6 Ways to Make Kids' Birthday Parties More Fun and Less Wasteful

Have your cake, eat it too, and still avoid the overindulgence!
chocolate cake with a candle that says "let's party"
© Can Stock Photo / RuthBlack

Children’s birthday parties can be one of the most wasteful events there are. Typically replete with disposable dishes, wrapping paper you can’t recycle, and balloons that end up harming animals when they float away, they’re a perfectly eco-UNfriendly storm. This year, you’ve decided you’re going to green your kids’ birthday parties. But where do you start?

My own child was still a baby when I got invited to the birthday of the little neighbour girl who was turning six. Until that day, I hadn’t thought much about this new generation of birthday parties. Like most parents, I didn’t go to kids’ birthday parties until I had kids. When I was little, things were simpler, and birthday parties were simple affairs: my brother, sister, and myself eating a cake that my mom made, with one present to open afterwards. Now, the image that sticks in my mind is that of the little neighbour girl crying amidst a pile of debris: plastic packaging, pastel pink wrapping paper, and a pile of new plastic toys. Not to mention the pink cake, the disposable forks and cups, and the styrofoam plates. The little girl’s mother was a teacher and the father once worked at an environmental organization and they both cared, a lot, about all those things that you and I and most other parents care about: their child’s health, the future, Polar Bears.

Birthday parties just seem to be getting more extreme. There are destination parties that involve renting part of a museum, a pool, a beauty salon. There are those birthdays that involve layers of parties: one for the school friends, one for the parent’s friends, one for the family. Even the more mundane parties now involve elaborate gift bags full of plastic toys and candy. No one is immune; some of the most elaborate parties I’ve been to are hosted by the people with the least money.

“The ‘Super-Size’ birthday party trend can be quite invasive and it ends up affecting the entire family culture,” warns Maureen Gainer Reilly, a professional organizer and project manager who works with both Chicago’s most elite families and with non-profits serving at-risk youth. She is also the mother of three young children and my go-to for understanding how to talk and think about toys, gifts, and all that “stuff” with which we fill our homes.

At that first Super-Sized birthday party I attended, it was the volume of stuff that really awed me; the garbage bag weighed more than the child by the end of the party. And what to do with all those new presents? The material stuff, however, is just the beginning as Maureen tells it. There is also the growing pressure to partake in these birthday parties; to host them, to attend them, to let it become what we DO as a family. Maureen recommends that we think of these obligations as part of our “stuff.” “We limit sugar and media, we also need to limit the experiences of young children: including birthday parties,” she councils. Families need down time together to read, to bake cookies, and for children to feel bored. This necessitates saying “no” to many of the ever-mounting number of birthday invitations.

“It’s about keeping up with the Joneses. Birthday parties have become just another industry, like the wedding industry,” and it isn’t always easy to buck the trend, Maureen warns. “It can be just as hard when you are 35 and a mother as it was when you were 16 and a teenager.” It is possible, though, and it is worth it.

Indeed, in my own family, it took having a second child for me to leave behind my own earnest, over-reaching birthday parties and settle for something that was actually just about having fun together as a family. For our first birthday party we adopted a non-profit that helps survivors of torture; donations in lieu of gifts, volunteering together in lieu of partying, good will in lieu of gift bags. Our birthday parties are still earnest (donations instead of gifts and all of that), but now they are simple affairs that really are fun for the whole family: garden parties where people bring seeds and plants, small faerie parties with story-telling, a dance party in our living room with homemade pizza. Finally, remember that gift giving can always be more mindful. While I haven’t figured it all out, I have collected a number of useful tips to go from Super-Sized to just plain fun!

young girl covered in candy sprinkles
Copyright Creative Commons CC0

Getting More Celebration (and less STUFF) out of Birthday Parties

1. Just because you're invited doesn't mean you have to go

Before you even plan your first party, ensure that your family has a strategy for how you will handle birthday party invitations. Pretend you are a mother of four: would you spend your weekends driving your children to (or attending) all 100 parties of your children’s schoolmates? If you don’t know the parents and it isn’t your child’s very best friend, consider declining the invitation. Until your child is school age (or can read), your child doesn’t even have to know.

2. Simplify before greening

When the time comes for planning your own child’s birthday party, focus on simplifying versus greening. Ask yourself: “WHO am I celebrating?” What is new or different or extra-special about your child this year? This can be something like: Jill got braces and we want to celebrate SMILES or it could be the more standard Billy just started noticing trains, making train sounds, and he loves trains. Then, plan down. Don’t ask: “Does this huge blow-up train balloon fit into my train theme?” Ask instead: “Is this really necessary for Billy and (me) to have fun on this day?” Even better, ask yourself: Does MY child really need a party at all? Maybe Billy would have the most fun spending the day with his mother and father and big sister taking a trip on a train.

3. Make it age-appropriate

How old is your child? Just like you can have too much stuff to really enjoy any of it, you can have too many people at your party to really enjoy them. One trick is to equate your child’s age with the number of friends to invite: 6 years old, 6 friends. Once the party gets too big to hold in your house, it’s probably time to stop planning them for your children. For kids younger than preschool age, the birthday parties are really more for the parents. So, in that case, ask yourself “What kind of party do I want to throw for myself?” Your answer may be none. Guess what? Your child won’t be scarred by spending the day with just his immediate family - he might even prefer it.

4. Don’t say “No gifts”

People will want to give your child a gift, be it out of love or expectation. If you don’t want stuff, then tell people what you do want: a donation to the Operation SMILE fund that repairs cleft palates in Third World Countries, something handmade, or money towards one big gift, like a trip on a real train. If you do accept gifts, you can plan to have your child pick 1 or 2 of their new gifts to donate to a charity after the party.

And what to do about gifts at those other parties you are bound to attend where they say NO GIFTS but everyone will bring them anyway, or where they don’t say anything? Hold true to your values! You can be earnest and fun by tucking the donation card into one of those fun little cloth snack bags or buy a green product that everyone needs like another stainless steel sippy-cup. I’ve never heard a parent say that they wished their child would have received more gifts at the end of a party. So, stop worrying!

5. Ditch the goodie-bags

Kids may love them for the first two seconds, but most parents don’t love the fights over yet another piece of candy or where the bouncy ball bounced. Get rid of them! If you want to gift something to the people who are coming, give them something meaningful: a book, a little bag of homemade cookies or candies, a felt conductor’s hat for dress-up.

6. Last, green your plans

Now that your birthday party to-do list has shrunk, how can you green what is left? I’d start by figuring out a way to avoid disposable products of all sorts. If you have done a good job with steps #2 and #3 above, then this might actually be quite easy. If, however, you still have 20 people coming and no dishwasher, you might need to get more creative. First, see if you can avoid buying (and disposing) of any plastic. It’s hard, but it can be fun as well. Handmade decorations? Finger food instead of plates? Or, at least, compostable paper plates that you actually compost. Stainless steel cups and a bin of sudsy water for cleaning up, instead of disposable cups? Always, always, have your recycling bin and composting bin clearly marked and readily available to avoid that awful post-party clean-up where you are separating half-eaten birthday cake from aluminum cans. Not a very festive way to end a party!

More EcoParent Greener Birthday Party Tips!

  • Use e-invitations or make handmade invites out of recycled paper–try using old wrapping paper scraps to decorate them!

  • Take it Outdoors. Celebrating with a picnic at the park is not only inexpensive, it promotes outdoor play and physical activity rather than stuff. In the summer, try some of these fun activities. Having a winter party? Go ice-skating, have a snowman building contest or, for older kids, learn to build a quinzee-style snow shelter!

  • Choose reusable decorations. You already do this for winter holiday celebrations, so why not invest in reusable cloth birthday banners and flags instead of eco-nasty balloons and plastics? This will save you money in the long run!

  • Want to avoid using your regular dishes? Try compostable bamboo or sugar-cane options now available. Or, try a 100% recycled (and recyclable) set of plastic picnic dishes that you can use over and over again.

  • Try delicious and nutritious party treats. Check out these Honey Macaroons, Summer Berry Cupcakes, and these Watermelon Mint Popsicles! If you’re making your own cake, it really is worth using natural food colourings if you choose to colour the icing.

  • Check out our Tips for a Sustainable Birthday Celebration if you’re looking for some quick, environmentally friendly accoutrements!