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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Green Tips for Thrifty Parents

A pretty spring dress I found for Maya for $5.00

Recycling is the ultimate green thing to do, and for parents it’s a great way to save money for other things you’ll need.

To be honest, I’ve always loved thrift stores and second-hand clothing.  As a brand new “public interest” lawyer saddled under by student loans, I would organize my seasonal “wardrobe” (read: collection of old clothes) in time to try to trade it in for new duds at one of those snobby consignment shops in DC. It was one good way to get new clothes on a lean budget.

For kids’ clothes, of course, it makes even more sense. They wear everything for a nanosecond, and, based on what I see in the thrift stores and at yard sales, there’s a lot of aspirational cuteness involved in parents’ purchases.

We also pick up books – including library-quality hardcovers – from thrift stores, and church, school and library sales. I look for nicer books, and tend to also store away copies of kiddie lit classics like Little House on the Prairie when I come across them for a quarter, both because they’re a good deal and because I’m already sentimentally imagining sharing them with my girl.

Toys, obviously, are trickier. If some gizmo has been part of a safety recall, you would never find out about it. So I look for brands I know, and stay away from electronics (with metals that can degrade) and plastic stuff. If tempted, I check it over carefully for loose parts, choking hazards and overall quality. If a nicer item is being sold over the listserv, I’ll often check the reviews online to make sure it’s as good as it seems.

Cardboard puzzles are great choices, generally, if all the pieces are there, and there are excellent deals on popular games like Chutes & Ladders. (I would skip the “wooden” puzzles, as these are often made of fiberboard, which off-gasses formaldehyde.) I also pick up nice baskets for sorting all Maya’s stuff for pennies.

And of course, there’s furniture. If you can find solid wood items, that’s really a score. Craigslist is another good source for these, as are flea markets.

Here are some more tips for going green while thrifting:

The Don’ts

1)   Steer clear of bling. Cheap children’s and adult jewelry have been found to have lead and other toxic metals in them, as have those metal decorations on sweatshirts and jeans, as well as metal belt buckles on belts that are often sewn into pants for children.

2)   Avoid large decals. Most children’s and adult’s shirts with decorative decals use vinyl, or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). (This goes for new clothes too.) The older the shirt, the more likely it’s cracking and stuff is flaking off. Embroidered designs or clothes with the images woven into the fabric itself are better ways to go.

3)   Don’t buy pajamas unless they are clearly labeled “not flame resistant.” (Even I am not going to bother asking a company if a $2 pajama has chemical flame retardants in it.) Better to find a retailer with plain cotton pjs and layer those.

4)   Shoes are tricky – most cheap children’s shoes (including the ones we buy new) are “man-made materials,” i.e., plastic. They break down over time. On the other hand, I’ve seen some great like-new shoes that are leather at yard sales and picked those up.

5)   Raincoats and rainboots are also generally made of PVC (and there is PVC-free raingear available now), so I avoid those as well.

6)   I also tend to skip stuffed animals, plastic figures and old dolls. They all seem to multiply like rabbits whenever I’m not looking in the corners of Maya’s room, and there’s only a few she cares about. Dolls are mainly made of vinyl (PVC) and other plastics. Many stuffed animals are filled with plastic pellets, which could degrade, or foam or other petrochemical-based materials, and are dust and dirt magnets.

What to Look For

1)   Fancy dresses and coats tend to get very little wear and be in great shape (but check for stains!) – and are very expensive to buy new.

2)   For girls, jumpers are a great option. If they are big enough in the shoulders and arms, they may fit for several seasons, first as a dress and then as a shirt.

3)   Look several sizes ahead and buy the good labels across several seasons. The labels’ sizes can be completely off, so when I really have my act together, I bring a current dress of Maya’s and measure it against the other items, so that I can better identify what might fit both this year and next.

4)   Allow some time. Some stores are highly organized, but more often you find a jumble of sizes and seasons, and will need to go through it to see what’s really there. On occasion, Maya sleeps through this process. More often, I have to come back a few times. But when you do find things, you can buy a bunch at a time for not a lot of dough, which means fewer trips to the store.

5)   Some stores (like our local Value Village) have savings days or sticker programs where you can save even more. These may not be posted, so inquire.

6)   Costumes for the dress-up box are always great – funny hats and boas, as well as doll clothes from the baby items. The last time, I picked up a felt “Davy Crockett” raccoon cap Maya loves to prance around in for a quarter.

Of course, wash everything in environmentally friendly laundry soap.

It’s really great to watch Maya spill finger paint all over the shirt I bought for a buck. Do you have other tips for parents on recycling, thrifting, or finding things affordably?