How to Plan a Third-Birthday Party

Hooray mama, you made it through the terrible twos! So, how should you celebrate your toddler’s latest milestone? This year will be the first time she’ll really “get” what her birthday means (and you can bet she’ll have opinions about it, too)! So how do you please all? Don’t worry — we’ve got the step-by-step planning guidance you’ll need.
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Updated January 30, 2017
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When to throw it

Since you want friends and family to be able to make it, aim for a weekend party. You’ll be home from work (and hopefully slightly less stressed), and they probably will be too.

Time of day is key for unpredictable three-year-olds. “If the kids are still taking a nap, you should definitely throw the party before (or after) naptime,” says Kate Landers, a children’s event planner and stylist. “10:30 to 12 or 1 to 3 are both great times to have the party because they usually don’t interfere with nap schedules.” Seems short, right? But that’s what you want. “90 minutes is plenty of time to play and then have cake,” she says. Add in an extra half-hour, if you want, in case some guests arrive late, or activities run over a bit.

Who and how many to invite

Friends from day care, preschool or even down the block can all be on your guest list but don’t feel like you have to invite all of them. Keep it to the kids that your child plays with most.

“I always tell parents to use this rule of thumb: Add two to your child’s age and that will tell you how many guests to invite,” says Landers. So for your three-year-old, five guests — not including your child — is the best fit.” Why? Well, as you’re completely aware, toddlers are full of energy and still have meltdowns — and you don’t want things to get out of hand (or even be outnumbered!). If you make the brave call to invite more kids, make sure that you have extra hands. “Sometimes, I tell my clients to book a babysitter or childcare provider to help them out for the length of the party if the guest list is big,” Landers says. “There should be at least one adult for every four kids.”

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Also, be mentally prepared for some surprises. “Parents typically bring other siblings with them to the party, which can be difficult, so when you’re drawing up the guest list, try to account for the possibility of additional guests.”

And don’t forget that the parents are your guests, too. When you’re mailing out RSVP cards, you can ask parents if they’ll be staying at the party or dropping their child off. “Parents usually wait until their kids are in school all day to start doing drop-offs at parties, so you should expect they’ll still want to be at parties for this age group,” Landers says.

The best venue

Don’t worry, mama, you’re not doing it wrong if you plan to have the party at your toddler’s favorite play gym and not in an elaborate tent the backyard with DIY decorations. “It’s really all about personal preference,” says Landers, “Sometimes, at-home parties can be completely overwhelming for parents to plan, clean, prep, host and then clean again. If that’s the case, look for other locations.”

Children’s gyms, local farms — where kids can go on hayrides — and petting zoos are awesome locations because there’s endless space to burn off all that energy and for all the kids and parents to gather. Plus, it’s a huge time saver when the staff takes on set-up duties. But if you really want to customize the details (and save some cash while you’re at it), away-from-home parties might not be for you.

“At home, you can fine-tune everything exactly the way you’d imagined it would look from what the dessert table will look like to the color scheme — options that you probably won’t have at a venue,” says Landers. “I like at-home parties because memories are built there; it’s special and personal; memories that you’ll all have forever.” Of course, they work best if you have a big outdoor (or indoor) space for kids to run around.

Choosing a theme

When your child was younger, you could probably get away with choosing a theme all on your own. But at three, your toddler is starting to have ideas and opinions of her own, which can make the party planning way more fun. Landers says that third-birthday parties are a great opportunity to include the ideas they’re thinking of — as long as they’re reasonable. If your son loves to go camping, for example, you can set up a little tent for the kids to play in. A mock-fire (made out of brown, red, orange and yellow construction paper cut-outs) might even be fun too, for them to gather around. Favorite characters, books or activities can be the party’s theme.

Make a budget and DIY

When you’re trying to stay on budget, pay special attention to the types of food you’ll serve and how many guests you’re planning on. “The more impressive the menu, the more you’ll spend,” Landers notes. But a good general rule is to think about what you can really afford to spend (your max budget) and then work backwards. Landers says to keep in mind the aspects of the party that you’re really focusing on (like snacks, décor, cake and party favors) before you start factoring in additional, unnecessary purchases like cardboard party hats and table confetti.

Choosing to DIY a few party decorations can be a huge time saver, but Landers warns not to put too much pressure on yourself to do it all yourself. “I’ve found that some DIY projects can be really misleading as far as prep time goes,” she says. “Something that looks like it might be quick to make might realistically involve a lot of work, so it’s good to know what you’re getting into before you get started.” And leave yourself extra time — you don’t want to stay up until 2 a.m. making gift bags the night before the party!

Food to serve

If you’re throwing the party at mealtime, you’ll be expected to serve lunch or dinner. If it’s an in-between time, then you won’t.

Try to stick to a menu of healthy snacks in addition to a sweet treat, advises Landers. “You want to serve foods that are best kept at room temperature so you don’t have to worry about running back and forth to heat anything up — or kids burning themselves. Things like: cheese, veggies, crackers, baby carrots, mini cheese sandwiches and other finger foods are ideal for this age group,” she says. You may want to ask parents ahead of time if their kids are allergic to anything in particular, or just avoid commonly allergenic foods altogether.

Perfect party favors

Instead of loading up gift bags with a bunch of little favors, keep it to just one or two bigger take-home gifts for each kid. And skip the sweets, too. Why? Well, as you’ve probably experienced, a bunch of little trinkets usually end up all over the car on the ride home or stashed away in a junk drawer somewhere, and kids may not be able to enjoy candy without risking choking yet. “A lot of the parents I work with appreciate quality over quantity,” she says. “I love giving out books as party favors and some parents even choose to put a customized little note inside, which can make it more personal for the child.”

When you’re deciding on favors to buy, think about things that your child likes. If you’re giving out a book, maybe it’s his favorite one, or something that ties in to the theme of the party. Another affordable idea? “Bubbles are always a huge hit for three-year-olds,” Landers adds.

If you aren’t in love with the idea of spending a lot of favors that you’re not sure kids will like, Landers suggests finding a way to make them a part of the party. “If you’re having a superhero party, for example, giving each child a mask or cape doubles can double as a party favor.” We love that idea!

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