How I Threw a Zero Waste Kid's Party
When I started going zero waste a few years ago, people would often warn me, “Just wait ‘til you have kids—good luck keeping plastic out of your home.”
Now, as a parent to a one year old, I am starting to understand what they meant. Kids’ lives are filled with disposable items from the day they’re born. There are toys and devices that make sure our kids are entertained / not bored / learning the right motor skills, etc. There are well-meaning relatives and friends who bring gifts, often made from plastic or wrapped in plastic, when they visit. I haven’t even entered the school years, and I’m already dreading the disposable class projects, crafts and giveaways my son will bring home.
And then, there are birthdays. And, the pressure to not just celebrate, but to have a Pinterest-perfect party that you can document on social media, in case anyone was wondering what a great parent you are. You can spend hundreds, if not thousands, on decorations, balloons, party favors, themed plates/napkins/utensils, banners, games...the list goes on and on. But there’s also the convenience these items offer—they can transform your home into party central, and when you’re done, just throw it away. Easy.
As my son’s 1st birthday approached, I wondered—could I pull off a party for 20 kids and adults without creating waste? And, could I do it in a way that didn’t add stress to an already busy (and potentially emotional) day?
FOOD & DRINKS
We started with the menu. Max and I both love cooking and wanted to treat our guests to a delicious Mexican lunch. We decided on a menu of vegetarian butternut squash enchilada casserole, Mexican rice, adobo chicken, fresh fruit and guacamole and salsa with chips. I also made a gluten-free churro cake from scratch (with some major guidance from my baker friend Sarah from Lucky Penny Bread).
About 95% of the ingredients we bought were plastic free, purchased at the farmer’s market or in bulk at the grocery store. The only things we bought in plastic were tortilla chips, tortillas and cheese. I could have really gone the extra mile and gone to a Mexican restaurant and bought plastic-free chips and tortillas in my own bags or containers, but I decided to save the time to focus on other areas of the party, and recycled the plastic at a store that accepts soft plastics.
For drinks, we made a large batch of cold brew with almond milk and offered sparkling water and mimosas with fresh squeezed juice from our orange tree.
I went back and forth on how to serve 20 adults and kids (all under 2 years old), without spending the entire party collecting and washing dishes. Because we had lots of young kids running around, ceramic plates and glasses weren’t an option. We had a small number of enamel plates, but not enough, and buying additional plates was looking pretty expensive.
I decided to do compostable paper plates, paper cups, bamboo forks and paper napkins. It was a compromise, and gave me a little relief from having to make sure dishes didn’t pile up, or get broken. I kept a paper bag out and collected everything when the party was over to compost. For future parties, I’d like to invest in a set of enamel plates and stainless steel tumblers that we can reuse every year.
I admit that I did look on Pinterest for inspiration on how to decorate our home. I’m not immune. I decided to keep it simple and colorful and repurposed some construction paper to make a paper chain garland and tissue paper to make festive flowers. I cut some flowers from our garden and arranged them around the house.
I loved the way our house looked and had fun crafting, and because I was repurposing supplies I already had, it didn’t cost me a cent. When the party was over, I could have composted the garland and tissue flowers, but decided to put them in a storage box to save for next year.
We sent the invite via Paperless Post so we didn’t have to waste paper. We also specified that we did not want gifts, especially plastic ones, and lucky for us our guests abided! We skipped party favors and instead encouraged our guests to bring home leftover food and cake.
One thing I worried about was how we were going to entertain a bunch of kids. I ended up borrowing some outdoor toys and a water table from a mom friend, and the kids had a great time splashing in the sun.
Overall, I was really happy with the way the party turned out. The food and cake were delicious, the kids and parents had a great time, and we didn’t spend a ton of money or create waste. I also didn’t drive myself crazy trying to achieve zero plastic—zero waste should not be a burden, it should make your life easier and sometimes that means doing the best you can and creating a small amount of trash.
Cooking all of our own food from scratch was definitely a lot of work, and helped reduce waste, but it was a big undertaking. Max and I both decided that next year we’re going to make things easier on ourselves and host a pizza party in the park. Pizza boxes are compostable, and who doesn’t love pizza?
I’d love to hear from others, how do you tackle kids’ parties and what are some tips you can share on how to keep them (almost) waste-free?
I’m laughing at the young person sitting in front of the bar. haha. Great tips, thank you!
Unrelated question. I’m curious about the posters in your dining room. Would you kind tell us where you found them?! So cute!
Hi Natasha, I’m curious what kind of compostable plates/utensils your office uses. If they are bioplastic ie resemble plastic but made from plant materials, they need to be sent to a commercial composting facility in your town and likely won’t decompose in your home garden. We used paper plates and bamboo utensils which break down great in compost. Hope that helps! Lily
I love this! Planning my son’s third birthday party and had some of the same ideas, but this was helpful for extra guidance. However, I did want to ask how you fared with the compostable plates and utensils. We have these items at my office, where we also compost for our office garden, but we struggle to get these items to break down. Any suggestions?
Also, I’d like to second Nadine’s comment. If anything, my values and desire for a sustainable lifestyle was only heightened with the addition of my children, although I do definitely flounder with making the right choices all the time. It’s a work in progress for us, but we are transitioning quickly and vigilantly.
Keep up the wonderful work and thanks for the helpful tips!
We just had my son’s 2nd birthday- he requested a dino theme! I did many of the things you suggested above, but also got a box of mixed size plastic dinosaurs second hand off eBay. We sent them all through the dishwasher and used them as the decorations and cake toppers, then had each child take home a big one and a little one as their party favor. To me it felt like a great zero waste compromise.
Ha! Yes! I just wrote an entire post entitled: “Zero waste? Yeah, just wait until you have kids.” How is it we hear this all the time?! I seriously still do not understand it. Why should our values change just because we have children? Wouldn’t we rather involve our children in these values? Teach them a thing or two? This is wonderful. Good for you!
Love your ideas! Planning an October birthday party for my daughter. We’ll give mini pumpkins as the party favors and decorate with pumpkins and flowers, as well as a felt garland from Etsy with her name on it that we can use for decor in her room afterwards.
I have a set of 20 white, enamel plates. They have been used for 5 birthdays every year for 20 years. The white makes decorating easy. We have also used the same birthday banner for years. Makes for fun memories and there’s no waste!