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Here’s how to plan a party that runs smoothly, thrills your guests and amazes even you! This party guide goes beyond the what-to-do-when reminder & helps you add wow to create a party they’ll never forget.
6 Weeks Before
Decide on Theme
This is when you ask your child what topic they’d like for their birthday party or decide what theme you’d like for your adult party. The theme is often dictated by how many guests you’ll have at the party: a video game or American Idol karoake party is best with just a couple close friends, going to a movie theater or other venue can add up quickly so you may not want to invite the whole class, and if you’re planning the ultimate party you may not have enough space in your rec room or backyard to contain it all.
Set Your Party Budget
Life is short; we want every party to be the ultimate party but sometimes that means more creativity than cash. Be realistic. Set a budget that you know you can afford without the crying-cringing credit card invoice the month after your soirée. Our finances fluxuate from year to year. If you’re short on cash right now, that’s okay. Work around it with freebies and clearance sales, by hosting the party in your own home or with classic childrens games. Think about the parties that were the most fun, the most memorable to you: was it the venue & decorations that did it for you, or the interaction with other guests? That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Decide Whom to Invite & Set Party Date
Decide on your guest list and while you’re at it contact them to see what dates they’ll be available for a party. Then you can set your date on the day when your most important guests are available. (Your child would be most disappointed if their best friend wasn’t able to come to their birthday party if that family already had other plans.)
We were just discussing how it’s the interaction between guests that makes or breaks a party: take another look at your guest list. Do these people get along? Is it going to be a blast or are the participants going to whine and complain with the party theme you’ve chosen? If your child wants a craft party and invites kids who hate arts & crafts, it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the craft supplies – the party will bomb because they’ll be done in 30 seconds asking for a game. If you want a karoake party and invite people who hate to sing, the party will end early. It’s happened. Many a time.
Arrange Entertainment or Party Venue
Want a magician, face painter or mascot at your party? Want to have your party at the movie theater, restaurant or playland? Maybe you want an outdoor theater or bouncy castle for your backyard. Or you may want to hire a professional bartender for an adult party. You need to book your date well in advance.
Purchase Party Favors, Prizes for Games & Party Decorations
It is a good idea to purchase your party supplies as early as possible. If buying online, it gives you time to purchase, receive and even return if necessary. It allows extra time for you to change themes if you’re not satisfied with what’s available. It also lets you spend time researching your options for the best or cheapest.
4 Weeks Before
By inviting guests reasonably early you allow time for their schedule to still be open and to shop for a birthday gift. (Don’t you hate rushing to the store for that last minute present?) For a children’s party specify if parents and younger siblings are welcome to stay, the time the party will start and a pick up time when the party will end (most parties are 1.5 to 2.5 hours long), the RSVP date, and the rain date if applicable. Also tell them if a costume, swim suit or other item will be required. It’s also recommended to get parent’s phone numbers so you can contact them in case of an emergency – this includes cell phone numbers because many parents use the opportunity to get their errands done. Be sure to ask about allergies when they call to confirm – parents may assume you know because the school knows.
What kind of invitation is best suited to your party? See our article on the fill-in, the customized and the gift invitation to help you decide.
How to Plan a Party Schedule
There are always guests who arrive early so it is a good idea to have ice breaker games, crafts or food to keep them occupied until the rest arrive. (If you don’t, the kids will run around and be out of control before it all starts or at an adult party you may get someone who’s a little too “helpful” and stresses you out.) See our list of ice breaker activities for kids for some ideas.
Plan your activities. Kids need to be kept occupied and your party will be a success that they will talk about at school the next day – or even years to come – based on your activity choices. (A great adult party will have planned activities too. Don’t count on sterling conversation among guests to be your only activity.) The rule of thumb is to plan more activities than you think you’ll need in case things move along faster than you anticipate or something is rejected outright by the group.
Plan a “slow down” activity before serving food at a kids party. A sit-down game or paper game such as Ad-libs is all you need to help them move from physical activity to eating and taking the time to do so can save you from cleaning up carrot sticks or cheesies that were thrown at each other during a food fight.
Plan a goodbye activity. If you pick up your kid from a party and they’re all running around out of control, you assume the whole party was like that – and hate how long it takes to get your kids to settle down afterwards. The kids who aren’t picked up right away usually rip through their party favors before they even leave the party. A good party plan involves a project or game that doesn’t require a definite ending and can be considered completed at any point. Parents often want to speak to the hostess when picking up their child, so it’s a good idea to arrange for someone else to be in charge of this activity or choose something that doesn’t require your attention for them to work at. Coloring pages, quick crafts, paper games and quizzes are a few suggestions. You can also give them more time to work on their icebreaker project, depending on what you had planned. (Munchies are NOT advisable since most kids can run and chew at the same time!)
Beginning gift opening at pick up time is a good alternative – kids hate to sit through this so they don’t mind leaving at any point – and the gifts are less apt to be played with (and maybe broken) by guests. The drawback to this idea is that you can’t watch your child open gifts and talk to parents at the same time. If you choose this route, appoint an adult to write down which gift came from whom for the thank you cards and your own information.
Plan a weather alternative if applicable. Can you bring the party indoors if it rains?
How to Plan a Party Menu
The ease in serving the food is the major factor here – you want to spend time with your guests at an adult party, and you want to watch your child enjoy their party which may require inviting someone else to oversee the BBQ or food service at a kids party. Some parties involve watching a movie or sit-down play time incorporated in their eating time to keep kids focused on the party instead of instigating a little “fun” of their own.
Make a grocery list while you’re planning the menu to keep things easy. Now would also be a good time to test any new recipes you want to try for the party so you can tweak or replace them if necessary.
Make your party unique by creating a signature drink and party food that goes with your party theme.
Make a Party Supplies List
Once your party is planned you can make a list of all the sports equipment, game & craft requirements, music, table & chairs, serving dishes, serving utensils, plates, cups and utensils you’ll need. What kind of decorations do you want for the walk-way, the front door, the party table and chairs, the food table, and party room? Will the cake be the centerpiece or will you require something else?
Line Up Assistants
Take the pressure off yourself by asking other family members, friends or even parents of kids who attend the party to be helpers. At an adult party, having others help with the food, music or volunteer to be the first to play a game can make things run smoother. Anyone who helps with the cleanup afterward is worth their weight in gold! Also arrange to have someone other than yourself to be a mascot at the party – such as a teenager to be the Easter Bunny or wear a robot costume. (My son was in drama at high school and volunteered to be Dudley the Dragon, etc., at our local library for a written reference he used in his university application. Look into it for your party!)
Order the Birthday Cake, Balloons or Flower Arrangements
If you’re getting a specialty cake at the bakery or grocery store, order it well in advance to avoid disappointment. Order your balloons, flowers or other party decorations if getting them locally.
2 Weeks Before
Follow Up RSVPs
Contact anyone you haven’t heard from to confirm your guest list. Two weeks feels less stressful to agree to attend if they’ve forgotten about it.
Purchase Alcoholic Beverages for Adult Party
If you need help to estimate how much beverage alcohol you require, use Evite’s Party Drink Calculator.
1 Week Before
Get Printables Ready
If using printables for your party decorations or cupcake toppers, take them to the printers or print them off at home now to make sure you have enough ink and paper. Start putting your printables together – take your time and have fun!
Attend to the Yard for an Outdoor Party
Clean up the backyard and add any plants that you’ll require.
Get Cameras Ready
Make sure your digital camera & video camera are ready for the big day. Purchase new batteries or memory cards if necessary.
Confirm Food Made By Others & Assistant’s Help
If having a potluck or if family and friends are contributing to the party food, contact them to confirm that they are still able to do so and arrange what food or cooking duties they will have at the party. Ask people to be your helper at the party and tell them exactly what you expect of them.
2 Days Before
Go Grocery Shopping
Prepare Party Favor Bags
Start Practicing Thank Yous
Now is a good time to discuss kindness and showing gratitude for any and all gifts with the birthday girl or boy.
Mow the Lawn for an Outdoor Party
Get First Aid Kit
If you already have one, check the supplies and put it where it will be handy in the case of an emergency.
The Day Before the Party
Contact your helpers to jog their memory and make sure they are available, know what is expected of them and when they are to show up.
Make or Pick Up the Birthday Cake
Also make sure you have candles & something to use to light them.
Prepare Food for Menu
Make as much on the menu as possible now, or at least do the prep work in advance such as chopping vegetables, marinating meat, making sauces, etc. Refrigerate beverages and chill wines & beer.
Clean and Tidy Rooms that will be Used
Prepare Bathroom & Coat Room
Put a sign on the coat room and bathroom door so guests don’t have to ask. Put out hand towels, soap and extra bathroom tissue.
Prepare Name Tags for Guests
Day of the Party
Pick Up Balloons and Flowers
Organize the Party Areas & Decorate
If you’re having the party at your house, arrange the furniture and set up the dining table, activity stations and gift table. Put up decorations.
If going to a different venue for the party, arrange everything you’ll need for each area in different tote bags or storage boxes so you know if you have everything you’ll need and make it easier to delegate jobs to your assistants. (I’ve even made a rough drawing of the activity station with labels to put in the box so assistants know exactly what needs to be done with little direction in the chaos.)
Prepare Party Food
Set up the display table with your cupcakes, popcorn, beverages, snacks, party favors and decorations. (Set cake on display table early enough that it will be room temperature when eating it.) Give directions to anyone who will be doing food preparation during the party.
Set Up the Bar
For an adult party make sure wine & beer are chilled and prepare the bar area.
Get Ready for Gift List
Have a pen and paper ready to write down gifts & giver when opened, and give instructions to your assistant if delegating this task.
2 to 3 Days Later
Prepare Thank You Notes
Send thank you cards or gifts to guests and assistants.
I know it looks overwhelming as you scan down the page but believe me as you cross each item off you’ll get so excited about your party and feel confident that everything will go well that you’ll be glad you used this party planning guide as a reference.
Over to You
How far ahead do you plan your parties? Do you take the time to use a checklist, or do you just wing it?
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Once a week we'll tell you the upcoming daily celebrations & the articles you may have missed.