I’ll be honest: I wasn’t especially eager to organize a birthday party for my six-year-old last fall. Life had thrown me a few challenges, and I was secretly hoping she’d be content with the immediate and extended family celebrations we’d previously had to mark the occasion. But my daughter had other ideas. Having gone to all of her friends’ parties, she just assumed that she’d be having one, too. To get the ball rolling, she went ahead and hand-printed invitations for all the girls in her class. I only learned about them when she came to ask me the time and date of her party, which she recognized were essential invitation details. There was really only one response to this kind of initiative—I found space on the calendar.

Birthday parties are never stress-free events. There are time issues, budget issues—not to mention the pressure to meet a birthday child’s expectations. But I felt an additional (admittedly self-imposed) pressure last fall. I’d been writing about environmental issues in this magazine for several years, and many of the moms I know read these articles. So if I was going to host a party, it had to be a green party!

I found plenty of inspiration on the web and from other planet-conscious moms. In case you’re planning a birthday celebration soon, here are some earth-friendly ideas:

Decorations: You don’t need disposable commercial decorations to make your venue festive. A reclaimed sheet or tablecloth can be transformed into a lovely reusable birthday banner with a sewing machine or paints. Excess children’s artwork can be cut into strips and made into paper chains (with your child’s permission and help, of course). If you don’t have artwork to spare, enlist your child to paint newspaper with tempera and cut it into strips instead. Provide materials for your guests to make and/or decorate their own party hats. (I pre-made sturdy crowns for my daughter’s guests with cardboard inserts from liquor store boxes, decorated with wallpaper samples and buttons.) As a substitute for balloons, consider making colorful tissue paper pompoms with paper from your “re-use” stash (you can Google the instructions). If you’ve got the storage space, you can even save the pompoms for future celebrations.

Gifts: I’m a big fan of toonie parties—where guests are invited to bring a toonie instead of a gift. The birthday loot is then split between the birthday child and a charitable cause of their choice. It’s a particularly good idea when the guest list is long and you don’t want your child to be buried in presents. Some additional green suggestions: have a book-themed party, and suggest guests bring a book as their gift. Make a homemade piñata, and invite guests to contribute their favorite bag of candy in lieu of a present. Go really green, and invite guests to bring a pre-loved toy for a birthday toy swap.

Food: Making what you can from scratch takes more time, but gives you control over ingredients and helps limit waste packaging. A few green ideas: make popcorn from bulk-purchased kernels. Make cupcakes, and have guests decorate them with homemade icing and colored coconut. Skip the juice boxes, and serve punch from a jug. Give yourself bonus points if you can source some of your refreshments locally!

Dishes and Tableware: They’re convenient, but disposable paper and plastic products are a big source of waste at most children’s parties. You can reduce your event’s footprint significantly by using real plates, cutlery, napkins, etc. Don’t have enough for your guests? Stock up at a garage sale or thrift store, and you’ll never have to buy disposables again. You can even use real dishes at an away-from-home party. Just bring a few sturdy boxes or totes to transport the dirty dishes home.

Activities: My children have loved every activity-based party they’ve attended, whether the activity was swimming, skating, gymnastics or bowling. They’ve also loved the home-based parties that featured crafts or scavenger hunts. But kids don’t need tons of programming to have fun. Get them together, give them something to do and/or space to play, and they’ll have a good time.

Party favours: I liked my friend’s recent goody bag solution. She had her young daughters paint paper lunch bags with simple pictures, and then the guests filled them with a modest amount of candy from a homemade piñata. For additional creative and sustainable party favour ideas, you can’t beat Pinterest. A quick search will turn up instructions for cloth bags, homemade playdough, paper pinwheels, origami animals, seeds in child-painted clay pots…and many more nifty things.

Keep it simple! My daughter’s “green” party was a success, but in retrospect I probably went overboard in my preparations. I spent many hours making birthday crowns and party decorations from materials in my stash. I whipped up DIY party favours and baked the birthday cake from scratch. I carefully planned a string of activities to keep the guests entertained from start to finish. And the result? The guests enjoyed themselves—but I suspect they would have had just as much fun with half the effort on my part. All that really mattered in the end was that everyone was included, and that the birthday girl felt special. Everything else was icing.

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at web link.