Expectations around children’s birthday parties seem to be getting out of control. When I was a kid in the 80s, you’d be happy with a home-made cake and some friends over for a run under the sprinkler. These days, you hear of three year-olds having petting zoos, jumping castles and events coordinators. I blame Martha Stewart. Who wouldn’t want to try to recreate one of the perfectly-styled parties featuring in her stunning magazines? The invitations alone have me drooling.
All this can be very stressful for parents like me who don’t have events coordinators and do it single-handedly (my husband, bless him, for all his virtues he’s not the kind to ice cupcakes or assemble party bags). Last year, I made a tractor cake and I now know why you never see them in birthday books – at least not the three dimensional John Deere with windows and headlights that I was attempting. As I wrestled with black fondant icing to make tractor wheels on a humid summer’s evening I made a silent vow to myself that I would be less ambitious in future. But, being a party girl at heart, I do like to make the effort and there is a deep satisfaction from seeing that effort reflected in my child’s beaming face.
So, having battled through a few of my own, having baked many a birthday cake for friends’ children, and now having written a book on the subject, here are my thoughts on pulling together a damn respectable kids’ birthday party. If you manage to put these in place, I’m willing to bet things will go roughly to plan and you’ll even manage to look around at some point and have your very own smug Martha Stewart isn’t-my-life-perfect moment ...
Ask your best friend/mother/spouse to mind your kids for the few hours before. I would dearly love to believe that the ultimate party comes from all sitting around Brady-bunch style making paper flags and blowing up balloons together. But in my experience, it just doesn’t work that way. My little boy, like most his age, makes a kelpie look inactive. While I love involving him in baking and preparing in the days prior, he really is the last person I want to have around on the morning of his special day. So – and this is where my husband does come in handy – I pack my son off to the park for a few hours so I can quietly pull everything together. Decorations go up, the table is set, food is laid out, music goes on and when he arrives home minutes before the other guests, he has the delight of seeing his house transformed into birthday party land. Pure magic.
Make your own cake. Call me old school, but I reckon buying your kid’s birthday cake is kind of like having Christmas dinner at a restaurant. It’s just one of those things that ought to be done at home, however imperfectly. I was always so proud as a kid when my mum brought out a cake that she’d made herself. Admittedly, she is a Cordon Bleu-trained master pastry chef, but I’m pretty sure that regardless of what she’d made I’d have loved it because it was prepared by my mum. As daunting as those party cake books may look, with some good decorations (silver cachous always work a charm), even a novice can usually whip up something their kid would be proud of.
I once heard of a woman who used to stick together the most terrifying pages of the Women’s Weekly birthday cake book (like that jelly swimming pool) before handing it over to her children and telling them they could ‘choose any cake you like!’.
But ... packet cake is absolutely fine. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, particularly not my purist Grandma, but when it comes to a cake that’s going to be converted into a rocket or dinosaur, I reckon a basic butter packet cake is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I confess I’ve been known to use one myself. After all, they usually just consist of pre-weighed sugar, flour and a rising agent. They tend to be more predictable than following a recipe, which is a major blessing when you’re juggling a million other tasks.
Think twice before letting your child pick the cake. I once heard of a woman who used to stick together the most terrifying pages of the Women’s Weekly birthday cake book (like that jelly swimming pool) before handing it over to her children and telling them they could ‘choose any cake you like!’. This is sensible. There is no use letting your child pick a cake that strikes the fear of god in you and ends up bearing no resemblance to the picture they’ve seen. So, by all means let them choose, but limit their options so they fall within your capabilities.
Don’t even think about making the cake on the day. Making the cake on the day is a recipe for disaster. There is simply no need. If you’re just making a basic butter cake to be decorated, you can happily make it a day or two before and store it in the fridge. In many cases, you can even ice and decorate it the day before and leave it in a cool dry place overnight. Waking up knowing the cake is ready to go is pure bliss.
Have a freezer/fridge/pantry full of food ready to go. This does require a little planning, but it is just so worth it. Most party food can be made a couple of days, sometimes several weeks, in advance. For example. Freezer: sausage rolls, mini pies, biscuit dough, home-made iceblocks. Fridge: chicken sandwich filling mixture, chocolate-dipped bananas and strawberries, lamingtons. Pantry: meringues, oat raisin cookies. Perhaps with the exception of cutting up some fresh fruit and throwing a few things from the freezer to the oven, there really should be no need for you to be in the kitchen the day of the party.
Put something healthy on the menu. Try this experiment. Make fruit skewers (with a marshmallow on the end if you like), put them on a table with cupcakes, biscuits and the other usual party stuff, and watch how quickly they go. I have always been surprised that they’re usually the first thing to disappear at kids parties. A cube of melon, pineapple, mango and a strawberry on a stick. Who’d have thought it could outdo a plate of chocolate crackles? Your crowd may prove me wrong, but I’ve found kids really crave something healthy to balance all the other sweetness on offer. Finger sandwiches and cauliflower ‘popcorn’ (recipe in my book) are other favourites. You’ll also get that nod of approval from the super health-conscious parents of which there’s bound to be one (sorry, that’s me).
Organise activities that you can delegate to other family members. Granddad might be in charge of musical chairs. Your sister can be on pass the parcel duty. Grandma can oversee the dress ups box. Your in-laws can organise pin the tail on the donkey. And you’ll be able to have a quiet sit and chat with your friends and enjoy pretending you’re a guest for a precious few moments. Aaaaah.
Get some helium balloons. I reckon helium balloons just have a way of adding such a sense of ceremony and luxury to an otherwise home-spun party. Get enough so every kid can take one home. I also love those beautiful paper lanterns and party flags you can now buy. Personally, when it comes to party decorations, I steer clear of Disney characters and crazy bright colours. My aesthetic sensibilities just can’t cope. And Martha would definitely not approve.
Think of your fellow adults. We all know that going to a kid’s birthday party is painful enough without the added hardship of nothing decent to eat or drink. Having a drinks table set up (preferably out of reach of little hands) with all the options – mineral water, juice, alcohol, tea and coffee – offers the added bonus of saving you from having to fetch a drink for every guest which, let’s face it, gets pretty damn tiresome once you’ve done it thirty times.
Have a drink yourself. This should probably be top of the list. I’m definitely one to enjoy in moderation, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s waaaay easier to smile lovingly at a room full of hyperactive kids jumping on your furniture when you’ve had a champagne or three.
Cheers! Here’s to you and your awesome party. Soak it up before it’s all over and the clean up begins.
Louise Fulton Keats is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and has qualifications in childhood nutrition. She is the author of two children’s storybooks: My Grandma’s Kitchen and My Grandma’s Kitchen: The Best Ever Birthday. Louise has a keen interest in helping children to develop a sophisticated palate and a love of food from an early age.