Cupcakes and chaos: How to throw a birthday party for a two-year-old

OPINION: I’ve hosted hundreds of dinners, picnics, and parties. But entertaining toddlers — and their parents — is another matter altogether
By Corey Mintz - Published on Sep 27, 2021
Thanks to a bouncy castle loaned by a cousin, the kids were in heaven. (Pilin_Petunyia/iStock)

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After writing a generous forward to my 2013 book How to Host a Dinner Party, my friend Sarah privately added a piece of constructive criticism. "There isn’t one mention of children in here,” she said. “If you ever write an update, consider a section about hosting when you have kids." Until that moment, I hadn't considered children at all. When people came to my home for dinner, they left their kids … somewhere. As far as hosting was concerned, children were out of sight and out of mind.

Eight years later, the tables have turned. With my daughter’s second birthday approaching, I realized that I had no idea how to host a child’s birthday party. I mean, a version where all the parents get babysitters and we have dinner at my place, that I knew how to do. But much as I love being a dad, I had no idea how to connect this life with my previous one, when I used to host people in my home every week. What do you even do with kids at this age? I was clueless. It didn’t help that we were living in a new city without the familiar social network or that we’d been through 18 months of pandemic-related isolation. For the better part of a year, we couldn’t have people inside our home. At one point, we weren’t even allowed to go for walks with friends.

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And then we were invited to a birthday party for one of our daughter’s little buddies, and I realized that a two-year-old’s wingding can be a simple and fun affair if you just stick to the core principles of hosting — make sure everyone has something to drink, something to eat, and someone to talk to.

Like any party, big or small, it starts with a guest list. How many people you’re inviting informs how much food and drink you need. You also need to pick the time of day. Naptime, while not a huge consideration for childless grownups, is the nexus of toddler existence. The back half of the afternoon, three to five, feels late enough that everyone is up from their nap but early enough that you’re not interrupting anyone’s evening plans. 

Fried chicken, which we served at our wedding, is perfect party food. It’s nutritionally decadent without being economically ostentatious. It also stays crispy a long time if left in the oven on a low heat. But brining enough chicken for 30 guests (I may not have friends here yet, but my daughter does) would take up too much space in the fridge, and frying would fill the house with greasy smoke. So I pick up from Mary Brown’s, a Canadian franchise founded in St. John’s. The chicken is comparable to Popeye’s, and it’s not owned by a Brazilian investment firm. If it were dinner time, I’d calculate three pieces per person. But, at this hour, two is plenty. To balance out the meat, I make the dazzling chickpea salad with tamarind/date dressing from Nik Sharma’s cookbook The Flavor Equation (with a slip of paper on the table explaining the dressing, because how else would people know). 

We get compostable plates and cutlery. But there’s always a guest who wants to be helpful by clearing dirty plates as the party progresses. You cannot stop people from doing this. This taught me a lesson. Next time, I’ll label a bin “compost (yes the plates & forks are compostable)” so stuff doesn’t have to be separated later.

My wife makes cupcakes for the kids. She gets frustrated by the icing process and seems surprised that I know how to pipe a rosette. (I guess I learned something valuable in cooking school.) For decorations, we reuse the triangle bunting from her 30th birthday party. We stuff the loot bags with comics. I probably could have used some of my own, but my mission to promote comic books is an excuse to crate dig at a local store and unearth old issues of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! and out-of-date Marvel Universe handbooks, which the proprietor gladly sold for a dollar each.

Despite hosting hundreds of times (dinners, picnics, pig-head parties), I’m rusty. As the clock strikes three, I worry that no one will show up to my daughter’s birthday party. But I know that’s just jitters. And soon the yard is filled with kids noodling around the way toddlers do. Children, at this age, still enjoy the box the present comes in more than the present. They’re just starting to move beyond independent play. We’ve borrowed an inflatable bouncy castle from our cousin, and the kids are in heaven. Some dive in, while others are interested in the air-supply hose. One picks tomatoes; another rips off his shoes to get into the sandbox.

To each parent, I say, “Drinks are in the cooler, food is in the house, and don’t worry about your shoes.”

After a year and half of pandemic life, just going into someone else’s home is like an exotic trip. And being told you can leave your shoes on is a real “let me lift this velvet rope for you” move. 

Although we put “no gifts, please” on the invitation, people still bring them. The standard reasons for a gift-free birthday — child doesn’t need more stuff, home doesn’t need more clutter, guests shouldn’t feel financially burdened, society doesn’t need more consumerism — can’t compete with the societal norm of bringing presents to a child’s party. There has to be a way around that for next time. Between reading and polling friends, I got a variety of advice:

  • Choose a cause and suggest that guests donate to it (optionally and anonymously) instead of buying a gift.
  • Send a follow-up to the invitation that gently reinforces the no-gifts policy.
  • Plan the purchase of one big-ticket item that will be meaningful to your child (e.g., a bike, a membership to the museum) and ask that people contribute to that.
  • Be gracious. Accept whatever is given. But don’t get caught up in the cycle of reciprocation that’ll make you feel you need to bring a gift even when the invitation says not to.
  • Find the perfect wording next year. (“Give us the only gift we need — your company.”) 

When we serve the cupcakes, one little girl rushes to grab hers and is told to wait while we sing “Happy Birthday.” I’m not sure that’s necessary. Does a two-year-old need to be told her needs are less of a priority because it’s someone else’s birthday? Much as I lecture my daughter on delayed gratification, I think a birthday party should function according to its own version of the  Chekhov’s gun principle: a cake introduced in the first act must be given to children in the first act. At this age, toasting a bagel or waiting for daddy to get out of the restroom can seem to take a thousand years — there’s already enough waiting in childhood. And I do enough hectoring about saying please and thank you. All that stuff matters to me. But I don’t think there’s any harm in having a special day when all the rules are off. Once we’ve let go of our usual insistence that our daughter can eat only in the high chair, the horse is out of the barn. We may as well revel in a brief chaos. Isn’t that what a birthday party is?

With everyone cleared out, we begin cleaning. After 10 minutes of trying to work with or around our daughter, we decide that, if ever there was a time to plunk her in front of the television, this is it. So she gets a half-hour of Cocomelon — a cartoon with songs that, if they are not improvised, must be the first take of a first draft, set to a visual style that’s like those Taiwanese news animations but with less Kim Jong-un and more rolling pizza dough — and we get a clean home. 

I’m not sure whether any of these lessons will apply to her third birthday. She may care only about vaping by then. 

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