Kids’ Birthday Party Planning Checklist: The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Stress-Free Party

Jul 24, 2023 | Party Planning Tips

Planning a birthday party in the age of Pinterest and mom influencers can be a little daunting. For our parent’s generation, a kids’ birthday party often consisted of little more than a cake, presents, and a handful of kids playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the backyard. And a “fancy” kid’s party, which was rare, was one that you held at a McDonald’s playground.

Today, kids’ parties are often a little more involved than that.

But just because children’s birthday party food and activities have evolved beyond frozen pizzas and dollar store-pinatas, doesn’t mean that the party planning process has to be any more stressful or challenging.

Our party planning guide and birthday party planning checklist break down everything you need to know to throw the ultimate kids’ birthday party—from the food and the games to the themes, scheduling, and more.

Getting Started: What Are the Things You Need for a Kids’ Birthday Party?

To avoid overwhelm, it’s important to differentiate the things you need for a kids’ birthday party from the things you want. You may want a horse-drawn carriage to deliver your four-year-old to her princess party, but do you need it? Probably not.

Here’s a list of the bare-minimum must-haves:

  1. Invitations
  2. Cake and candles
  3. Decor (balloons, banners, etc.)
  4. Food for kids and adults
  5. Drinks for kids and adults (and bags of ice)
  6. Tablecloths
  7. Plates, cups, napkins, cutlery, and serving dishes
  8. Signage
  9. Party favors

That’s it. No, really. Everything else may be a “nice to have,” but they aren’t absolute necessities. You could even probably do without the signage and party favors, but we’ve included them anyway, since we figured if you’re reading a guide to party planning, you’ve probably already invested enough thought into this that adding a few goodie bags to the list won’t be a big deal.

But if you can keep it in mind that you don’t actually need a lot of “stuff” to pull off a terrific party, you’ll be far less likely to stress out as you plan.

A Stress-Free Birthday Party Schedule

How long should your party last? That depends on the specifics of your venue and budget, but generally kids’ parties last about three hours.

You’ll want to plan out a rough timeline in order to make sure you have enough time for the cake and games.

For a 3-hour party, we recommend the following party schedule:

  • 20 minutes: Guests arrive
  • 30 minutes: Games/Activities
  • 40 minutes: Food
  • 20 minutes: Singing “Happy Birthday” and serving cake
  • 30 minute: Opening gifts (optional)
  • 20 minutes: Free play

The Ultimate Birthday Party Planning Checklist: What Do You Need to Do Before the Big Day?

For any birthday party to be a success, but especially a stress-free one, you’ll need to create a birthday party planning checklist.

Here’s ours:

  • Set a budget
  • Choose a party theme
  • Decide on a guest list
  • Book a venue
  • Order a birthday cake
  • Plan your menu
  • Send invitations
  • Shop for supplies and decorations
  • Plan games and activities
  • Buy or make party favors

1. Set a budget

Before you get started, you’ll want to determine your budget. The venue and food will likely be your biggest expenses, so you’ll want to nail down a ballpark figure for each. This way, you’ll know how much money you’ll have left over for the cake, decorations, and entertainment.

How to cut costs if you’re on a tight budget:

  • Limit your guest list—Just like with a wedding, the more guests you have, the higher the costs. If you want to keep costs low, trim the number of guests to only your child’s closest friends.
  • Ditch the themes and just go with a color—It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that your party won’t be complete without a theme. But that wasn’t true of the parties we had when we were kids, and it doesn’t have to be true of the parties for today’s generation of kids either. To save money, just pick a color as your theme and buy everything in that color. This way, everything will match and the party will still have a cohesive look.
  • Shop at the Dollar store—Although items at the Dollar store aren’t often a dollar anymore, you can still find some good deals, especially on party decorations. Plates and cups in a solid color are often more affordable than ones with patterns or character themes.
  • Bake cupcakes yourself—Bakeries can create some amazing cakes (we recommend link). But if you’re on a budget, it can be a lot more economical to bake everything yourself. If you’re not an experienced baker, however, you may struggle to bake a cake that resembles anything like what you’d find in a bakery or on Pinterest (the blog Cake Wrecks has some hilarious examples of this), which is why we recommend making cupcakes instead. Cupcakes are a lot easier to get right.

2. Choose a party theme

You’ll want to choose the theme or color next because oftentimes your party theme will dictate the rest of the items on your birthday party planning checklist, such as how many guests you invite or where you choose to have your party.

Some things you’ll want to consider when choosing a theme are:

  • Your child’s interests—This is your opportunity to get creative, as nothing is “too simplistic” to become a party theme. Does your child love playing with his bulldozer and excavator toys? Host a bulldozer party (Bonus points if you hold it at a Heavy Equipment Playground. Does your daughter love the color pink? Throw a Pink Party where you invite everyone to wear pink and you serve only pink foods, like strawberry shortcake and watermelon salad.
  • Your guests—You’ll want to pick a theme the guests will love, because not only will this encourage them to RSVP “yes,” but they’ll also have more fun. If you’re asking that they come to the party dressed in a costume, consider how difficult it might be for them to comply with the dress code. If your theme is too obscure, like, say, “Medieval Times”, people may not know what to wear or won’t want to spend a lot of money on a 12th-century Knight in Shining Armor costume.
  • The season—You’ll want to consider the time of year you’re throwing your party. The weather will certainly dictate whether you’ll be having your party indoors or out, but if your party falls close to a major holiday, like Halloween or Christmas, you may want to incorporate that into your theme.

The key to choosing a successful theme is to go specific as possible. Although counterintuitive, going too broad with your theme can actually make planning your party more difficult. It’s a lot easier to plan a “Superhero and Villains Party” than it is to plan a general costume party. Likewise, a “Frozen” party is easier to throw than a Winter Wonderland theme.

3. Determine your guest list

You’ll likely need to revisit your guest list once you’ve selected your venue, but it can help to establish an estimate beforehand so that you’ll know the size of the venue you’ll need.

To start, create a list of all the most important people you’ll want to attend. This will help you establish a base number. Ask your child who they’d like to invite, but don’t feel pressure to invite their whole class, particularly if your kid isn’t friends with everyone.

4. Select a venue

If you aren’t hosting your party at home, you’ll want to make sure to book your venue at least three to four months before your party date. Which venue you choose is based entirely on your budget and the size of your guest list. Public parks, swimming pools, community centers, and bowling alleys are all affordable venues if you’re on a budget.

You may also want to consider some tried-and-true favorites like:

  • Trampoline parks
  • Kids’ gyms
  • Indoor playgrounds
  • Water parks
  • Skating rinks
  • Chuck E. Cheese
  • Laser tag arena

Or some unique options like:

  • Movie theaters (you could rent the whole theater)
  • Dance studios
  • Event spaces
  • Children’s museum
  • Restaurant
  • Pottery or art studio
  • Ballroom
  • Hair salon
  • Spa
  • Bakery
  • Mansion rental

5. Order the birthday cake

Popular bakeries often book up weeks or even months in advance, so make sure you get your order in as soon as you’ve decided on your theme.

If you’re on a budget, you might consider going with a store-bought cake and then “dressing it up” by adding fresh fruit, candy, or fun DIY cake toppers (like little figurines, cars, or dolls you buy at the Dollar store).

8. Plan the menu

If you’re planning on booking a caterer, you’ll want to do this at the same time you order your birthday cake, but after you’ve confirmed your guest list.

Some things to consider when planning the menu are:

  • Food allergies—Remember to check with parents about any food allergies their kid may have
  • Food variety—You’ll want to provide a variety of food and drink choices for your guests. This is important particularly if your menu centers around a specific cuisine, like Mexican or Japanese. You may want to serve a few “kid-friendly” options, like chicken nuggets or pizza, for the picky eaters in the group.
  • Make sure you have enough food—It’s better to overestimate than underestimate. If you’re ordering pizzas, this pizza calculator is a useful tool for figuring out how many pies you’ll need.

Children’s Birthday Party Food Ideas

You know you’ll need something to feed the kids during the party other than cake and ice cream, but what? Deciding on a party food menu can be stressful for parents, especially given the prevalence of food allergies and picky eating these days.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with pizza—Kids love it, it requires little prep work on your part, and it’s often inexpensive. But if you’re looking to explore some other kid-friendly food items, here are a few suggestions.

  • Mac n’ Cheese

Mac n’ Cheese is always a kid crowd-pleaser. You can get creative by serving Taco Mac (taco mac and cheese), Hamburger Mac and Cheese, or Pizza Mac and Cheese.

  • Casseroles

Casseroles are versatile, easy to make, and hearty. They’re also a great option if you’re all handling the cooking, because one large casserole can easily feed a group of children. You could also make several kinds of casseroles, like an enchilada casserole, a hamburger casserole, and a pizza tater tot casserole in order to appeal to a variety of taste preferences.

  • Mini burgers

Make mini, palm-sized burgers that kids can easily snack on as they graze the food table in between games. Keep the toppings simple to avoid children running around with ketchup dripping down their chins.

  • Fresh fruit and dip

Add lots of fun dips, like caramel, chocolate, and marshmallow, to make this a special birthday party treat.

  • Chicken fries

Nearly every kid loves chicken nuggets and fries, so why not combine the two and make “chicken fries”? It’s easy to make, too. Simply coat chicken in crushed potato chips and parmesan cheese and bake. Here’s the recipe.

  • PB&J French toast

Dress up a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich by cooking it like you would french toast and providing maple syrup as a dip. Add fresh strawberries inside for a “stuffed French toast” twist.

  • Spaghetti

Even the pickiest of eaters are often game to chow down some pasta. Plus, spaghetti is affordable and easy to cook in large quantities.

6. Send out invitations

After you’ve decided on the date, venue, and theme, you can send out the party invites. You’ll want to send the invites out at least 4-6 weeks in advance, and then follow up with the guests as you get closer to the date.

A few invite tips:

  • Set an “RSVP by… “ date so that wishy-washy guests will be forced to commit.
  • Consider sending a physical invite. Everyone gets so many Facebook event invites these days that one way to stand out is to mail the invite to the person’s address (a novel idea in our digital age, but it works). You could do this in addition to the standard Facebook, email, or text invite.
  • Include all the important details to cut down on the endless questions. At a minimum, your invite should include the child’s name, age, the party’s theme, any gift preferences, the party duration (don’t forget to set a firm end time), the dress code, venue directions, and parking information. You may also want to include information about whether this is a drop-off event and whether guests’ siblings are invited, too. And don’t forget to remind guests to tell you about any food allergies.

7. Shop for party supplies and decorations

This is often the most fun part of the party planning process, but it’s also the part that can get out of hand if you let it. Keep in mind that the only items you really need to turn a gathering into a birthday party are a cohesive color theme and something sweet (it doesn’t even have to be cake!). The rest is all just fun extras. If you can try to remember that while shopping for supplies, you’ll have a more enjoyable and stress-free time.

That said, here are a few things you’ll want to make sure to add to the shopping list (that people often forget).

  • Plates, cups, napkins, forks, etc.
  • Birthday candles and a lighter
  • Balloons
  • Drinks for adults—People usually remember to get juice and water for the kiddos, but what about their parents? Consider providing coffee, soda, or even alcohol for the moms and dads in attendance.
  • Snacks—You’ve reserved the cake and ordered the pizza, but don’t forget the snacks! Kids will need something to munch on before meal time.
  • Seating—You’ll want to make sure everyone has somewhere to sit, especially during the meal and cake time. You don’t want to have to make poor grandma have to stand!

9. Plan games, activities, or entertainment

Many parents find this stage of the party planning process the most stressful, because they worry they won’t have enough activities for the guests to do. This is an understandable fear, because, after all, there’s nothing worse than hearing the dreaded “I’m bored!” at your child’s birthday party.

But it’s also important to remember that you’re likely to need far fewer games and activities at a party than you might think.

Hire an entertainer—like a magician, face painter, balloon artist, or DJ—and then set up a couple of games or craft activities for the kids to do while they wait their turn. You can also plan one or two “group activities” like Pin the Tail on the Donkey or musical chairs.

But oftentimes the best activities are ones that require very little parental involvement or explanation.

We recommend:

  • Bounce houses
  • Inflatable water slides
  • Inflatable games like a football toss or gladiator joust.

If you live in the Las Vegas area, check out this site for a full catalog of ride and game rentals.

For the most stress-free experience, we recommend hosting your birthday in a place where all the entertainment is provided for you, like at a trampoline park or arcade. This is a particularly ideal option if DIY-ing birthday activities isn’t your idea of a good time.

Our Favorite Fun Activities for Birthday Parties

What activities you choose will, of course, largely depend on your party’s theme. But here are several general ideas to get the creative ideas flowing.

  • Arts & Crafts Station

Coloring, painting, and necklace making are all easy crafts that can be customized to fit your theme. Plus, crafting is a good way to get rowdy kids to settle down and transition to a meal or quiet game after a high-energy activity.

Older kids, and even teenagers, will enjoy arts and crafts, too. Older boys and girls can have fun making locker magnets or decorating earbud holders. And tween and teen girls will love making homemade lip balms or bath bombs.

  • Cake Painting

Cake decorating is a fun birthday party activity, but it may be best suited for older kids or tweens. For those eight and under, try “cake painting.” Cake painting requires less dexterity than traditional cake decorating, because you don’t need to pipe frosting.

All you need for cake painting is:

  • Paint brushes and sponges
  • Edible paint in a variety of colors (You can buy online or make it yourself)
  • Mini cakes (one for each child)
  • Traditional Birthday Party Games

Sometimes, in a parent’s quest to have a unique birthday party theme, they can go overboard and accidentally overlook some of the more common “traditional” birthday party games and activities. But in doing so, they forget two things.

  1. Traditional birthday party games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey may only seem “too common” or “overplayed” to adults, but they’re often still new and exciting to children, many of whom may have never played them before.
  2. There’s a reason these games are still played hundreds of years later—they’re fun! Kids may have been “hide and seek” and “Red Rover” since the 1890s, but they’ve been doing so because these games include everything kids look for in an exciting activity (they’re child-led, they’re active, and they involve an element of thrill and danger).

Some classic birthday party games kids still love include:

  • Pinata
  • Balloon Keep Up (sometimes called “Don’t Let the Balloon Touch the Ground”)
  • Bobbing for Apples (or whatever item goes with the party’s theme)
  • Pin the Tail on the Donkey (or unicorn or dinosaur, etc.)
  • Pass the Parcel
  • Limbo
  • Scavenger Hunt
  • Water Balloon Toss
  • Petting Zoo

Another classic of kids’ birthday parties is a petting zoo! You can either host the party at a petting zoo or bring the animals to your house or party venue.

And while petting zoos can involve pony rides and exotic animals like llamas, macaws, parrots, and snakes, they don’t have to. If you’re hesitant about the idea of having ponies plodding around your backyard, you can go for a tamer animal experience with quiet, small animals like turtles or rabbits.

Petting Zoo 2 U has all of these animals and more, and will come to your home or venue of choice and supervise all interactions between the animals and the children to ensure a safe and fun experience for everyone.

  • Video Games

Whether video games are a daily party of your child’s life or something reserved strictly for weekends or special occasions, your kid will no doubt love spending some time gaming at their birthday party.

You could embrace the video game theme by having your party at an arcade or you could simply incorporate gaming as one of several party activities.

Halftime Mobile Entertainment provides mobile game truck rentals, which include the latest games, eight televisions, and all the game consoles you could want, including Xbox and Nintendo Switch.

A mobile game truck or a video game tent rental might be the easiest option because it provides a natural playing cut-off time (trucks and tents are typically rented by the hour and will need to be returned by a pre-arranged time), which can ensure your kids won’t struggle to “turn off the game” when it’s time to sing Happy Birthday or open presents.

10. Choosing party favors

Party favors aren’t a necessity, but they’re common enough that guests have come to expect them. You could choose party favors that match your theme, or just go with birthday party standards, like stickers and candy.

Some of the best party favors, however, are ones that are unique or useful (or both!). For toddler parties, you could give cute socks or sunglasses that match the party’s theme and for tweens or teens, you can pass out earbuds or fancy cell phone cases.

You’ll want to save the party favor shopping for last, because you’re likely to get several last-minute cancellations.

Book Your Party with Two Balloons!

Two Balloons makes party planning easy by streamlining the entire process for you. You can book your venue, caterer, vendors, and everything else you need all in the same place. We take the headache and hassle out of party planning.

Don’t wait. Book your child’s dream birthday party today.


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