Kids birthday parties are fraught for me at the best of times (so much noise!) but even more so after we actively started reducing our waste. As with many things, we have come to realize over the last few years that we can only control our waste output and quietly lead by example with our actions.
This is just what works for our family – figure out what is doable for you at this time with an eye to the future. Remember that you set the expectations for your kids. It may be too much to decide on a zero waste party a week in advance, but if you have lead time and involve them in the decision making, they will surprise you. Resist the pressure to have the same “level” of party that other kids are having if it doesn’t feel right to you. Kids don’t care about the theme as much as we think they do – they just want to have fun!
I’ve tried to break it down by category, but please add your suggestions (or anything I may have missed) in the comments below, keeping in mind that we are all coming from different circumstances and levels of access.
Consider having a small, in home party. This gives you far more control over the materials you use to celebrate. We have explained to our kids the cost of a “play park” type venue party, what we could better spend that money on as a family, and that since they get to attend lots of other parties like this, their party is different and special. The success of this will depend on your kid and their expectations, but start laying the foundation early if this is important to you.
I typically make birthday cupcakes with ingredients purchased mostly in bulk. I find cupcakes a little more schedule-friendly as they can be made in advance and iced while frozen the morning of the party. There’s also a lot less pressure on my mediocre baking skills for a fancy cake (or a non-lopsided cake) and my kids don’t care anyway. They choose what colour sprinkles they want from the bulk bins and we have been using the same package of candles for years.
Snacks are generally package-free (if available) fruits and veggies with dip, and snacks from bulk bins such as pretzels and party mix. Drinks are either milk or water, served in our own glassware. We also order cheese pizza and recycle/compost the box as required by our municipality.
Keep it minimal and choose reusable! Borrow from friends or make your own decorations with your kids leading up to the party. We have one “Happy Birthday” cloth bunting that I bought for my oldest’s 1st birthday and we hang it up for everyone’s birthday now – it’s tradition! My SIL recently used fresh flowers and Xmas balls hung from her chandelier for my niece’s party and it was really beautiful. Search Pinterest or ask in your local FB groups – I have heard of people borrowing dishes, cutlery, candles, cake toppers… you name it! Although it is a good opportunity to explain to your kids why you won’t be using disposable decorations (especially balloons), put your focus on all the things you *can* do instead with your child.
We use our own plates, glasses, cutlery and cloth napkins with zero casualties so far. The kids all sit around our kitchen table and have been so good about it. We write the name of each child on their glass with a china marker and they each find their place again for cake time. At the end of the party, we load the dishwasher instead of the trash can.
The possibilities are endless here! It really just depends on what your kids like to do, what resources you have access to, and the weather. In the past my kids have run through the sprinkler, dug holes in the backyard, played in a snow fort on the front lawn, run around the basement screaming, made Lego creations, taken turns on the electric guitar, and decorated cookies and pumpkins. There seems to be no shortage of activities that require little to no materials and don’t cost much.
Consider gifting an experience (such as a trip to the aquarium or movie theatre gift card) or a homemade or secondhand item. My kids are really into Lego right now and we are always able to find unopened sets on local selling apps. Wrap in fabric using the furoshiki method or reuse gift bags you already have.
Managing gifts from other people is where it gets tricky. It is really up to each family to decide how they want to approach this. For example, we have really supportive family that does their best to give experiences, secondhand or homemade gifts, and asks for our input on new items. It has been many years of discussing and demonstrating our values across various contexts that got us to this place. I am not, however, comfortable in explicitly passing these expectations on to other parents (particularly those I do not know very well). I tend to view it as the aspect that I cannot control and we manage the influx of stuff by keeping the number of guests low. Other parents I know have requested food bank donations or similar in lieu of gifts. You may even wish to request no gifts at all. Do what works for you and your child, with the expectation that it may take some time for others to understand.
The holiday season presents a challenge when shifting to a low waste lifestyle with kids. Older children in particular have developed expectations about receiving gifts and are around peers with different experiences. Now is a good time to model giving eco-friendly gifts with intention and showing that the meaning of gifts can (and should) go beyond the physical item.
For our first low waste party, I came up with a list of low waste ideas for a “goody bags” and my son vetoed every last one of them. I asked him what he likes about goody bags and he replied “THE CANDY.” We compromised on jam jars of candy from the bulk store and everyone was happy.
Other ideas for low waste party favours include:
- flower seeds or mini tree saplings
- hot chocolate mix
- pencils or pencil crayons
- homemade play dough
- small toys from the thrift store
- sidewalk chalk
- nothing at all!
As far as receiving goody bags at parties, we let our children make the decision of whether or not to accept them. They always take them. Still working on that one…
In the end, all the kids were happy, so we’re happy. We want to celebrate our children without impacting their future, and normalize these types of things for our kids and their friends too! There is no such things as “a perfect, zero waste” party, but hopefully some of the ideas here are helpful and can be a part of your next party.