How to Celebrate Birthdays Without a Big Party

You don’t need a long guest list or a pile of presents. Start sweet traditions that make your child’s big day the best of the year.

Bedroom filled with birthday balloons
Agnes Hsu, founder of hello, Wonderful, floated a rainbow of two dozen helium balloons into her daughter’s room the day Alia turned 9. Photo: Agnes Hsu.

When my son turned 4 last summer, we threw caution to the wind, invited everyone, and crossed our fingers that the weather would hold for a backyard bash. It was chaotic and a blast. This year, life is different.

No one is likely to feel excited about a big gathering, and for many, priorities and budgets have shifted. Keeping things simple and ringing in the milestone with family seems more meaningful, and from everything I’ve learned talking to parents who have done just that, little moments can be just as enchanting for your kid as a party. Don’t feel pressure to do all the easy-to-imitate rituals here. Pick the ones that you think will make your kid ecstatic, and enjoy the day.

Amp Up Anticipation

Ring Out The Last Night Of That Age

Rachel Faucett, founder of Handmade Charlotte, holds a celebratory dinner the night before one of her five kids turns a year older, and the family shares memories of that child from the past year. Says Faucett, “It’s nice for the birthday kid to get special attention that’s not about presents but just about the accomplishment of another year.”

Child eating pizza
Priscilla Gragg

Draft A Menu

Plan birthday meals in advance so you can gather ingredients and avoid repeat dishes in the days prior. If the kid of honor wants pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this is the one time to say, “Absolutely.”

Count Down To The Fun

Present seven envelopes to your child, and explain that each morning leading up to his big day, he’ll unlock one small privilege—15 minutes of extra screen time, or a later bedtime. On the birthday, allow your kid to pick one to become permanent.

Prepare The Photo Op

Gift wrap a new pair of pj’s and let your child open them at bedtime the night before. It’ll send her to sleep excited and will make for cute snapshots in the morning.

Talk Up The Big Day

“Growing up can be hard to understand,” says Polly Hall, cofounder of the kids’ podcast Ear Snacks and mom of two. Storybooks that help: Little Gorilla, by Ruth Bornstein, and When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Make a Merry Morning

Do Some Clandestine Decorating

While she’s sleeping, deck out her room with balloons, streamers, and signs, suggests mom of two and professional organizer Shira Gill. “It’s so exciting for kids when they wake up,” she says. If you’re worried about rousing her, place a bouquet of balloons just outside for her to find. Or prepare a “balloon avalanche” to fall on your kid when she opens her door. Simply use masking tape and crepe-paper streamers to fashion a net across the doorframe, then tuck a dozen or more balloons between the streamers and the door.

Waffle cake with star candles
Now that’s how you start a birthday! A waffle cake for breakfast gives your kid an early chance to make a wish. Photo: Christopher Testani.

Kick It Off With A Waffle Cake…

Make your kid a semi-homemade sweet treat for breakfast out of round toaster waffles stacked up like cake layers, just as Agnes Hsu, founder of hello, Wonderful and mom of three, does. She whisks together cream cheese and vanilla to create the frosting between the waffles.

…Or Candlelit Flapjacks

Erin Jang, the designer behind the You, Me, We! activity books for kids and parents, whips up birthday pancakes, tossing sprinkles on right before she flips. (If you add candles, be sure to place a cool pancake on the top of the stack so the wax won’t melt into the food.) Up the fun by piling on one pancake for each year of your child’s life the stack will get taller as he gets older.

Throw A Quickie Breakfast Bash

“We take this very seriously in our house,” says Faucett. “I hang up piñatas and balloons, we blast music and eat pizza and ice cream for breakfast, and the siblings give the birthday child his presents. The whole thing takes maybe a total of 20 minutes, but it’s such an awesome way to start the day.”

Dress The Part

Amber Kemp-Gerstel, the founder of Damask Love (and our October 2019 Parents cover mom) customizes a T-shirt each year using iron-on decals for her son’s new age.

Spark Some Fun Times

Zoom In Entertainment

“This year a friend gifted my son a virtual magic show with popular party magician Jack Velour, and it was so much fun,” says Hsu. If your kid’s not into magic, she suggests trying a video chat with a favorite character like Elsa. Los Angeles–based Send In the Clowns Events offers virtual visits starting at $65.

Primp Your Ride

Decorate your car’s interior to be another birthday setting, says Kemp-Gerstel, who tricked out her minivan last year for her son’s birthday. Do it up with streamers, balloons, and even a special message written on the back passenger window using glass markers. Then take the family out cruising!

Orange birthday drinks
David Tsay

Create A Signature Drink

Faucett’s family works as a team to concoct a customized mocktail for the birthday. “Don’t be afraid to mix up something borderline gross,” she says. “You want these drinks to be memorable.” Her clan has dreamed up things like “Captain Birthday’s Foaming Cherry Bomb,” made of lemon-lime soda, cranberry juice, lime juice, grenadine, and—wait for it—cherry Pop Rocks.

Go On A Scavenger Hunt

If you have multiple kids and adults in the family, Gill suggests dividing into two teams, each with at least one adult. Then set out to snap photos of a list of items—the prettiest flower, someone walking a dog, the number of the birthday child’s age—within a specified time limit. The team with the most finds wins, and the birthday child gets to bestow the prize.

Bring The Restaurant Experience Home

Joni Lay, the designer behind Lay Baby Lay and mom of four, celebrated her youngest’s first birthday with a make-believe restaurant called Chubby Stacks (after the baby’s nickname, Chubby, and the pancakes she loves). Lay printed menus, made paper hats and aprons for uniforms, hung up a sign, and rolled utensils in napkins. Then she acted the part of waitress and escorted her kids to the table. “They all really loved having me take orders and serve them,” Lay says.

Siblings celebrating a birthday
Joni Lay

Lay’s girls at their pretend restaurant. The logo and menus are available to download free, if you want to try this yourself.


Make a playlist of family favorites, and wiggle out the birthday-cake energy.

Get Gifting

Craft “Surprise Balls”

Stretch out the suspense: Wrap up tiny gifts like temporary tattoos, trinkets, and candy using crepe-paper streamers to create a ball that the child slowly unravels to discover each prize.

Invent Challenges

DIY an activity course with a present waiting at the end, suggests Hsu. Dare your child to build paper cups into a five-stack pyramid, tape a crooked line onto the floor that she must follow, or stick paper streamers across a hallway in a zigzag pattern for her to pass through without breaking.

Make A Trail

For the littlest ones, Faucett recommends creating a simple trail of paper cutouts (like footprints). “The birthday kid follows the trail until all the gifts are found while the older siblings cheer him on,” she says.

Give The Gift Of “Yes”

Gill, whose forthcoming book is Minimalista, suggests you make your gift a “Yes Day.” Your child dictates all meals and activities (within reason). The concept is from the children’s book Yes Day! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. You’ll learn little things that delight your kid, and that can make the whole year brighter.

Birthday cupcakes that spell Emma
Johnny Miller

Cake Their Day

Serve Up A Smile

Buy a dedicated “birthday plate” that comes out only on the big day for cake and ice cream, or for every meal. It can be as simple as a fun color or a design purchased from Etsy; just be sure to opt for something that will suit your child’s taste for years to come (think an illustration of balloons, not a character from Dinosaur Train).

Invent “Their” Treat

“My aunt made me a rainbow-chip confetti cake every year. It wasn’t fancy: It was a cake in a pan with foil around it,” says Kemp-Gerstel. “But it was my cake.” For little ones, there’s something so reassuring about the ritual of the same thing on repeat. And when they’re grown, you can bet that this very dessert will transport them right back to their fondest childhood memories.

Offer A Big-Kid Smash Cake

“I believe in smash cakes well beyond the first birthday,” says Faucett. Skip the utensils—hilarity is bound to ensue! And if your family is daring enough: “A pie in the face is really funny and really fun,” says Faucett.

Let ’em Get Creative

Hall has her kids choose the flavor, filling, icing, and decorations. This can work whether it’s from a mix, from scratch, or ordered from a bakery. Her family has ended up with homemade cake with mochi ice-cream sandwiches dumped on top of it and their own attempt at the green dragon from FaceTime effects. “Our cakes don’t look like they were made by a store, but the birthday kid is always pleased,” Hall says.

Feel The Love

Call On The Cousins

Host a video chat with faraway family members using a platform like Zoom. To make it a “surprise party,” Gill suggests telling the child her grandparents want to chat. She’ll be elated to discover the whole gang is there waiting for her. You could even ask the cousins to dress up silly and plan a game to play. “My daughter’s surprise Zoom party culminated in a dance-off,” says Gill. “She said it was the best birthday ever.” To tame the chaos of multiple guests, assign a “leader” to guide the call, have prompts or questions to keep conversation lively, and use the mute function when others are speaking.

Evade The Jealousy Trap

Hall suggests giving your other kids a little gift too. “Something stocking-stuffer-size for a sibling to unwrap can give the birthday kid some space to play with his new toys. Plus, it lets the sibling feel some of the excitement of the day.”

Siblings celebrating a birthday

Bond The Siblings

Let a brother or sister pick out a gift for the birthday child. “It’s an opportunity to foster thoughtfulness,” says Hall, who asks her child questions like “What do you think your sister would like?” They’ll also feel pride watching the birthday child open their gift.

Remember When

Share your child’s birth-story memories and look at photos from the first year of her life. Kids love to hear about when they were babies, says Jang, who says her family likes to cuddle up and “watch a slideshow of photos and movies of the birthday kid,” Says Jang, “It’s the perfect way to end a birthday.”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as “Happier Birthdays, No Party Required.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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