How We Throw a Backyard Birthday Party

by | Jul 8, 2013 | Birthdays, It's Party Time, Tutorial | 8 comments

Yesterday, I told you why I like backyard birthday parties best. Today I’m telling you exactly how I do it. Step-by-step. And you get to see all the photos from Anita’s fourth birthday party, held last Saturday in the Chicago backyard of my in-laws (who are awesome, obviously).

So, here’s what *I* do to have a fun, affordable, and mostly stress-free kids’ birthday party . . . 


Plan ahead: 

A couple of weeks ahead of time I have the birthday kid settle on a theme. It can be anything from Lego Indiana Jones to stripes to football to pink to owls. We send an evite. Then we brainstorm games, food, cake, and decorations from there. Pinterest is a great resource (see the board I created here). I keep notes (they used to be in a notebook, now they’re on my iPad) about what we’re going to do, because otherwise I forget everything. 

The invitations (which we were able to hand deliver in the neighborhood because the Southside is cool like that) are free, customizable and printable, from, which is a really amazing site. I LOVE it!

About a week in advance I start doing one project per evening, making some decorations or food that can be done ahead of time. I usually do one shopping trip a week before for supplies and one a day or two before for food. I make the cake the day before the party. 

I bought the circle garland from Target (though it wouldn’t have been hard to DIY), then customized the circles to look like owls with paper and googly eyes. The middle spells out Anita’s name.

Then I do everything else the day of. We usually have our parties at about 3pm and we can put together food and snacks and sweep up and wipe down and put up some balloons and a birthday banner and prep for some games in that amount of time. And I even got my nap, so I wouldn’t be grumpy at the party.

Keep it simple: 
Martha Stewart is NOT my goal. I think that kind of entertaining is often more about showing off than about serving others. I want to keep my parties cute and creative and entertaining and fun, but cheap and reasonable. We don’t rent expensive equipment or hire entertainment. We don’t give away pricey prizes or parting gifts. We try to make things  ourselves when possible.

The decorations: the banners, the (not new) plastic table cloths, a bag of balloons, and some paper plates were it.

I try to let the kids be involved (although I have to admit, this is a personal struggle of mine, I’d prefer to just do everything myself, but I’m getting better and my helpers are getting older and better, so they help a lot more now).

Pinterest and Google are great resources for people like me who are willing to home-make some things, but have trouble coming up with ideas.

I genuinely enjoy doing crafty things, so I do them for my kids’ birthday parties. But if you don’t like that sort of stuff, then you should not feel like it’s necessary. I have thrown birthday parties with a brand new baby in the house that consisted of little more than a Happy Birthday banner, some pizza, a couple of party games, and a frosted sheet cake with some action figures stuck in the top. The kids loved it. That’s really all they need.


The food! It turned out super cute, but was inexpensive and not hard to do. (See my pinterest board
for the original links.) Fruit salad in a watermelon owl (scooped out
by Gus), owl deviled-eggs (thanks Gramma), owl made of meat, owl made of
cheese, and owl sandwiches: cream cheese and cucumber, ham and cheese
(made by Jack), peanut butter and jelly (made by Betty).

Keep it you: 

Like I said, I WANT to use my kids’ birthday parties as an excuse to scour the internet for cute stuff to make. So that’s the kind of party *I* throw for my kids.

But if that’s not the kind of party you’d like to throw, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do it at your house. If you want to be really involved with the kids, you can throw a beauty salon party and do all their hair and nails. If you want to be less hands on, you can set up an art project or board games or rent a bounce house and just let them have at it themselves. 

If you like to cook, you can throw a make your own pizza party. If you don’t like to cook, you can have pizza delivered.

These baby owl cupcakes might be the easiest cake I’ve ever made and they came out really cute. I found them on pinterest too, the key to getting them to look like owls is to stick broken-in-half oreo tops on there and frost them to make the horns before
you put the face on. Anita was concerned that the baby owls didn’t have
a mama, so I made a chocolate rice crispy treat mama owl.

If you like to bake you can make a fancy cake, it’s surprisingly cheap. And while I have absolutely no training or book learnin’ on the subject, I love the challenge. My cakes have occasionally gotten VERY complicated. And I’ve really only had one failure — a Rapunzel tower that fell over. But I’d already gotten a picture of it, and we were able to prop it back up for the birthday girl to blow out the candles, so . . . not a problem.

But even if you find the prospect of cake-making to be overwhelming, you can bake a sheet cake and throw a bunch of candy or a few toys on it and children will think you are a culinary genius. If you don’t even want to bake a cake, you can stack a bunch of ice cream sandwiches in a pan, cover it with whipped cream, and wait for the compliments to start rolling it. Seriously, people love that cake. I make it often.

Keep it on schedule:

Two hours is enough, three hours is the limit. Put on your big girl pants and keep things rolling. I usually have a craft for the kids to do as they arrive. Sometimes it’s more involved, sometimes it’s just some coloring pages, but either way,
it keeps the kids who are already there occupied until the rest of the guests arrive.

For the craft, they made the bags they used to collect their prizes and pinata candy. Also found on pinterest.

I also tend to have most of the food out when everyone gets there. Even when the party starts at a non-eating time, like 3pm, I think it’s easier to have that part set up and not have to worry about it during the party. But if I’m serving hot food, like pizza, I’ll keep that in the oven until everyone has arrived and they’ve finished the craft.

After the kids eat, we do the games. Pin the something on the something is always great, because it’s a game and
a decoration. Duck, duck, goose is infinitely customizable: dwarf, dwarf, princess; storm trooper, storm trooper, Jedi; yellow, yellow, pink; etc. Indoors, we’ve done things like Mad-libs and trivia and memory trays.

Jack was in charge of the games and he did a great job! They played Owl-Egg on a Spoon Race (Anita is clearly cheating), Mama Owl Says, and Launch the Baby Owl Into Flight (using a homemade catapult).

We usually do three games, with small, inexpensive prizes for each.

Then we have cake and sing Happy Birthday, then open the presents.

Besides being too expensive and kinda impersonal, I also don’t like that at “destination” birthday parties they almost never allow for the children to open their presents in front of the guests. I think this is a real shame, since kids so love getting to see someone open the gift they have given. It’s also a great chance for the birthday child to practice visible gratitude, and to learn how to say, “Wow, this is great, thank you,” and never, “We already have one of these.” It would
be a shame to miss that opportunity to put good manners to use.

The birthday girl!
Happy fourth birthday to my sweet and happy and charming Anita. My life is better because you are in it. 

Finally, all our parties end with a pinata. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Southern California, but I can’t imagine a birthday party without one. We hand out baggies and line the kids up littlest to biggest (after the birthday kid) and they start bashing (in a safe and supervised way).


We have done homemade pinatas in the past, but it’s a many-days project. I couldn’t find an owl pinata, so we had an ice cream cone pinata.

Then they get to take home their craft, their bag of candy, any prizes they won, and often something we gave out to the whole group, like musical instruments for a parade, or hats so they could be Indiana Jones.

And that’s it. I tell everyone they’re free to hang out and play for a bit, but the program for the party is over. If you want people to leave, just put away the food and they’ll usually go.

The take-home gifts were these little melting-chocolate-dipped marshmallow owls. They have chocolate chip horns, melted a tiny bit then stuck on the marshmallow, mini
m&ms for beaks, white chocolate chips for eyes, and various
sprinkles for wings, feet, and bows. I find marshmallows much easier to
work with than cake pops.

But they will leave having been a guest in my home, having been served food and drinks, having been entertained a bit. They will have gotten to see the inside of a happy Christian home (or at least the backyard of one) and hopefully we will be closer because of it.

I will have spent a few evenings and most of one day, and often less money than what it costs to take our family to dinner and the movies. My child will have gotten to enjoy a party of his choosing and planning, but rather than just arriving somewhere to be celebrated, he will have participated in the cleaning and planning and preparation for  entertaining people at our home (and the clean-up afterwards).

For some reason, drinking pink juice out of a blue straw made Frankie the happiest he has ever been in his life. It was nice. Disconcerting, but nice.

It’s a beautiful thing! 

For more Tierney-family birthday party fun, check out Betty’s Snow Princess party, and Jack’s The Mysterious Benedict Society party.



  1. Nanacamille

    Absolutely beautiful and one I am so sorry to have missed. You and Grandma and the kids did a great job on everything. My dresses fit right in with all of your decorations which were so clever and cute. Anita is definitely going to be a Chi Omega in college with her love of owls. Did Flippy, Flappy and the other owl friends make it to the party? They must have been right at home if they did. Happy birthday to my little namesake Anita Camille.

  2. Sarah Beth

    What a hoot. Whooo knew there was so much you could do with an OWL party?! Great ideas. Thank you!

  3. K

    This is so helpful to me! My temparment is so anti-party-throwing that I am often overwhelmed at the mere notion of throwing my children a party. In fact, I had my last birthday party when I was four….after it was over I told my mom I did not want any more parties, and in the future I just had a friend over for dinner for my birthday. My children do not share my extreme anti-party sentiments in the slightest, so there must. be. parties. Thank you for the sharing your method, and giving encouraging us to make it as low key as we want…because I sure do like the IDEA of be hospitable. 🙂 I am almost excited to throw my next kid's party now. Almost.

  4. Anonymous

    Keep it simple? Is this a joke? My idea of simple is hitting up Costco for pizza and a Costco cake with my kid's name on it. This party looks fancier than my wedding.

    Simple Mom

  5. Julia robert

    Birthday parties are special for all of us as it is a very special occasion for all of us. There are many ideas and different ways of planning it. Nowadays these are based on themes and the decoration based on these themes look wonderful. The pictures above look beautiful.

  6. Sarah

    What do you think about stipulating 'no gifts' for birthday parties? I am throwing a big backyard party for my sons who will be 4 and 2 this summer. Their birthdays are 5 days apart. With their combined friends we will have 10 families or about 40-50 people. I just hate for them all to bring gifts for each boy. It would be 20 gifts and people go big…it just seems too much to me, overwhelming amount of stuff and unnecessary. My kids have more than they could ever need with indulgent grandparents. But, I agree with kids learning how to graciously accept gifts being important and I know they may expect them as we have brought gifts to many other parties. I guess I am more worried people will think I am miserly saying no gifts but they will get them from us and extended family! Do you have any thoughts on limiting guests to a certain number or other advice? Thank you, love reading your blog!

    • Kendra

      Thanks Sarah! That is a tough situation. I think we're lucky that we can invite just a handful of families and get plenty of kids, but not too many presents.

      If I were in your situation, I'd just accept the gifts from friends, gratefully. But I'd prep the kids ahead of time by reminding them that we have a set amount of space in our toy closet. If a bunch if new toys come into the house, then a bunch of old things will need to go.

      And even some of the new things can be chosen to donate to kids who don't get to have new toys. It's easy to get too caught up in keeping things because such and such a person gave it to me. But if I did that, I'd go crazy. With this many kids, we have to be good about getting rid of things. Our very favorites stay, everything else goes.

      For people I have influence over, like family members, I encourage gifts of activities rather than stuff. Swim lessons, day camp, a day at the aquarium or an amusement park. And if you're really good you can convince the giver to provide transportation and supervision at the activity as well!

      Good luck!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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