While a Pinterest-worthy party may be the goal, most kids just want to have fun with their friends and eat cake. These pared-down party ideas will keep costs low, stress manageable and a smile on everyone’s face.

Party in the Park

Instead of the pricey party package, host your next birthday bash at a local park. Before selecting a party date, stop by the park you are considering and see if they have a reservation system. At some parks, parents can come early on party day and post notices on the desired tables for the times they are reserved. If a formal reservation makes you more comfortable, contact your local parks and recreation department to see what pavilions you can rent for a nominal fee. Another great feature of parks are the free playgrounds to entertain the kids for hours.

Invitations: In addition to providing the address for the park, remember to let your guests know what to do in case of inclement weather. If there is a pavilion at the park, you can proceed “rain or shine,” but if not, you might want to move the party to your home or reschedule … no one wants a soggy cake!

Set up: There is no need to go overboard with decorations when Mother Nature is providing the backdrop. A few plastic tablecloths, paper plates, napkins, drink boxes and a cake should be just fine. The simplicity of setup and clean up at a park makes this one of our favorite party locations, especially with the toddler crowd who can be messy eaters.

Food: Keep it simple and fun. Bring your child’s favorite snacks and remember that you will be outside. Skip anything that needs to be served hot or very cold, and think about more park-friendly treats such as popcorn, chips and dip, or sandwiches.

Doll Tea Party

Instead of a party at a lovely, but expensive tearoom, throw a fancy doll party in your home.

Invitations: Invite guests to bring along their favorite doll to join them for the tea. Also, suggest dressy attire because sometimes it can just be so much more fun to have a tea party in fancy clothes.

Set Up: For younger kids, use paper plates and cups to make clean up a snap. For older kids, consider allowing them to use your glass plates and teacups (though maybe not your bone china) to make the party feel grown up. A white tablecloth and simple vase of flowers on the table would be an special touch. The kids will relish putting their pinkies up as they sip tea – or juice – with their dolls by their side.

Food: Fancy does not have to be synonymous with difficult. Think elegant, yet easy, cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, crudités and dip, and the dessert the birthday child chooses.

Cooking Party

Instead of taking your kid and his friends out to eat, have a cooking party at home. The kids will love inventing their own culinary creations. You can have them assemble tacos at taco stations, provide them with pizza dough and toppings, or even let them mix and decorate cookies.

Invitations: Be sure to tell your guests what’s on the menu – cooking! – so that they can dress appropriately. No one wants to be scrubbing marinara out of a favorite outfit post-party.

Set up: Have all necessary ingredients available and ready to go before the party starts. For instance, if it is a pizza cooking party, place the dough and a rolling pin at each child’s place. After the dough is rolled out, have cups of ingredients ready to place on the table so that each kid can individualize his pizza creation. Include some fun toppings, like marshmallows or pineapple.

Food: After the kids finish assembling, have an adult do any necessary cooking/baking. Cooking time is a perfect opportunity for party games, free play or present opening.

Cost-Cutting Tips

Evites: Paper invitations are lovely, especially for extra-special occasions like a first birthday or sweet 16, but for the non-milestone years, save by sending online invitations from services such as Evite or Punchbowl, or create an event on Facebook. Not only will you save on stationary and postage, but it will be easier to track RSVPs as guests respond.

Inventory: As soon as you make your shopping list, do an inventory of what you have at home. If you are having a train party, there is no need to go out and buy a train centerpiece – just raid the train table! Don’t hesitate to ask a friend to borrow her train cake pan. She’ll probably be delighted for it to get some use.

Shopping: After using as much as possible from your home and borrowing from friends, think about what is left on your list and your budget. Then, make an action plan to stay within that budget. Shop at dollar and second-hand stores first, and then visit the party stores.

Favors: While the dollar store is a good spot to pick up a few trinkets for a goodie bag, you can save even more by simplifying further. If you used dollar store trains to decorate your tables, forgo the goodie bags and let each guest take home a train and a balloon. Or, skip toys all together and send home a simple craft or baked good with a thank you note from your child.

 – Jennifer V. Hutcheson

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