Engaging, entertaining games—and plenty of presents—are the key elements at children's birthday parties, right? But there's one additional component that's essential to a successful gathering, no matter what the age of the guest: food. Since feeding a crowd on a budget can be tough, we've rounded up fuss-free and affordable party food ideas—delicious meals, snacks, and desserts that are sure to please children and parents alike, without upsetting your wallet.
1st birthday party food ideas
Your baby's first year—and yours as a parent—is a milestone worthy of a party. Your littlest guests won't be too interested in the spread, making this a great chance to brainstorm birthday party food ideas for adults (enjoy it while you can). Here are some crowd-pleasing ideas:
- Barbecue sandwiches
- Loaded nachos
- Tea sandwiches or crostini
- Baked potato bar
- Deviled eggs
- Stuffed mushrooms
- Jalapeno poppers
- Spinach-artichoke dip
- Pasta salad
Some additional wallet-friendly crowd pleasers to consider for gatherings, according to Cheapism, include bean dip, wings, and flatbread pizzas.
But don't forget the little ones altogether, of course! One-year-olds enjoy a variety of foods, so consider putting together a "baby buffet" with things like cheese cubes, mini sandwiches, crackers, bananas, muffins, yogurt, applesauce, pasta, hard-boiled eggs, lean proteins, and more. Avoid anything that can be considered a choking hazard, such as popcorn, hot dogs, nuts, or grapes.
Toddler finger food ideas
Finger foods make everyone's life easier—you don't need to provide cutlery, and your guests aren't trying to chase a toddler while balancing a plate of salad.
"Prepare foods in smaller sizes like bite size meatballs and place them on skewers or make mini hamburger sliders that are easier for your little ones to hold," says Andrea Woroch, a money-saving pro and mom of two littles.
Here some kids' birthday party finger food ideas that are easy to handle and sure to be a hit:
- Sandwiches cut into quarters
- Veggies and dip
- Fruit on skewers
- Bagels and muffins
If you're serving a crowd of toddlers or preschoolers who are all going to eat at the same time, chicken nuggets (don't forget the ketchup!) or Bagel Bites are easy on your budget and quick to pull together. Cheapism also recommends macaroni and cheese bites (and what child doesn't love macaroni and cheese?), as well as quesadillas, another child-friendly staple that's easy to handle and eat and inexpensive to prepare.
"I also suggest putting sauces on the side so kids can experiment with different flavors but you won't run the risk of anything getting wasted if they don't like the taste," says Woroch.
Remember, excited party-goers are often just too wound up to eat very much, which is why you don't want to spend too much time or money on the meal.
Birthday party lunch and dinner ideas
For older kids, chicken nuggets and sandwiches might not cut it. Here are some kids' birthday party food ideas for elementary and middle school students.
- Make-your-own taco bar or slider bar
- Macaroni and cheese with optional toppings (bacon, buffalo chicken bites, breadcrumbs, etc.)
- Pizza (either homemade or delivery)
- Grilled cheese or BLTs with tomato soup
- Pasta with meatballs
- Chicken meatballs
- Stuffed potato skins
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Birthday party snack ideas
Birthday party snacks don't need to be loaded with calories, sugar, or sodium. Here are some healthy options for younger and older kids alike.
- Guacamole, salsa, or seven-layer dip
- Meat and cheese tray
- Fruit and veggie platters
- Hummus and pita chips
- Cheese and cracker platters
- Trail mix
Dessert ideas for a kids' birthday party
A big birthday cake allows for a more dramatic blow-out-the-candles moment. Try a theme cake if your kid's mad about Barney or Clifford. Costco is known for making great-tasting, inexpensive sheet cakes with lots of characters and designs to choose from. Similarly, many local supermarket chains provide cost-friendly and highly customizable options. Ambitious? Make your own cake (from a mix or scratch) and get decorating ideas from various websites.
If you want less of a hassle, opt for cupcakes instead. There's no cutting, and they're easier to serve. Consider icing cupcakes in different colors and arranging them in a fun pattern, or one that spells out your child's name or "Happy Birthday." Put out sprinkles and other decorations so each guest can create her own masterpiece.
Need a few more ideas for dessert? Cheapism's favorite budget-friendly desserts that also happen to be kid-friendly include pudding, oatmeal cookies, fruit plates, and what kids' party would be complete without ice cream.
Want to take your efforts up a notch? Here are some additional dessert options for kids' birthday parties that require a bit more effort:
- Mud cups. Use clear plastic cups, fill halfway with chocolate pudding, top with a layer of crushed chocolate cookies like Oreos, and then put a gummy worm or two on the top.
- S'mores (even better if you have a fire pit for older kids' birthday parties!)
- Ice cream sundae bar
- An assortment of pies
- Waffle bar with toppings (syrup, chocolate sauce, fruit, powdered sugar, etc.)
- Chocolate fondue
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