Kids' birthday parties are special opportunities to lavish attention on the little ones we love. That doesn't mean we have to break the bank in the process, though. Birthday party tabs can quickly rise as we tack on pricey venues, entertainers, goodie bags, custom cakes and party food. But in reality, most kids are pleased with the simple things -- especially when it comes to the birthday menu.
Trimming the food budget is one of the easiest ways to cut the cost of hosting a kid's birthday party. Start by asking the guest of honor what he or she would like to eat during the festivities. The birthday boy or girl probably won't request gourmet entrees, and the quintessential kids' foods (think pizza and hotdogs) are relatively cheap. Then, when jotting down the grocery list, plan to buy bulk. Individually packaged items, such as juice boxes, are often more expensive than economy-sized jugs.
Limiting the guest list to a handful of close friends is another way to save money. A shorter guest list also guarantees that there will be plenty of snacks to go around. And if you're planning to serve food aside from cake and ice cream, ask parents about any food allergies. Food should add an element of fun, not stress, to the birthday party.
Here, 10 possibilities for low-cost, high-fun birthday party fare ...
10: Hot Dog Heaven
Hot dogs are one of the simplest and most inexpensive foods that appeal to many kids. You can buy them in bulk, and they also come in vegetarian and vegan options. Better yet, you can toss a few on the grill for parents as well.
For a special twist on hot dogs, think outside the bun. If you're in need of a savory appetizer to balance out birthday sweets, bake some pigs in a blanket. Hot dog halves or cocktail sausages, wrapped with premade biscuit dough are quick, delicious and perfectly kid-sized. Or, if you're looking for an entree, set up a hot dog bar. Put out the mayo, mustard and ketchup as usual and also provide chopped onion, pickle relish, coleslaw, chili and cheese. Kids can load up their dogs to their liking and chow down for cheap.
9: Ice Cream Parlor
Often, the birthday foods that kids care about the most are cake and ice cream. They could take or leave everything else. For the birthday kid with a certified sweet tooth, an ice cream sundae bar is a cool concept that doesn't cost much. Pick up bulk-sized ice cream tubs; those with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry will suit most flavor preferences. Chocolate and caramel syrup are must-haves. You could also chop up some berries, peaches and pineapple for a healthier touch. Crumble the birthday kid's favorite cookies and candy bars for additional toppings. Don't worry about buying ice cream cones; bowls and spoons are easier to manage. Guests can top their ice cream however they choose, but adults should handle the scooping and syrup squirting for younger groups.
8: Tasty Trail Mix
When looking for a healthier alternative to excessively sweet or salty fare, trail mix could be an excellent substitute. If you think that trail mix is a snooze of a snack to serve at a kid's birthday party, reconsider its potential. You can mix up a wide variety of foods and call it a trail mix. For a Dora the Explorer or safari-themed party, go for the traditional nuts, raisins and pretzels mix. If you have a tiny superstar to celebrate, toss together popcorn, peanuts and chocolate-covered raisins for a more cinematic interpretation. Cheese-flavored crackers, bagel chips, dried fruits, sesame sticks and candy-coated chocolate pieces are also yummy additions.
When picking the ingredients, get the birthday boy or girl involved. This is a great snack that can incorporate many favorite munchies and will include at least one item that all the guests enjoy. And since trail mixes often include nuts, don't forget to ask ahead about allergies.
7: Superb Sandwiches
Sandwiches are one of the easiest party foods to prepare without spending a lot of cheese. Toddlers will especially like the offering since it's something familiar and easy to nibble on. Peanut butter and jelly is a classic way to go (minding any peanut allergies), although feel free to spice them up with different jams, banana slices and cut strawberries. Likewise, deli turkey and ham with optional cheddar or Swiss slices are sure to satisfy.
If you're concerned that sandwiches on a plate look too humdrum for the festive occasion, get out the cookie cutters. Although you'll waste a bit of bread, the fun shapes can coordinate to the party theme and entertain the hungry guests.
6: Pizza Perfection
Ask birthday kids what they'd like to eat at their parties, and you can bet that most of them will request pizza. And that's a good thing for your wallet. Many pizza chain restaurants offer discounts for high-volume orders.
You can also whip up a few homemade pies for minimal money. Some local pizzerias sell their dough for few bucks per pie, or you can purchase pre-made dough, flatbread or bagels at the grocery store. All you need after that is some sauce, cheese and pepperoni. Other low-cost toppings include chopped veggies, canned pineapple and sautéed ground beef or sausage. With some adult supervision, kids can also help make the pizzas as an entertaining activity. Now, that's a real two-for-one deal!
5: Homemade Cookies
Peanut butter, chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin, snickerdoodle -- you won't find too many foods kids like better than cookies. Lucky for the budget-conscious host, they can also be incredibly cheap to make, as long as you go homemade. Baking staples like flour, sugar, eggs and baking soda are very inexpensive ingredients, especially if you choose the store brand. Chocolate chips are the only piece of the puzzle than can cost much more than a buck, but even then you can find great deals if you look for sale items or generics. Kids typically don't notice whether the chocolate is gourmet or the standard fare.
For a little extra birthday appeal, look for cookie cutters in fun shapes at the dollar store and decorate your stars, hearts and bunnies with bulk sprinkles.
4: Drink Mix
This typically sugary childhood favorite may not be ideal for everyday consumption, but it can be a well-received treat at a birthday party, and it's an affordable way to quench your partygoers' thirst. For about $5 you can provide drinks for the whole group.
Powdered drink mixes come in lots of flavors, so you can mix it up by putting out pitchers holding a few different, brightly colored options, like fruit punch, grape drink and lemonade -- and maybe an iced-tea pitcher for the adults. You'll also want a grown-up stationed nearby for refills.
Frozen, fruit concentrates are a low-cost option, too, if you'd rather go the natural route.
General budget-cooking rule: Any relatively nutritious food you can get for a dollar a pound is your friend. Pasta, a kiddie favorite, is available for as little as $0.99 for a 1-pound box, which holds eight servings and can satisfy even the pickiest 10-year-old.
This is a perfect lunch entrée if you're hosting the party at home, where you can prepare the dishes beforehand and keep them warm until serving time. The possibilities are endless. Buttered shells, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and tomato sauce and baked ziti are all sure to please your guests and your wallet.
If you're looking for finger foods, try stacking tortellini on a stick!
2: Taco Bar
While it can be smart to go vegetarian for a kids' party (they can be so finicky!), it's a pretty good bet your little partygoers will be happy to eat ground beef. So if you'd like to do a protein, consider tacos! Ground beef is a low-cost meat, homemade taco seasoning will cost you practically nothing, you can buy taco shells in bulk, and toppings like lettuce and cheese are some of the least expensive items in the grocery store.
For some extra kid appeal, set up a taco bar with lots of options. Picky-choosy-do-it-yourself is typically a hit with the younger crowd.
1: Ice Pops
What says "happy birthday" more than an ice pop? Well, maybe a cake, but that doesn't take anything away from the frozen pop that delights kids through the summer -- and the spring, the winter and the fall.
This is an especially ideal party snack if your celebration is outdoors in the heat, where a little cooling off may be called for. A giant box of popsicles is pretty inexpensive -- about $5 for two dozen of the brand-name kind, and even less if you find them on sale.
A simple, cheap Styrofoam cooler will keep them intact until it's time to break out the fruity, frozen treats.
To get more great ideas for budget-friendly party planning, check out the links on the next page.