An Earth-Friendly Birthday
How re-useable supplies, a homemade menu and a toy swap can make your next party greener
Note: This article was originally published in LA Parent magazine.
As my son’s fourth birthday approached, one thing was clear: He had enough toys. I’d tried before to specify “no gifts” on party invitations and knew that many people would disregard this request. But because I feel there’s way too much kids’ “stuff” – not only in my son’s bedroom, but being produced (and disposed of) in general – I wanted to encourage other parents to think about birthdays differently. That’s how I came up with the idea of a toy swap party.
I decided to take the green idea even further by making this birthday celebration zero-waste. Most of us have become accustomed to using disposable plates, flatware, napkins and decorations at parties. But when you consider the number of parties being thrown every year, that adds up to a staggering amount of trash.
The good news is, it really wasn’t that hard. Going zero waste required some extra advance planning and a bit of borrowing, but it was a heck of a lot less expensive. And when it was over, it felt pretty good to not be faced with an overflowing garbage barrel.
The Guest List
A couple of months ahead of time I presented the idea of a toy swap to my almost-4-year-old son, explaining that it would give him the opportunity to get some cool new (to him) stuff, and also to pass on toys that he didn’t play with anymore. He seemed to understand, and agreed to try it for his upcoming birthday party.
My initial ambition was to make this a large-scale event and invite every family we knew so that we could inspire them to do the same thing for their kids’ birthday parties. Fortunately, another green-minded parent I knew convinced me to scale it down a bit, inviting just other boys in order to cut the guest list in half. She pointed out that I would probably make myself crazy trying to make food and do dishes for more than 60 people. I agreed and breathed a sigh of relief.
Invitations were handled via Evite, a green if not especially creative option. After all of the RSVPs had trickled in, I was looking at approximately 30 guests, including both adults and 4-year-olds.
I started gathering non-disposable supplies a couple of weeks ahead of time. From my mother I borrowed the sturdy blue-and-white plastic plates and bowls I fondly remembered from many a backyard barbecue. She also had a set of unused inexpensive stainless steel flatware to supplement my own, as well as a big pile of cloth napkins that she was happy to pass on to me.
We’re constantly running out of clean cups at parties, so I took this opportunity to buy a couple dozen restaurant-style plastic cups (in grown-up and kid sizes) from Surfas restaurant supply store. Finally, I bought a couple of sets of recycled and reusable plastic dessert plates by Preserve. I was all set on food serving supplies.
Next I turned my attention to the menu. The party was planned for 11 a.m. on a Sunday, so I’d be serving brunch. To create as little waste as possible in preparing the food, I planned the menu around ingredients that could either be purchased from bulk bins or that came in recyclable packaging. Here’s what I decided on:
- Make-your-own berry and yoghurt parfaits with homemade granola
- Cheese and egg soufflé
- Bagels and cream cheese
- Homemade chocolate cake
- Orange juice and coffee
Berries came from the farmers market. Oatmeal, nuts and coconut for the granola were purchased from bulk bins using reusable bags. Cheese, milk and eggs for the soufflé were purchased in bulk from Costco. Bagels came in a big paper bag from a local bakery, and the cake would be made with ingredients already in my pantry. The yogurt and cream cheese tubs, berry containers, and egg, milk and OJ cartons could be recycled. All of this was also much cheaper than buying prepared food. So far, so good.
Because this party would feature no balloons and no party favors, I wanted to do a little something extra to make it special. West is a fan of “Mr. David,” a kids’ rock and roll strummer we’ve seen perform at a local farmers market over the last couple of years. Mr. David offered me a great rate to come and sing at the party, and considering all the money I was saving on party supplies and food, I decided it was worth the splurge. Entertainment: Check.
I knew that keeping a toy exchange among a group of 4-year-old boys orderly and civilized could be a challenge, so I decided to handle the donated toys like party favors. Upon arrival, I took each child’s toy and put it aside in a room downstairs. My plan was that each kid would go down with his parent and choose one toy right before he went home. That way, only one kid would go down at a time and we could avoid disputes. It didn’t quite work out that way.
While I had expected the party to mostly take place up on our main floor and in the backyard, many of the kids ended up in the downstairs room, and the “swap” items ended up getting mixed in with my son’s other toys. This meant I had to help sort things out as each child left to make sure none of my son’s still-beloved belongings were taken by mistake. But for the most part, each child handled himself beautifully and everyone seemed happy with what he got to take home. We were left with a few items that nobody wanted – they’re still in a bag downstairs waiting for my next trip to Goodwill.
The only other big challenge of the party was dishes. Thankfully, my mother-in-law and a close friend of mine were on hand to help out. Loading the dishwasher with the first set of dirty dishes during the party was key. I unloaded when the party was over and then re-filled it with the remaining dishes. After I had put away all the dishes, wiped down the tables and picked up the toys in the yard, the house was good as new. And our trash can was still empty. Amazing.
Eco-Friendly Party Tips
• Stock up ahead of time on reusable dishes, flatware, cups and cloth napkins. If you know you’ll use these supplies for years to come, buy whatever you need. If not, borrow from friends and family.
• Build your menu around foods that don’t come in a lot of packaging. If practical, buy ingredients from a bulk bin mart or local farmers market – and bring your own bags.
• If you’re planning a toy swap, make sure your guests know what to expect. Use unequivocal wording in your invitation: “Absolutely no new gifts, please. Simply bring an unwrapped toy your child doesn’t play with anymore. At the end of the party, every guest will get to choose a new (to him/her) toy to take home.”
• Keep the toy swap orderly by collecting items from guests upon arrival and placing them out of the way during the party. As each child leaves, his/her parent can help choose one toy to take home. For older children’s parties that parents don’t attend, the host or an appointed helper can take each kid to choose a toy right before leaving.
• Don’t give in to the temptation to buy party favors. Our guests were scrupulous about bringing toys that were of value and in good condition. An actual toy that he/she got to choose is bound to be much more exciting to each of your guests than some random tchotchkes from the 99 Cent Only Store.
• Enlist a couple of close friends or family members to help out during the party by clearing tables and loading and running the dishwasher, so you aren’t overwhelmed with a mountain of dirty dishes when it’s over.