5861

###

Of course, picture frames make a lovely gift, particularly when filled with a nice photo. I love these unique frames from Scrappin’ Sassy on Etsy, which add a whimsical touch (and she takes custom orders if you have a paper design you love, as I did for Maya’s nursery). And here’s a nice idea for a framed, fabric earring holder from a fellow blogger that looks simple enough to make for a gift.

One more idea: you can also frame chalkboard paper for a simple home-made chalkboard. The contact paper sticks onto anything and can be easily trimmed to size, as I did below for our kitchen using a simple drugstore frame just after Maya was born.

20100923_maya_baby_0109

Chalkboard paper also looks great cut into shapes like circles for the wall of a playroom! And here’s some fun (and safer) veggie-based chalk for use indoors by the kiddos.

Used Wooden Blocks and Trucks — Made New Again

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make me happy.

I love finding castoff items and making them new again, or at least more attractive and interesting to use. Knowing this, when my mom’s neighbor offered some battered and hideous wooden blocks for free, in a dirty state, she knew they were for me!

Here’s the before:

New solid wood blocks are frighteningly expensive, and can cost as much as $100 bucks for 32 nifty blocks. Of course, if you or someone you know are handy with a circular saw and sander, there’s really no reason you couldn’t make these yourself in some interesting but perhaps more basic shapes. (And here’s a link to an amazingly cool shop in Maine that sells wood pieces in shapes of all kinds, including cubes and eggs, for great prices.)

After giving them a good clean and dry, and even letting them hang out on the back porch for a while, I took some linseed oil to them with a lint-free rag. I also removed a few stray nails. It took a lot of oil, but they are now a beautiful chocolate color, and the Playskool logo even shows up on the ends. Of course, they do have some character, but all the better.

I also had stumbled across some plain wooden trucks — one was in a bag on the last day of a church rummage sale for a quarter, and another for a dollar at a yard sale. I bathed these in oil, and they look far better, even with their very simple wood design.

Before:

And after:

What fun! And to see Maya playing with them now is even more delightful.

Hope everyone is having a relaxing holiday weekend! Going to warm up some cider and pop some popcorn now. It’s just that kind of evening, isn’t it?

###