How to plan a toddler birthday party with zero time and even less money.

It’s not that I believe I am a bad mother.  Generally speaking, I feel fairly confident in my abilities as a parent – the only time I really feel myself failing is in the middle of the night when my daughter is crying out for me and I pretend to be asleep until my husband gets out of bed to go put her back to sleep, though I guess this speaks more to me being a bad spouse than a bad mom.

Late night wakings aside, I do my best to be present and to be patient.  I am committed and consistent and consistently, constantly, madly in love with my child.  But I have come to accept that there are certain things I am really and truly not very good at.  I’m not good at brushing my daughter’s hair or dressing her in anything other than dirty sneakers and clashing prints.  I’m not very good at keeping a strict snack and nap schedule (which, yeah, I know, probably explains all of those sleep troubles), or figuring out how to introduce new foods in a way that actually make my daughter want to eat them.  I’m not any good at anything even remotely cute or crafty (my crafty side died when I went to art school and realized I really was nothing but a writer after all).  And I’m really, really, really not good at planning parties.

Which is why I am so very proud of that fact that I actually managed to pull this one off.

Toddler Heaven

My daughter turns two this week, just in time for spring classes to start and my husband’s delivery date on a project that’s been many months in the making and the general sort of traffic jam of responsibilities that always, as an educator, corresponds to the academic calendar.  But despite the scheduling complications, and despite the fact that we way overdid it on Christmas (meaning, shelling out now for another party and another round of gifts didn’t exactly fit into our “just survive the next few months and we’ll be okay” budget), we wanted a party.

Or, more specifically, I wanted a party.  Because for all of my ineptitude at event planning, Koukla loves parties.  She loves parties that we go to and she loves parties that we have at our house.  She loves people and joy and celebration and the least I could do was give her one day full of this one thing that brings her so much happiness.

So how does one plan a toddler birthday party in a few days, with not much more than a few dollars?  If your mommy deficiencies line up with mine, read on (no confectioner’s sugar or cookie decorating here, I promise).

Rule #1: Barbeques are for the birds.   I hate backyard barbeques (standing around and eating charred hotdogs off of a soggy, ketchupy paper plate is just so uncivilized), so even if the party is happening on a perfect summer day (or a perfect summer day during what used to be called winter in Los Angeles), my first instinct is to do anything but use the barbeque.  Add in a bunch of sugar high children and my aversion becomes an absolute No Way Josefina!  Do you really want a dozen toddlers running around the yard with a big HOT barbeque waiting to burn their little fingers off?  Right.  That’s where street food comes in.  It’s cheap, it’s fast.  It was designed to be eaten standing up.  We spent five minutes on the phone with our favorite taco stand the day before the party and fifteen minutes driving to pick up the food on the morning of, and we managed to feed all of our grownups and less-picky children for less than five bucks a head.  The bottle of ketchup alone would have cost more.

Rule #2: Let them eat cake.  Remember that these are kids we’re talking about.  They aren’t going to care if the ice cream cake came from the artisanal patisserie or the Baskin Robbins up the street.  Don’t waste time calling around to get quotes or to find the perfect pistachio rosebud vanilla combination.  Go online and order something cheap and fast.  The only people eating it will have taste buds as highly developed as a very hungry caterpillar, who, you know, would eat anything you put in front of him.

Rule #3: Cheap beer.  You know why only the kids will be eating cake?  Because cake doesn’t go with beer.  And cake especially doesn’t go with the watery, cheap, canned beer that is most appropriate for an 11am event with minors present (unless you really want a yard full of swaying parents too sloshed to chase after their own kids, which somehow doesn’t sound fun to me).

Rule #4: Yes, really, caterpillar taste buds.  Some kids might eat tacos.  But some kids (like my precious picky eater two year old) won’t eat what the grown ups eat, whether it’s tacos or gyros or bocadillos de tortilla.  And for those kids, there’s mac and cheese, from a box, that you probably already have in your cupboard.  Throw in all of those easy squeeze fruit crushers or extra applesauce containers that you also already have lying around in your cupboard, and you’ve basically fed the kids for free (and freed up some space in the cupboards in the process – win/win all around).

Rule #5:  Seriously, they’re just kids.  Throw a blanket on the grass.  Juice up the bubble machine.  Pull out those plastic balls that you keep hiding from your kid when you’re home alone.  Scour Amazon on your “break” to find super cheap party favors that will keep them all occupied and learning about sharing for the duration of the day.  You would be amazed what can be bought for less than five dollars – a dozen boxes of crayons, a dozen star-shaped sunglasses, a dozen little tubs of playdough, enough tiny bottles of happy birthday bubbles to last a lifetime.  The only waste of time here was my attempt to make the loot basket festive by tying a giant bow around it – within two minutes the ribbon was torn off and covered in mud.  Because kids don’t care about ribbons.  They just want the playdough.

Good mom, bad mom, very bad party planner…  In one afternoon my daughter ate more sugar than she had eaten in the entire previous 24 months of her life.  She rubbed playdough and bubble juice all over her face and dress and all through her unbrushed hair, she polished her favorite shoes with grass stains, and she squealed and skipped and laughed her way through the entire event.  Who cares if my child was the dirtiest, tiredest, most sunburnt child on the block?  She was also the happiest.

Happy birthday Koukla!

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6 thoughts on “How to plan a toddler birthday party with zero time and even less money.

  1. I LOVE this! It totally reminds me of the party for our oldest when he was 2 and we lived in Philadelphia. We made it into an informal outdoor block party and people brought food, Betty Crocker baked the cake, and while we did resort to the BBQ, we totally drank cheap beer (plus the fancy kind all our cool neighbors brought us!) The following year we threw in a double baptism and had a former minister friend throw water on the four month old twins five minutes before the scheduled block party. Ha!
    Your party looks absolutely perfect! Way to go, Mama!

    Like

    1. There is no shame in a good barbeque! I think my distaste for them is particular to Southern California – it’s basically always summer (the few weeks of mildly cool weather have all but disappeared in recent years), which means every holiday, every get together, every football/baseball/soccer game, everything is always a barbeque. If I lived someplace that actually had seasons, I think I might like a good cookout every now and then!

      Like

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