By Rowena Mynott
From childrens entertainers and party bags to the extreme cases of limousines and ballgowns, birthday parties seem to be getting more extravagant, expensive and environmentally unfriendly every year. Gone are the days of my childhood where cakes were homemade and entertainment involved playing in the garden. And party favours? Unheard of!
Unfortunately with this increased extravagance comes increased wastage: wasted food, plastic wrappings, plastic decorations and cheap (inevitably plastic) toys that are forgotten about after five minutes.
With my son’s third birthday looming I decided to see if I could make it as sustainable as possible. Of course, I love entertaining and putting effort into the ambiance of the day so I couldn’t settle for a few nibbles and toys – I wanted to make it a special day for the birthday boy. But could I really do this without having an impact on the environment? Would he really be happy without all the trimmings the shops were inviting us to throw in the trolley?
Throwing a birthday party can be stressful in itself but add the self inflicted pressure of trying to make it sustainable and you might think it’s impossible. Here are a couple of key things you can do to ensure a successful and stress free sustainable birthday party.
- You may need to stock up on items to recycle such as toilet rolls or cardboard boxes or you may want to make some decorations so planning in advance is key.
- Choosing the right theme. Some themes lend themselves to sustainability more than others. Unfortunately Mr 3 was adamant about a Lightning McQueen (from the Disney movie ‘Cars’) birthday and so our choice was made for us. Unfortunately, when you trawl the internet for other parties of the same theme they involve copious amounts of hideous plastic plates, cups, banners, toys and decorations. Not exactly ideal for the environment!
So, here are my top 10 tips for creating a sustainable and enjoyable birthday party for your child:
1 – The Invites
When children are young, the party guest list is generally small and so of course sending out paper invites really isn’t the worlds worst environmental disaster. As children get older though the number of invites increases, add to this the paper replies and it starts to add up. If you are conscious about the environment, this is an easy first step to take to reduce your waste. There are a few alternatives:
- You could invite people via a phone call (text/phone/skype)
- Email invites. These dont have to be just a few words in a plain old email. We sent out invites this way and I found a suitable template online that I adapted for Mr 3 and emailed to his friends
- If you are really adamant about sending out paper invites, you might consider printing on, or creating from, recycled paper
2 – Location
Throwing a party at home may seem like a lot of work but if you keep it simple and plan ahead it really is very easy. The popular location for parties here in Australia is either in a park or on the beach – after all, we get the weather so why not make the most of it? Unfortunately I see too often the effects that parties (both from adults and kids alike) have on the beaches. You can be the most vigilant person in the world and there will always be one little bit of ribbon or piece of popped balloon that escapes your notice. Balloons are terrible for any environment where animals live but particularly for marine wildlife who often confuse balloons with their food source – jellyfish.
We are very lucky to have such a great entertaining deck at home which has been the location of all birthday parties. All of our guests left in the afternoon we were finished with the clean up well before Mr 3’s bedtime.
3 – Decorations
Now I have to pop in a little disclaimer here before I talk about decorations. You will notice that there are balloons and plastic plates/cups in the shots. It’s been years since we have bought any of these things and because we are anti balloons and anti plastic, these leftovers of parties past have been floating around in the cupboards ever since. I figured that rather than just throw them out, we may as well get some use out of them before we bin ’em! I certainly don’t plan on buying more in the future.
So back to the other decorations. Bunting can be a great way to decorate and can be easily made from any scraps of fabric that you have lying around the house. Plus it can be reused for future birthday parties. I made ours from red and black felt (which you will see appears later in entertainment) and chequered fabric that I bought especially. Table cloths were made from the chequered fabric and an old red recycled sheet.
I had been saving cardboard boxes for a while (all part of the planning ahead process) and used these to make signs.
There are a multitude of other ideas for decorating. This is where the choice of theme can be key.
- Why not recycle old magazines – cut them up to make streamers/bunting or scrunch them into flowers?
- Decorate with flowers and other foliage from the garden
- Paint rocks
- Decorate the driveway (or deck if you are willing) with chalk
4 – Birthday Traditions
Birthday traditions are great. I love the idea of them but have a feeling that I may be terrible at remembering to see them through every year. Here is an easy suggestion that is sustainable, quick and simple to do. These birthday questionnaires are free to download at lee-lou blogs. Of course you could create your own but if you are time limited like me having a template really helps the motivation to start the tradition in the first place. There are a couple of different options to choose from and you can alter the questions if you would like to. Plus you don’t even have to print them out = happy trees!
5 – Food
Food is one of the big ‘to do’s’ of any birthday party. I wanted to make the food part of the decorations for the day so decided to go a little quirky and theme each item. Most were pretty healthy with a few naughty treats thrown in! In ‘Flo’s Cafe’ we had:
- Sherrif’s Traffic Lights: Rice bubble cakes with smartie lights
- Lightning’s Stars: star shaped cheese on crackers
- Luigi’s Tyres: Blueberry muffins baked in a donut shaped pan
- Guido’s Dipsticks: Crudite and humus
- Shiftwell Swags: Salad wraps
- Flo’s Fruit Platter: Watermelon, grapes and apple
- Sally’s Cozy Cones: My little not-so-sustainable extravagance. I made popcorn filled road cones from orange cardboard with tin foil bases which the kids could then pop through and eat. Food and entertainment in one!
I made ricotta and spinach triangles for the adults and as a sweet treat, some chocolate chip almond meal cookies. All were served on china plates to avoid using plastic and paper. As I mentioned before the plastic and paper plates that you can see in the picture are leftovers from years gone by that are seeing their final celebration before being binned.
For drinks I made ‘Filmore’s Filling Station’ and had glass jugs of chilled tap water and juice. For the adults there were pots of tea and coffee.
We did have some left over food but it was eaten in the day or two after the party. My husbands work colleagues were particularly well fed for those couple of days!
6 – Entertainment
For those of you that have toddlers and pre-schoolers you will know that it takes very little to entertain them. I didn’t want any lavish entertainers performing but thought the kids might need something to keep them a little amused. As it turned out, these little extras weren’t needed as they all enjoyed playing with Mr 3’s toys instead.
I made a giant Lightning McQueen fuzzy felt (please contact me if you would like to order one) with removable pieces. We are now 3 weeks post birthday celebrations and Mr 3 has played with this every single day (and requested I make him more characters). It’s a great test for them to not only match the pieces to the picture but also be a little creative and improvise to create their own version of the character. Being felt means that it should last Mr 3 a long time unlike paper or cardboard. I also printed out (on recycled paper) some colouring in pages to have at the table.
Other entertainment ideas could involve:
- Sing alongs
- Creating music from homemade musical instruments (pots and pans, comb harmonicas etc)
- Dress ups
- Board games and cards
- Paddling pool/sand pit and climbing frame if you have them
- Homemade boats racing around a pool of water
- Cookie or cake decorating
- Plant pot decorating
- Giant fuzzy felt Lightning McQueen
7 – Cake
The cake is usually a big deal in our house. I love decorating and creating however this year I didn’t take my own advice of planning ahead. I bought a car shaped pan a long time before the party thinking that I was being organised, however didn’t get around to testing the cake until the day before. By this time I was finishing off last minute decorations and food and after two failed attempts at getting the cake right (the size of the pan threw me. It needs two or three times the amount of batter that a regular cake requires) I gave in and improvised with a number three shaped cake the morning of the party. My husband decorated the cake with a few of Mr 3’s toys and bingo! We had a cake albeit not the one we planned. We did have three candles on the top along with his toys, but we avoided any random plastic decorations/cake toppers/cake ribbons.
Homemade cake is not only healthier (you know exactly whats in it!) but it avoids any packaging. Plus its fun, unique and the kids love that you have gone to all that trouble just for them.
8 – Presents
This is a hard area to make sustainable. It’s hard to tell your guests what sort of presents to bring and to be honest I didn’t. Perhaps next year I will put a bit more thought into it. If you are looking for a sustainable gift to give, there are plenty of options from things that will last a long time such as books (the classics are particularly great and collectable), puzzles, wooden toys particularly recycled ones or something that you know will be suited to whatever the birthday boy/girl is into at the moment. This could be a plant for their garden, a bird feeder or an experience of some sort such as a whale watching trip or a circus class.
We decided on a new bike for Mr 3 which will grow with him for the next few years. If you are wanting to request sustainable giving, you could always throw a ‘giving party’ where guests donate money or a toy to a charity. You could ask guests chip in together to sponsor a child which would be a lovely thing for all the kids to share. Not only are they making a difference but they get to start the conversation about different cultures and actually develop some sort of relationship with a child from another country.
9 – Games
Sustainable game choices are pretty easy especially for those that live in areas with great weather. Get outside. Kids of this age love to run, to be outside and frankly with all that birthday food and cake, it’s wise to let them burn it off before you tackle the birthday party extraction!
Some games that are suitable for playing outdoors are:
- What’s the time Mr Wolf?
- Duck duck goose
- Musical statues/chairs
- Hide and seek
- Jump rope
- Simon says
The list is endless and will of course depend on the age of your child. You can google any of the old fashioned style games and be guaranteed that most involve just the kids with no additional accessories.
We also played pass the parcel where I wrapped a gift up in layers of recycled paper (you can recycle anything from old wrapping paper to newspaper).
10 – Party Favours/Bags
I understand the idea behind birthday gift bags but I hate the thought of filling those little plastic bags with cheap trinkets that will be entertaining for five minutes and then end up in the trash. I would much rather give something that was hand made or had some meaning for that child. I made these little cars out of toilet rolls (collected over time) which I had planned to give out to the kids as gifts. Unfortunately they got played with as the kids started to arrive and then they were parked somewhere safe and didn’t end up heading home with Mr 3’s friends. Something like this is a great idea to give to the kids. They were easy to make (blog coming soon), cheap, recycled and a such a novelty that the kids loved them. There are so many different things that you could make from these toilet rolls, anything from people to animals to vehicles to buildings, let your imagination go wild!
Here are a few other ideas for gifts:
- Seeds to plant at home
- Seeds already planted in the egg sections of egg cartons. This could be an activity for the party
- Baked items – cakes, cookies. Again, could be something they make at the party eg a cookie decorating party
- Something that you have made from fabric scraps: dress up items (masks/capes/hats) or finger puppets
Mr 3 had a fabulous birthday and we had a wonderful stress free day with our friends too. It was great knowing that we had a minimal impact on the environment and gives us more challenges to see if we can do a better job next year!
What better way to end your birthday than with some special birthday hugs …
Have you thrown a sustainable birthday party? What are your tips and tricks?