Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Going Old School: Birthday on a Budget

This past Sunday, my baby turned four. I swear he was just born a few months ago. Weird. 

Anyway, we celebrated on Saturday with his first friends-over birthday party.  I thought I would post about it because I just came across this article from WalletPop (I found it via Dave Ramsey on Facebook) called "9 Top Ways We Waste Money 2010".  Sure enough, one of those ways was children's birthday parties.  Here's what the article said:
"Reader MRSpoodledoodle says: 'What happened to everyone coming over for cake and ice cream? Why must we spend hundreds of dollars on 'Build a Bear' (Because we don't have enough plush toys??) and other nonsense like inflatable jumping rentals! To heck with what the 'Joneses' say. They will be bankrupt if the main breadwinner ever loses his or her job.'

WalletPop says: We too mourn the loss of the home birthday party -- the one with a homemade cake, some backyard games and no flashy goodie bags. Flash forward to the present, when a two-hour party for 10 kids at the local "bounce house" will cost you $200 (before cake and parting-gifts), and you know it's time to put on the brakes. We say: Go old school. This is especially true with the under-8-set, who enjoy pretty much anything that involves sugar and running around with their pals."
I'm proud to say we went old school...


...and I'm even happier to say that it was a success!

My little guy requested a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday party. I could have kept this party even cheaper if I'd kept it generic, but I sprang for the Thomas plates, cups and napkins.  It cost me about $6 for all of that. I also bought the "Pin the Number on Thomas" game for a couple bucks and the Thomas gift bags for another $4-5.  The party favor gift bags we gave to the kids were nothing fancy -- just a few candies, some stickers, some stretchy bracelets, and a couple inexpensive toys and whistles. I realize I could have used my own plates, cups and napkins (cloth ones, even), I could have saved some money by skipping the little gift bags, but the little touches made it special for my train-loving birthday boy. 

I won't give you all the details about who came, what they gave him, nor will I give the play-by-play of the party. We'll save that for the family blog. Instead, I'll just share a couple money-saving highlights: the cake and one of the games.

The Cake

One of my favorite food bloggers, Deb from Smitten Kitchen, is passionate about homemade cakes (check out this super-cute one she made for her son's first birthday). As she puts it,
"I’m pretty serious about birthday cakes. When I think of someone being presented with some shortening spackled quarter sheet cake from a discount grocery chain on their birthday — a day they only get to celebrate once a year! Which is like forever if you’re a kid or perhaps the sort of grownup who didn’t get the memo that at the age of 34, birthdays are really not supposed to be a big deal anymore — it makes me sad. Not judgmental-sad, because lord knows I could barely eke out this cake on Saturday, and it’s supposed to be, like, my calling, but empathetic-sad because I totally blame lousy, intimidating recipes for making the two-layer + frosting task seem not worth it to go it at home. I hope to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get the fluffy, towering, butter-laden imperfectly frosted, slightly crooked homemade cake they deserve for making it through another year. Or, perhaps, one’s entire life to date, for the first birthday set."
I tried a new recipe for birthday cake this year -- it turned out pretty good actually. Plus the recipe is really easy. I whipped it out in the frenzied hours before the boy's party with little trouble (that trouble being the scary moment I thought the baked cake wouldn't come out of the pan).


I got the recipe for this cake from the book, Homemade Fun: 101 Crafts and Activities to Do with Kids by Rae Grant {I looove the way all of her books just look, not to mention all the fun stuff in them}.  The recipe is called "Sunshine Cake" and Ms. Grant even suggests this recipe as a go-to recipe for birthday cake.  If the idea of making a cake from scratch intimidates you, this recipe is great place to start. It makes a single, round layer. If I'd had more time, I would have doubled it and make it a double-layer cake.

Sunshine Cake  from Homemade Fun by Rae Grant

1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles (optional)

Set the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease well an 8-inch round cake pan (you could also turn this recipe into cupcakes and line 24 muffin cups with paper liners). 

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla then beat until smooth. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add half the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until combined. Pour in milk slowly until mixed. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until the batter is smooth. Fold in rainbow sprinkles at this time, if you wish.

Pour batter into a cake pan or use a small measuring cup to fill each muffin cup half full. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely. Remove the cake or cupcakes from the pan and frost.

Homemade frosting is also easy to make. I used white buttercream frosting for mine.  To make buttercream frosting, you just need some butter, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla (you can find a good, basic recipe here) or a recipe might just be on the back of your bag of powdered sugar. I'm not so great at actually frosting the cake (hence no close-up picture), but I figured a bunch of 3 & 4-year-olds wouldn't care, plus I covered the thing in rainbow sprinkles.  Everyone wins. And it was yummy.

The Game

We played two games, but the one I'm going to mention was a huge hit with the kids.  I got the idea from an article in the the October issue of Martha Stewart Living (I only get that magazine for the gardening and the Halloween issue -- the rest of the year it makes me feel like a slob. But I get my subscription for free every year when I buy my mom's for Christmas) and changed it up a little. It doesn't look as nice and professional as Martha's (big surprise) but it worked really well. 

I don't know what to call this game (I'll take any suggestions). Basically, all of the ballons are filled with confetti -- which is fun in itself -- but some of them also have treats and prizes in them. The key is to pick the right balloon to pop so you get a prize. Does this make sense? Note: this game is best played outside because it can get kind of messy. That said, there's nothing that some extra vacuuming can't fix.


I bought a couple dozen uninflated balloons at a local party store -- this way each of the kids who came got at least three turns at popping the balloons. I also picked up some confetti, some inexpensive prizes (like bouncy balls, whistles, and toy paratroopers), and some long, narrow candies.  Make sure the balloons are opaque or the game isn't nearly as fun.

Anyway, I brought all the balloons home and filled them with confetti using a funnel. I filled a good portion of them with candy and little toys (the little toy paratroopers were awesome for this -- they're long and narrow!).  It's fun to keep some of them empty -- keeps up the suspense.

Now in the Martha Stewart article, she uses a burlap-covered foam board hung by hooks for the backdrop of the balloons. Since we were having unseasonably warm weather, we kept the game outside and just hung the balloons on the side of our shed with masking tape. Worked like charm.

You can use pins (or for older kids, darts) to pop the balloons, but I used long bamboo skewers (like the ones you use for kebabs) since I had some on hand.  This was great for the young kids because it didn't get  lost like a pin inevitably would and it let the more nervous/reserved kids pop from a little more distance. The kids loved popping the balloons and watching the confetti fly.  In all, it cost me under $10.

Ahhhh, I love cheap entertainment.

What's your opinion about children's birthday parties these days? What do you do for your kids' birthday parties -- or better yet, what "old school" things did you do at birthday parties when you were a kid?

2 comments:

Coco said...

I realize this is a late comment, but for my son's 5th we did a superhero themed birthday. This worked out great, we invited everyone to wear capes or costumes (perfect before Halloween). We then had the kids decorate felt masks that I precut, with star stickers. We had black and red masks for boys or girls.
For games we played "Captain America Say's" (simon says)and "thor, Thor, Hulk!" (duck, duck, goose). And of course the kids had a great time running around in their capes and masks.
For food the only thing I splurged on was $13 for Batman cupcakes. The rest was homemade cookies, doritos and sprite on sale. I also bought matching party plates and cups at the dollar store. It was a huge success!

Heather said...

I LOVE this! (especially since I've loved super heroes since I was little) I particularly love your game ideas! So much fun...I may have to borrow those ideas for the future. Your comment is further proof that birthday parties don't need to be expensive to be fun and memorable.

Thanks for the comment -- I love reading them, even if they are late. :)

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