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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Have Yourself a Merry (and Non-Toxic!) Christmas

IMG_5821Just like the folks at Fox News say, at my house every year there is a War on Christmas. A War on Christmas hazards, that is.

I actually get all ooey gooey over Christmas. I love bedecking the mantel with snowmen (where are all the snow ladies, anyway?), reciting the Night before Christmas until even Maya is rolling her eyes, and I’ve already festooned our house iPod with overly cheerful holiday tunes.

But I’ll skip the excessive materialism, toxic chemicals, and baubles made by enslaved children, thank you very much. Or at least give it the old elfin try.

I’ve been making my list, and checking it twice. So here’s a few things to think about this holiday season as you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas:

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O Christmas Tree

If you can find a source for organic trees — or find the time to go get your own — this is worth doing. Ours comes conveniently from a lovely neighbor in Takoma Park, who runs a CSA farm and also cultivates sustainable, organic trees.

Why go organic? Keep in mind that trees are brought into your house in the middle of winter, when you are least likely to open the windows, and the needles tend to get everywhere. While no one appears to have measured pesticide exposure in the home from bringing in a Christmas tree, this is an utterly avoidable risk, and we do know that trees are sprayed liberally with nasty pesticides and fungicides. In places like Oregon, the pesticide atrazine is sprayed from the trees aerially on Christmas tree farms, and such indicriminate spraying harms both animals and water quality.

Need more convincing? Here’s two well done articles, one from the New York Times, and another recent piece that notes:

No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.

While you’re at it, be aware that conventional liquid tree food is full of toxins, and are in a bowl which can be lapped up by the dog or splashed in by a toddler. There’s no point in going organic halfway, particularly when it’s so easy to make tree food with sugar, lemons and water (or with store-bought lemonade if you like). I use half a lemon, fresh squeezed and a tablespoon of sugar in as much water as needed (the proportions aren’t picky).

Although natural is best, keep in mind that many holiday decorating plants are quite toxic if eaten. Both holly and mistletoe berries are very poisonous, and can even be fatal if consumed by children. Bittersweet, boxwood, and even pine can also cause problems if eaten. So hang those wreaths high!

Allergies can be an issue too. And if you live someplace like South Texas, as the allergist Dr. Claudia Miller wrote to me today, be very wary of the evergreens like the Texas Mountain Cedar, which have, as she wrote, “some of the highest pollen counts known to mankind.” They pollinate right in time for Christmas, and unsuspecting folks have been known to develop allergies overnight from bringing them indoors.

Even with all this, the natural options are preferable, because artificial trees and fake greenery are typically made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a terrible plastic that off-gasses, mixed with lead, a potent and notorious neuro-toxin. Again, the heath risks are not clear. As one study concluded:

Results from these experiments show that, while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.

Another article debunks the notion that fake trees are somehow “greener” (after all, PVC is not a biodegradable material), and describes a troubling federal study on exposures:

In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”

Why bring these risks into your home? There are so many other ways to decorate, as well as more natural options for greenery! I heartily recommend tchotchkes as one way to go.

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Sadly, Christmas lights are also a problem: most commercial lights (like most appliance cords, btw) are made of a mix of PVC and lead as well. Here’s what one lightmaker says:

The lead in holiday string lights is used as an additive to the Polyvinyl Chloride wire covering. The lead acts as a heat resistant insulator and is also used to help stabilize the coloring of the wire. All PVC contains some sort of metal stabilizer including lead, cadmium or tin. Christmas lights have contained lead since they have used PVC as an insulating coating and pose no danger with normal use. Lead containing PVC is used in many common household applications including the PVC piping used to deliver our drinking water, other electrical cords which are insulated with PVC, and even car keys.

You should wear gloves, ideally, when sorting them out from their inevitable spaghetti tangle, and/or wash your hands well after hanging them up. Do not let kids touch or play with them either, obviously. She does not cite a source, but toxics expert Debra Lynn Dadd does say “they are fine when hanging. They don’t outgas lead, you just don’t want to touch them.”

For better options, some LED lights — allegedly such as those sold by Ikea or this Environmental Lighting site — meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which requires them to be virtually lead-free. I did schlepp to Ikea last year to look at the LED options, which was a special kind of awful given the amount of off-gassing particle-board in any Ikea, but I did not like the LED lights at all. They were faint, tiny and gave off a cold white light without enough twinkle to be Christmas-y.

I also checked out the Environmental Lighting site, but you need to buy a controller and power source for the lights, which makes changing to LED a significant investment of around $100 or so.

When I think of the amount of PVC and lead involved in traditional lights, it makes me sad. At least some places have recycling programs for them (and some LED sellers offer discounts in exchange)! And perhaps the LED types will improve over time. If folks are aware of nicer LED options, please do let me know.

Candles are also a common holiday touch, and a nice one at that! Unfortunately, conventional candles are made of paraffin wax, and many wicks contain lead. From Healthy Child, Healthy World:

Though the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asked candle manufacturers to replace lead wicks with zinc, compliance is voluntary and imported candles are not checked; in addition, commercial-grade zinc and zinc alloys used in wicks contain lead.

Aside from the wick, the candle wax can also be a respiratory irritant. Wax can be made of petroleum paraffin, which emits toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde when burned (these are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins).

And the now-ubiquitous scented ones use chemical scents that typically contain pthalates, a chemical used in fragrances for many household items that has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems. At our house, we do have some regular unscented candles to use as decorations, but we only burn the ones that are natural beeswax.

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Deck the Halls 

Those lovely ornaments on the tree are a source of additional concern. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!), so be sure that they do not get handled or mouthed by children.

And speaking of children, you may be interested to know that on December 5th, 14 children in India were freed from enslavement in a sweatshop where they were working to make Christmas ornaments for Western customers. Where you can, it’s always best to buy Fair Trade, to buy them from craftspeople, or make your own decorations. Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Fair Indigo are great resources for these, which also make wonderful gifts!

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Joy to the World

I’ll be posting soon with a round of gift options on the greener side and some DIY ideas for presents. In the meantime, I’ll try to resurrect the real spirit of Christmas (and shake off the toxic bah-humbugs) by commending to you some of my favorite, more off-beat, holiday tunes.

First, what could possibly be a better deal than Sufjan Steven’s wonderful 4-disc Christmas music set for a cool $15? Simply called “Songs for Christmas,” these are ethereal takes on familiar songs, alongside his own eclectic synth-folk signature songwriting. (Just order the actual box-set, because it comes with some extras and a cute little book.) Along similar lines, I adore the un-done beauty of Low’s album, “Christmas,” and especially am grateful for “Just Like Christmas,” which is Low at it’s pop-highest.

Because nothing says the holidays like a nostalgic political anthem, I’ll also throw in a plea for you to give Steve Earle’s earnestly progressive “Christmastime in Washington” a listen, if only just to recall what the early aughts felt like ’round these parts. And then, last but not least, kick up your heels and stoke your indignation about why the GOP won’t bend to reason on tax rates for the wealthy by indulging in The Kinks’ completely awesome, rockin’ ode to Xmas equality: “Father Christmas.”

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

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