Planning a Simple, Low-Waste Party for Your Child's Birthday

By Martha Janick

Source: Etsy shop  BooBahBlue

Source: Etsy shop BooBahBlue

There is so much to celebrate when your child’s first few birthdays come along. Surviving another year as a parent, children crawling, walking, talking, dancing, and all the million other little things that change each day. The milestones just keep coming and birthday celebrations are a nice chance to reflect, but a child’s birthday party doesn’t need to produce a pile of trash. The thing about toddlers is they are easily impressed, but also easily overwhelmed. They thrive when things are kept simple, expectations low, and they can just enjoy the excitement of having friends and family around. Here are some tips for throwing an eco-friendly birthday party for your little one.

My son helping make his first birthday cake

My son helping make his first birthday cake


Making decorations for a party can be a fun activity to do with your child in the days leading up and may help them to get warmed up to the exciting event. If you don’t have the time or energy to make decorations, choose items made of natural materials like paper streamers and lanterns that can be recycled after the party. I love the idea of creating a tradition of using the same items each birthday. At my son’s school kids take turns wearing a simple fabric birthday crown and cape on their birthday, and they just love it. However you choose to decorate, try to skip the balloons as they will just end up in a landfill or could slip out of little hands and pose danger to wildlife. Some fun alternatives to balloons are flags, banners, streamers, or ribbon sticks. These cloth pennant banners are really beautiful and can be used for everyone in the family. They can be found on Etsy or if you’re crafty you can make your own! 


It’s becoming more and more popular for parents to request no gifts for their children’s birthday parties. I’m am so excited about this trend because, like most parents, I am constantly trying to pare down my son’s toys and I have certain toy preferences (please nothing that makes noise!). So the idea of a whole bunch of random new toys coming into my house on one day kind of makes me start sweating. Removing the gift opening activity from the party is an added bonus of having no gifts, because it can be hard for little ones to understand and sit through. Plus no new toys to find storage for and no wrapping paper to dispose of!  

There are so many other fun ideas to try in place of traditional gift giving:

  • Request cards or drawings.
  • Do a book exchange. Each child brings a gently used book and goes home with a different book.

  • Suggest people donate to a charity in lieu of gifts. A fun way to do this is to let people know you will have a piggy bank out for donations. This way kids can enjoy dropping coins in and people don’t feel pressured to spend a certain amount.

  • Ask for second-hand gifts or hand-me-downs.

  • Ask people to contribute food for the party. Food makes the best gifts!

Do yourself and the other parents a favor and skip the goody bags. Most people don’t want more sugary sweets for their kids after just attending a birthday party and those cheap toys will quickly find themselves in the trash. Think of something seasonal and natural you can send home, such as a small potted flower or pine cone birdfeeder kit.


Ever make a snack tray for your toddler? Well, use that as your guide for party food. This works especially well for keeping it healthy and easy for kids to avoid foods if they have allergies. Fruit, veggies and dip, popcorn, cheese, crackers and a pitcher of water are all you really need. If you want to keep it super low-waste grab popcorn and other snacks from the bulk bins at the grocery store with some cloth bags. Unpackaged fruits and veggies are easy to find and chopping them up yourself will reduce packaging and save money. You can always add some more sophisticated food for the adults and maybe some alcoholic beverages (it’s a celebration for the adults too!) if you feel inclined. If you’re looking to keep kids busy with an activity have them decorate their own cupcake or put toppings on a quick cooking tortilla pizza. Don’t forget the dessert, you can go for the gold and bake a homemade cake or try something simpler, but still delicious, like cupcakes or brownies. You can also purchase a cake from a local bakery where it will likely be wrapped in cardboard as opposed to a supermarket where it will come in a plastic container. I like to take it back to the 1980s, growing up on an island with 4 siblings: simple cake (ok probably from a mix) with simple decorations, still very exciting.

Having a lot of fun and not creating a lot of trash (me on the right)

Having a lot of fun and not creating a lot of trash (me on the right)

Stick to real plates, silverware, cups, cloth tablecloths (bedsheets can work too!) and napkins. This can be a challenge depending on how many people you are inviting, but try reaching out to family and friends to see if you can borrow some or even hit up the thrift store to purchase enough to round out what you already own. The money you spend at the thrift store will probably be similar to what you spent on disposables and you’ll be able to reuse them for future parties. Plus, real dishes are classy as heck, only the best for our toddlers! If you keep the food simple you might be able to get away with just napkins and cups. Small canning jars are surprisingly durable and make great cups for kids if you happen to have some lying around.

As parents we convey the excitement and the meaning of each birthday and holiday. It can be easy to feel like bigger is better when it comes to celebrating our children. Really nothing could be further from the reality. The beauty of toddlers is that while they definitely have preferences they don’t have expectations of how parties should be. So while you may be worried that your child is missing out on something if you skip some of the traditional disposable party items like goody bags or balloons, don’t! A low waste party doesn’t mean it has to be any less fun, in fact, I think it refocuses the attention on what is important, the birthday child and the people that surround them.