If you (or someone in your family) has a birthday coming up then you better get busy. But there’s a lot that goes into birthday party prep, and if you’ve never done it you might be wondering how to plan a birthday party. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered so you don’t leave anything out.
Personally, I love planning birthday parties. I have 5 kids and can’t resist entertaining or hosting a party of any kind. Everything is fun – the prep, the shopping, the theme, the DIYs, the decorating, and even all the work that’s involved. I just love hosting!
How to Plan a Birthday Party
Whether you enjoy it or not, though, you can still throw a great birthday party. Here’s the method I do to make them a success.
Keep in mind that these are just general instructions for a standard birthday party. You know, the kid you’d throw for your friends, a partner, or your kids. Big milestone parties are going to need longer timelines and involve more work!
Choose a Date
Picking the date for the birthday party might be one of the most important things you can control for its success. For example, I have a kid who was born Thanksgiving weekend. She also is one day apart in age with one of her best friends. Every year we have to a) host the party on a weekend other than Thanksgiving and b) coordinate with the friend to make sure they don’t double book.
To choose a date, look at major holidays and your guest of honour’s schedule first. Then try and find a date that works for their most important invitees. No date is going to work for everyone, but if the core people are happy with the choice that’s usually good enough.
Pick a Theme and Venue
Once you know when the party is going to be held you have to pick a theme and venue. Sometimes these are interconnected, which is why I lumped them as one here. For example, my kid is going to a real life video game activity place for her birthday party this weekend – so obviously the party is video game themed.
Themes can be simple or complex, too. You don’t have to do a fancy themed party every year – it might be enough to just get plates and napkins that coordinate.
If you’re hosting the party at home you obviously don’t need to book the venue, but you can usually do more with the theme.
Remember that if you’re hosting the party at a venue to book ahead, and make sure your party date is available before making concrete plans.
Send Out Invitations
Once you have a theme and date you can send out invitations. This is the first time they’ll see the party theme so it’s important that it’s reflected on the invitations. For a simple party, generic invitations are fine.
What should the invitations include?
- All information about the party including start time, end time, and location
- Whether or not a meal is being served (especially if you plan on feeding kids during a strange time or are not feeding them over a typical meal time)
- RSVP information including your contact info
- Any other pertinent information (eg. “wear socks”, “fill out this waver”, etc.)
Don’t include wish lists, gift ideas, etc. but do provide them when asked.
A word of caution on birthday invitations: People take the invitations seriously when it comes to interests and themes, so make sure that if you use themed or “branded” invitations that it’s something you/your kids like!
Once when picking up my son from a birthday party I overheard a conversation between the girl’s parents. The mom was complaining that all the girl got was Bratz dolls… The dad said, “well that’s what the invitation was!”. Oops.
Collect RSVPs (And Why You Should)
When you send out the invitations make sure you have RSVP information with a deadline. These numbers are important for your shopping – do you need treat bags for 5 kids or 15?
Once you have numbers you can do that more specific shopping. Personally, I like to grab a few extras just in case some last minute kids want to come, but that’s up to you.
Decorations and DIYs
Some venues offer birthday party packages and take care of this for you, which is nice. Also, if you’re at a venue you usually don’t need decorations. You could do something simple like table centerpieces or a few balloon bouquets if you want.
Shop as early as possible for decorations, especially if you need to order stuff online. This is also the time where you should be completing any DIY projects that will be used for the party.
You can go as big or small as you’d like (and your budget allows) in this category. A few simple decorations (streamers, balloons, table cloth) can go a LONG way when it comes to hosting a simple party. That’s what we do when we have them at home.
Planning Birthday Party Food
The food is going to depend on a few things like the ages of the party guests (kids vs adults), duration of the party, and time of day. A 2-3 hour birthday set between mealtimes is good with light or minimal snacks. In many cases, none at all are fine – especially if you’ll be serving cake!
Some venues also include food, so make sure to find out your options to help with planning.
An adult birthday party is usually going to last longer, especially if it’s in the evening. The best idea here is to serve hors d’oeuvre and snacks like cheese balls, etc. You can make these yourself or buy frozen.
If you plan to serve lunch or dinner, delivery is usually easiest. You can also BBQ for an easy food idea. Finally, especially with kids, you can incorporate the food into the party theme. Once my daughter had a pizza party themed birthday where all the kids make their own pizzas and we served them for lunch!
Food allergy awareness: Make sure you ask your guests about food allergies or sensitives if you plan on serving food.
Don’t forget the drinks too!
If you plan on ordering a cake from the bakery you should make sure they have plenty of notice. Some cakemakers need a few months of lead time, others a week or two. If you plan to make one homemade expect to be doing that the day before the party, and include that in your plans.
Alternatives to cake are also fun. You could serve cupcakes, pie, and really any kind of dessert. Or none at all depending on the party!
Having a Party at Home
You’ll probably want to clean up before the party, but do consider the mess that the party will make while you do. Especially when it comes to kids’ birthday parties. What’s the point of deep cleaning when there’s going to be cake smeared everywhere anyway!
What’s nice about a home party is you can decorate ahead of time. Make sure you take advantage of this and have as much ready to go before the big day. The same goes for food that can be prepped ahead.
Having a Party at a Venue
Venues are great because you go, have fun, and then leave. They are often responsible for set up and clean up so the whole party is a lot less stressful. The biggest downside is you have to lug everything back and forth, so keep this in mind.
Try and arrive as early as you’re allowed to set up. Some places don’t let you in until right before, but it’s still a good idea to wait around in case anyone is dropped off early.
Planning the Party Activities
If you’re not doing something structured (eg. bowling, laser tag, etc.) then you’ll have to find ways to keep everyone having fun during the party.
For adult parties, this is usually taken care of. Of course, there are fun things adults can do: my stepdad’s 50th party, for example, was trivia themed and we all played trivia in my garage. The questions were about him!
Kids’ parties are a bit trickier because kids usually need to be occupied. You can make the party themed to an activity even at home. For example, a painting birthday party.
For my daughter’s sleepover party we watched movies. At another home party we did a fall theme with bobbing for apples, potato sack races, etc. Once my son had a “rave” where we danced all afternoon. You get the idea!
Or just play classic party games with the kids like pin the tail on the donkey, red light, green light, freeze dance, musical chairs, etc. Piñatas are also fun!
Finally, ask your kids for ideas. You might be surprised what they want to do.
Birthday Party Planning Timeline
The actual dates will vary based on how busy the venue is, how big the party will be, and whether or not you feel like your guests need extra time (like for travel.) This is just a guideline for most birthday parties.
Obviously some things won’t apply to every party!
1-2 months prior
- Choose a date
- Book the venue
- Preorder rentals
- Hire entertainment
- Order the cake
- Choose a theme
- Order any supplies that require shipping
- Plan gifts
- Start complicated DIY projects
2-4 weeks prior
- Send out the invitations
- Shop for gifts
- Work on DIY projects
- Complete any prep you can do ahead (eg. assembling goodie bags)
- Buy party decorations
- Create a party playlist
- Shop for an outfit
1-2 weeks prior
- Finalize numbers and follow up with anyone who hasn’t RSVP’d
- Shop for non perishable food (eg. chips)
- Purchase any supplies that were dependent on numbers
- Complete all projects/DIYs
1-3 days prior
- Shop for perishable foods
- Prep foods/snacks/etc
- Decorate and set up (if it’s at home or you have early access to the venue)
- Go over your list to make sure nothing was forgotten
- Pick up the cake (or bake one)
After the party
- Clean up
- Send thank you notes to your guests
Download a printable version of this party planning checklist
Hopefully these tips on how to plan a birthday party help you! If you need any other party planning help leave a comment – I’m happy to help with ideas.