Let's face it: Planning a child's birthday party can be a chore. There's the whole pre-party to-do list, from picking a theme and a venue, to winnowing the guest list, to shopping for decorations, party favors and food. But you also want the occasion to be fun, memorable and budget-friendly. No pressure. To help take the stress out of your next party-planning venture, here are some tips compiled from party and etiquette experts:
Step 1: Choose a theme and iron out details
Brainstorm theme ideas a few months in advance with your children's interests in mind. Popular themes include superheroes, princesses, pirates and tea parties.
For younger children, try thinking outside the box for theme ideas. Family hobbies or even the simpler interests of the baby - bubbles, balls or a favorite stuffed animal - can serve as inspiration.
Once you've picked the theme, pick a few solid colors to decorate with.
To keeps things manageable, choose one or two parts of the party you'd like to make special. Go all out on cute cupcakes or make a customized banner, but don't feel like every aspect has to be unique.
Step 2: Send invitations
Send the invites two to three weeks before the party with a specific reply-by date that's a few days out. If parents or siblings are also invited to the party, indicate it on the invitation by using wording like "siblings welcome" or "John Smith and family." If children are to be dropped off at the party, specify by listing a pick-up and drop-off times.
Generally, parents are expected to stay at the party with children under five years old. For children this young, the party time should only last about an hour and happen before 1 p.m. or after 3 p.m. to avoid popular nap times. Parties for older children can last a little longer, about two hours maximum.
When it comes to the guest list, invite your child's closest friends, but don't forget to keep your budget and party space in mind - especially if parents will be attending as well.
Step 3: Plan food and children's activities
Consider planning games that go with the party's theme, such as a treasure hunt for a pirate party, or plan a few crafts for party guests to do.
You can always bring in professionals for some extra help keeping the kids occupied. A range of entertainment is available for hire-from magicians and clowns to jump castles and face painters. Ask friends for advice, read reviews online before booking, and budget for tips for the entertainers.
If you're trying to keep costs low, food is an easy place to save. Plan the party in between meal times and stick to cake and ice cream and a few light snacks. Finger foods work best (see p. 34 for a list of healthy, kid-friendly party snacks).
Step 4: Party Time
When guests arrive, have a sit-down activity ready for the kids to work on while they wait for the rest of the group. Coloring sheets or simple crafts at a table work to keep them occupied before the games begin.
Allow the first 15-20 minutes of the party for kids to work on this project while they greet each other.
Once all the guests have arrived, start your planned games and activities. If one child acts disinterested or refuses to take part, that's okay, let them sit one out. If none of the kids want to play the game, cut it short and move onto a different activity.
If the kids get a little too rambunctious, regain the group's focus by sitting down in a circle with them.
If all else fails, try dancing or games with a parachute - an activity that kids love and also helps get the energy out. Above all, remember to keep your cool and have patience. These are kids, after all.
Reserve the last 30 minutes of the party for snacks and cake. If you're going to open presents at the party, experts advise waiting until the end to do so.
If you're giving out goody bags for guests, hand them to the children as they leave the party. Make sure to have a few extras in case you have guests who forgot to RSVP, or who brought siblings.
Step 5: Send Thank-Yous
According to formal etiquette, a thank you card is not required if your child opens the gift in front of the giver and thanks them for it in person. However, writing thank you notes is still a good idea, as it helps kids practice an "attitude of gratitude," etiquette experts say.
Thank you cards should mention the specific item the child was given and a sentence or two about how the gift was enjoyed. If children are too young to write the notes themselves, ask them draw a picture on the card or sign their name or initials. That way they can still reflect on what they were given and practice thankfulness.
Editor's note: Caroline Fossi of Lowcountry Parent, Erica Rodefer Winters and Katie Hurst contributed to The 2014 Birthday Party Guide.