The Problem: You're on a tight budget, but your child has his heart set on a big bash. How can you cut back costs but not skimp on fun?
Solve It: If you use your imagination, there are probably party materials all around you. Round up ingredients from your cupboard or junk drawer -- food coloring, relish, mustard, cotton balls, leftover Easter-basket "grass" -- and challenge your guests to devise the most disgusting recipe possible. "Kids love to make gross concoctions," says Lisa Kothari, author of Dear Peppers and Pollywogs: What Parents Want to Know About Planning Their Kids' Parties. (Just be sure no one eats them!) Lean on tried-and-true party games such as musical chairs, a scavenger hunt, or pin the tail on the donkey; they're classics for a reason -- they're both fun and free! If you're out of homespun ideas, consider Birthday Party Bash by 2K Play for the Wii ($20): Up to 12 kids can join in 20 different party-themed video games.
The Problem: The guest list seems to keep swelling. How can you avoid a huge crowd without excluding anyone?
Solve It: Let go of social obligations and focus on keeping the numbers manageable. One good guideline is to invite as many kids as your child's age plus one. Other ways to cut the list: Limit invitees to a discrete group, such as your child's playgroup or only girls or boys. And if a friend who had your child at his celebration doesn't make the cut, set up a special playdate or outing instead, says Peggy Post, codirector of The Emily Post Institute.
The Problem: How can you tactfully indicate to your guests' parents that this isn't (or is) a drop-off party and that uninvited siblings aren't welcome?
Solve It: Be up-front and be direct. "The more information you provide in the actual invitation, the better," says Penny Warner, author of Best Party Book. To indicate that a parent should be there for the celebration say, "We'd love for Mom or Dad to stay for the fun." If you'd rather the adults leave, include a "drop-off time" and "pick-up time," which should make it clear that they aren't expected to stick around. And to keep siblings out of the mix, specify that on the invitation: "PS: We wish we had room for everyone, but we must limit attendance to the invited guests."
The Problem: You don't want kids running amok, but you also don't want to be a killjoy. How can you keep guests on their best behavior?
Solve It: Set boundaries before the party starts. Decide which rooms are off-limits and close (and, if possible, lock) the doors. To get the message across, have your child help you make and put up a silly sign like "Keep Out: Construction Zone." To block off stairs, create your own version of a red-velvet rope with party streamers or balloons at the base of the staircase. Also recruit friends to help out; Kothari recommends enlisting one adult helper for every four guests. Limit the festivities to about 90 minutes, and plan at least three activities (games, entertainment, cake) to keep boredom at bay. And if a child becomes disruptive, take him aside and ask whether he wants you to call his mom and have her take him home. With that warning, his behavior will most likely shape up fast.
The Problem: Goody bags seem like a waste of money. What's a better alternative?
Solve It: Try following the example of Theresa Walsh Giarrusso. Fed up with too many junky, plastic birthday favors, this mom from Atlanta decided to include a single practical item that the kids use or make during the party. Guests at her daughter's Mad Scientist party went home with a colorful journal for detailing future experiments. Each boy at her son's Lego party left with a small set of the building bricks. Once you come up with a theme, it's surprisingly easy to think of a fun, inexpensive keepsake.
The Problem: Is there a compromise between a stark "no gift" policy and a mountain of presents?
Solve It: Yes! Here's a compromise that includes both options: Register your party at echoage.com. The site e-mails your invitations and encourages guests to make a monetary contribution online instead of a wrapped present. Part of that money goes toward the charity of your child's choice, and the rest goes back to your child so he can buy one gift for himself.
The Problem: Your daughter asks for peanut-butter cookies at her party, but you know two guests have a peanut allergy. How much should you accommodate guests with food allergies?
Solve It: "Don't make the cookies," Post says. Offer to bake them for your daughter another time. While you don't need to prepare special menus for allergic kids, it's wise to avoid potentially life-threatening allergens, such as nuts, especially when you know there's an issue. Your thoughtfulness will be greatly appreciated. Also, ask the parents of the two kids if they would like to bring their own food or check in with them first about what you plan on serving. And if you were thinking of sending kids home with a treat or two, consider offering a food-free goody bag, so guests with allergies can enjoy their parting gift, too.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.