Despite the birthday parties of my childhood happening to be fairly simple affairs, they remain some of my most treasured childhood memories.
My mother would make sausage rolls and cupcakes and choreograph games of pass the parcel, musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey to an ever-captive audience. Everyone would then gather around the birthday cake, which would be an exact replica of my chosen one in The Australian Woman’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, and sing Happy Birthday while I blew out the candles.
Fast forward a few decades, add the Pinterest pressure to perform, and it would seem that expectations for children’s birthday parties have skyrocketed. Invitations, cake, food, decorations and party goodie bags all need to be “social media worthy”. So it’s not surprising that so many mums feel sick to the stomach at the mere thought of hosting a birthday party for their child, not to mention the expense and associated waste of the event!
From disposable plates to decorations and a large bundle of gifted cheap plastic toys, birthday parties are typically wasteful affairs. But the good news is you don’t need to feel like a party pooper just because you’d prefer a simpler affair with less waste.
Here are my top tips to hosting a memorable birthday party that is kinder to the environment.
(1) Control your Numbers
By far the most obvious way to reduce the waste (and cost) of your celebration is to keep your numbers in check.
It has only been in recent years when parties for pre-school children have become popular and, indeed, many first birthday parties are now as grand as a typical 21st bash. Birthday party guest lists for very young children tend to blow out very easily when parents of the guest and other siblings come as a package with your child’s friend. Set a realistic total for the number of guests you would like and stick to it.
As your children get older you may wish to reduce the numbers further and take the children on a special outing or host a sleepover.
(2) Buck the Trend
There is no law that says children need to have a birthday party every year or, worse, multiple parties to cater for friends and family separately. Consider the sense of entitlement and consumption you may be encouraging by hosting a grand affair each birthday and ask yourself if you are indeed doing this for your child or to keep up with your Facebook friends.
You could instead host a party on the odd or even number birthday for your child and just a have a family birthday cake on the “off” year. This may be particularly realistic if you have multiple children, a job and a household to run. It is absolutely fine to say no and set your own rules.
(3) It’s Not a Wedding Cake
I personally love baking and the creative challenge that comes with making a beautiful birthday cake but the thought of making a cake instils deep fear in most of my friends. It is here where the pressure to perform seems to be the greatest, and it is easy to get caught up in the hype and overextend yourself (either in the kitchen or financially).
If the thought of making a cake fills your stomach with butterflies, remind yourself that kids’ birthday cakes aren’t wedding cakes. A simple number, cut from a large slab cake, iced and covered in Smarties is colourful, delicious – and sure to be a hit!
(4) Feeding the Masses
With the incidence of food intolerances growing among children, catering for parties is getting trickier. Keeping things simple is the key to minimising waste and fuss.
Fruit skewers, pikelets, a simple BBQ or sandwiches are more than fine for a party. You could even involve the children in preparing the food and have them make their own mini pizzas.
Rather than buy individual bottles of water or juice, which create a waste problem, provide a large bowl of non-alcoholic punch or juice. Invest in some colourful party melamine plates and cups to re-use time and time again or if you just can’t face the dishes, check out the biodegradable disposable tableware options that are readily available these days.
(5) Decorations to Die For
To keep waste and costs low, consider making bunting from recycled paper, buying biodegradable latex balloons or host the party in your local playground and skip decorations altogether.
If your child has their heart set on a themed birthday party, (particular a licensed theme such as The Wiggles or Thomas and Friends), it can be hard to keep your decorations in check. If this is the case, just buy one or two feature decorations and tie the cake in with the theme.
(6) Entertaining the Troops
If you’re intending to provide some entertainment for your young guests you don’t need to go out and buy a jumping castle or ball pit. Time-favoured games are just as fun now as they ever were.
Musical chairs, pass the parcel and egg-and-spoon races never go out of fashion. Use your child’s paintings to wrap the pass the parcel and don’t feel you need to have a prize in every layer!
If you’re feeling a little more creative, and your child is of school age, you could host a nature treasure hunt. Give each child a paper bag with a list of things to find and watch them delight in searching for items such as feathers, cocoons, sticks, rocks and leaves.
An activity that also cleverly doubles as a party favour is to have each child plant a seedling (perhaps a kitchen herb) to take home.
(7) Presence not Presents
Hosting a large birthday generally results in your child receiving truckloads of presents, many of which are cheap plastic toys.
Rather than requesting guests not bring a gift (I have found this to be ineffective as guest naturally like to show their love and appreciation), you could ask them to contribute towards a more substantial gift, donate to a charity instead, or gift an experience such as a trip to the zoo or a concert. Alternatively, you could ask guests to supply a prize for a game instead of gifting a present.
If your child is still inundated with gifts it is fine to save presents to bring out during the year (especially relevant for children with birthdays around Christmas time) or even re-gift or donate items that they really don’t need.
(8) Good Goodie Bags
The typical goodie bag my sons receive from parties is a plastic bag full of lollies and cheap toy fillers. It really doesn’t take much extra effort to give the goodie bag an eco facelift. A simple paper bag with treats like homemade play dough, biscuits or even plant seeds is just as sure to delight!
The key to hosting an eco-friendly children’s party is simplicity. By keeping numbers small and expectations in check, it is possible to host a memorable, low-stress celebration for your child that doesn’t overflow your wheelie bin or break your budget.
About the author: Laura Trotta is an ecoceptionalTM mum, environmental engineer and founder of Sustainababy. She is passionate about helping parents lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Laura lives in regional South Australia with her husband and two young sons.
This article was featured in Issue 33, Winter 2014 of My Child Magazine.
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