Five key questions when you're planning kids' party food
1. The time of the party?
If you've been foolish generous enough to have scheduled your party to spread over or run into anything approaching lunchtime or teatime, then you'll need to put on a decent-ish spread. If you've cannily timed your party for the early morning or early afternoon, however, you can probably get away with drinks and a few snacks – but do make sure the kids' parents know what you're planning.
2. The age of the kids?
Any Mumsnetter worth her party-host-salt will tell you that the official ratio of healthy party food to sugary/junky rubbish changes exponentially with each year of age. So, while a birthday tea for babies or toddlers (with their hovering mums) should include several nods to the existence of vegetables, there's absolutely no point whipping up anything too worthy if your party guests are over the age of five…
3. The number of children coming?
Generally speaking, the more children you invite, the less complicated your birthday tea needs to be. Burger and chips for five is do-able; burger and chips for 25, unless you're surname is Fearnley-Whittingstall, is absolutely not. A rough rule of thumb oft-quoted on Mumsnet is to invite the same number of children as candles on the cake. (Of course, if there are 30 kids in the class this can be wishful thinking).
4. The party venue?
If you're having the party at home, you may be able to sit everyone at a table – meaning you can serve the food on (unbreakable) plates and get everyone to pass things round in a (relatively) civilised way. But, if space (and chairs) are limited, you may have to spread a tablecloth on the floor and produce a birthday 'picnic', in which case dividing the food up into individual food boxes (order them from party-goods websites) can save on mess and washing-up, and ensure nobody hogs more than their fair share of Twiglets.
If you're having the party away from home (in the park, for example, or at a hired venue), food boxes or pizza delivery boxes really are the way to go. Unless, of course, the venue comes with (inevitably chicken-nuggety) party food as part of the deal, in which case you can gratefully abdicate responsibility for everything except, of course, the birthday cake.
5. Your own domestic-goddess factor?
Last but certainly not least on your things-to-consider-before-you-start list is how keen you are to don your pinny and get cooking/slicing/baking/icing yourself. Be honest, now: would you rather just get shop-bought food for them to scoff before they play, or would your inner keep-up-with-the-Annabel-Karmels barometer self-combust if you didn't put in a little time at the cooker-face?
Of course, it really doesn't matter too much which way you go – as long as, time, energy and general stress-wise, you're not biting off more than you (and your small guests) can reasonably chew. If you need a party-madness-or-not check, run your plans past other Mumsnetters on our Parties/celebrations discussion board.
Party food ideas
Mumsnet's a veritable mine of kids' party food wisdom. You only have to look at the discussion threads in the Parties topic to see we definitely know our Skips from our Wotsits hummus dips from our pinwheel sandwiches. And the one birthday-tea message that comes out louder and clearer than any other is: less is more…
Savoury ideas for children's birthday teas
This is the part of the tea you do to salve your conscience (a little) before the sugar-fest that is to come. And so that when at going-home time some little treasure tells their open-mouthed mum, “It was great – all we ate was chocolate cake!”, you can swiftly counter with, “No, sweetheart, we had sandwiches and carrots sticks, too, remember?”
Grated mild cheddar and ham. Nothing more than that. I have learned the hard way.
Doing food in party boxes? You need about five things to put in each box. A small yoghurt and plastic spoon. A cheese string. A homemade sandwich. Some crisps. Grapes or carrot sticks, maybe. A fairy cake. Chocolate fingers. A pretty napkin. Maybe a hat to wear if you want to jazz things up a bit.
Small children do like sandwiches cut into shapes with biscuit cutters.
Or make stripey finger sarnies. Use one slice of white and one slice of brown, fill, then cut into fingers.
Open sandwiches, done like little boats – which is, basically, finger rolls, halved, then spread with things like cream cheese, or egg or Marmite and then a cocktail stick stuck in top with a little flag made out of a sticky note! Obvously, not advised for very small children who might poke their eyes out.
Just butter soft rolls, then put ham, slices of cheese, cucumber etc. out in little bowls. Easier than making sandwiches and the children get to pick whatever they like.
Fairy bread – white and brown bread slices, spread with butter/marg, with sprinkles on top.
I gave seven-year-olds a tortilla wrap each and put a load of different fillings – tuna/mayo, ham, cheese, cucumber, tomatoes, mayonnaise, crisps and ketchup, so nothing fancy – in the middle for them to make up their own wraps. It was a big hit and they all ate well.
Tiny pinwheel sandwiches, where you flatten the bread with a rolling pin, remove crusts, apply filling, then roll up tightly and wrap in clingfilm. Stick in the fridge for 30 mins, then cut slices so you get a lovely spiral effect.
Other sure-fire savoury hits
Sausages. Sausages. Sausages.
Many flavours of crisps. They don't want anything else. They don't want lovingly made small sandwiches or cunning jelly boats made from oranges. They want crisps.
Popcorn. Not for littlies, though – choking hazard and all that.
Breadsticks with dips – children seem to like dipping things in goo.
Mini pizzas, made on halved muffins.
Don't forget that some children have gluten/lactose intolerances, so provide some stuff they can eat, too – not just all sandwiches, pizza, sausages.
Pizzas they can make themselves. We provided the bases and some passata and lots of different fillings and the children did their own.
Cheese cubes. And cherry tomatoes.
Nigella's cheese straws.
'Lunch on a stick': skewers threaded with a cherry tomato, a slice of cucumber, a cube of cheese, and a rolled piece of ham/turkey.
Carrot and cucumber sticks. Put them out in big bowls at the beginning of the party – they will eat the lot. Put them on the table next to the cakes, they won't get eaten.
As this Mumsnetter wisely points out: “Key thing to remember – it is a party and the occasional bit of junk food is not a crime and won't ruin them forever. You are not going to please every child, so don’t try to provide 50 types of sandwiches. Stick to normal varieties and they will eat it.”
Sweet suggestions for children's birthday teas
These are, of course, the main object of every small party-goer's eagerly snatching hand. For the sake of your loose covers and post-party sanity, it makes sense to mix the (finger-smearing) chocolate treats with others of the non-chocolate variety – and (shock!) even a little bit of fruit.
Sparklers. Plain breadsticks, with the end dipped in melted chocolate and then hundreds and thousands/choccy sprinkles. They look very pretty, the children like them and they're not overly sweet as the chocolate element is pretty small.
I do the Nigella-style number biscuits but make it easier by cutting the biscuit dough into circles, then pressing the number cookie cutter in the middle (enough for an imprint, not to go all the way through). Much quicker and easier to get off baking sheet.
Do remember to have some sweet stuff that doesn't contain egg – it's a surprisingly common allergy. And, if you know a child with a nut allergy is coming, phone the parents beforehand and check what he/she can have. Better, in my opinion, to cross off the menu anything that might trigger the allergy than have to keep an eye and worry he/she might eat it by accident.
Party Rings. Yuuuummmmmy. (I suppose they can have some, too.)
Fruit kebabs – strawberries, grapes and bits of satsuma threaded on to half a wooden skewer. Always get eaten quicker than anything else. They have to be kebabs though' plain old fruit just not as good.
Fairy cakes with a dab of buttercream and a smartie on the top. My sister-in-law made delish buttercream once by putting raspberries in it, making it all pink and yummy.
Chocolate crispies or Rice Krispies on Mars – make bite-sized ones – they always get scoffed and look pretty piled onto a large serving dish.
Strawberries dipped in chocolate – they WHOOSH off the table.
Melon balls. I almost got laughed off MN for considering these for my daughter's 7th birthday but they were a huge hit. And nice and cooling when they've all been running around doing my head in.
Mini strawberry tarts. Make mini pastry cases (just like jam tarts) and bake them while empty. Cool them, then fill with either whipped cream, or creme fraiche with a bit of icing sugar beaten in (it's delicious) and top with a strawberry on each.
Little mice made from a strawberry with Milkybar button ears and a jellylace tail.
Chocolate fingers. There is no limit to the number of chocolate fingers that can be consumed in any party setting. janeite
Annabel Karmel's chocolate martians – mini rolls stood upright with liquorice allsort faces. A faff to make but worth it.
Different coloured jellies in clear plastic drinking cups. Colourful, and no washing up.
Gone are the days when no birthday tea was complete without gallons of lukewarm squash; dare to bring out such additive-packed stuff now and you'll cause a full-scale E-number alert among all assembled parents. And as for fizzy drinks, well, this mum sums it up: “I just wouldn't. Some parents do have very strong views about them – and about Coke, in particular – some kids react quite extremely to it.”
Which pretty much restricts your options to water and/or juice.
Provide a bottle of water each. One with a sports type top. And buy lots of water because little ones get thirsty.
If you go for juice, get those little individual cartons with straws. They're pricier but they don't spill (much) when they get knocked over (and they will). Saves a lot of hassle with cups and jugs and serving. But do have some water on hand for kids who aren't allowed don't like juice or you'll find you've some poor, red-faced little child wilting in the corner at the end of the party.
For small gatherings of older girls (and impressively wannabe-metrosexual boys), you could venture down the “exotic fruit cocktail” route: take glasses of lemonade and pour a little fruit juice in each, then pour about a tablespoon of grenadine syrup down the side of each glass – you'll be left with drinks that have separated into oh-so-sophisticated coloured layers.
Decorate with a cherry on a cocktail stick and a little paper umbrella for extra edge of almost-grown-up cool.
Something for the parents?
If any of your guests are under five, that generally means they come with parents, too. They'll stand around in clumps looking anxious/falsely chirpy/bored but, above all, awkward. Which means you may feel duty bound to offer them something to eat – or at least, drink – too.
I wouldn't expect any food, but always grateful for a cup of tea.
I have done crisps and dip with wine for adults in the past. Then normally let them at the leftovers when the children are finished.
If you really feel you have to (and people don't expect it in my experience), pass round some crisps or adult biscuits.
I would just provide something very simple – dips, crudités and crisps would be perfect. But, then, I would try to ensure that I had enlisted enough helpers that the other parents didn't feel they had to hang around.
The birthday cake
They're only there for the cake. Crisps, chocolate crispies and a passing fondness for the birthday child are all very well, but the real birthday-tea raison d'etre is the icing-tastic, candle-topped cake. As, indeed, it is for your child, who, after all, gets to bask in the reflected glory of said candles before blowing them out to wild applause (as long as some other little charmer doesn't 'accidentally' blow them out first).
So, where's this crowd-puller of a cake coming from? The labour of your own fair hands? Or…
“Aisle 12, Asda, about four shelves down…”
Your smaller guests probably won't be much bothered either way, but should you opt for the halo-burnishing, bake-your-own route, you need to decide your cake type (stylish pile of cupcakes or traditional big round job) and your decoration plan (cover with icing and sweets or carve into animal/train/IgglePiggle shape and then cover randomly expertly with icing and sweets).
Cupcakes. You can make these using a Classic Sponge recipe, dividing the mixture into individual cake cases and icing (see below) and topping with sweets/sprinkles when cool. Or you could try one of our surefire Mumsnet recipes: we especially like liath's Party Cupcakes with White Chocolate Frosting, Annabel Karmel's Chocolate Orange Mini Muffins, Lesley Waters' Poppyseed and Lemon Muffins and, in a not-exactly-cupcakes-but-just-as-nice kind of way, Suzywong's legendarily gooey Brownies. Don't forget the candles!
Traditional round cake. There are loads of scrummy cakes in our Mumsnet Recipes collection. Our current party favourites include blametheparents' Chocolate Birthday Cake and liath's Ricotta Cake. If you're planning anything even slightly adventurous on the icing front, though, we recommend the simple Classic Sponge or, if you're going to be carving fancy shapes, stealthquiggle's slightly firmer Madeira Sponge. For a super-easy alternative to the usual sponge – how about this Tiffin refrigerator cake recipe?
Icing on the top. The simplest icings are either glace icing (sifted icing sugar mixed with a little water till gloopy but not too runny; add a drop of lemon or orange juice, if you like, to make less cloyingly sweet) or buttercream (gradually cream 100g softened butter with 1 tbsp milk and 225g sifted icing sugar until light and fluffy; add a little sifted cocoa powder for chocolate buttercream or a couple of drops of food colouring for coloured icing). Both glace and buttercream are good for cupcakes; buttercream is best for bigger cakes. You can also buy ready-roll fondant icing in various colours for more elaborate decorating challenges or go all out for the cream- and-melted chocolate look.
Decorating children's birthday cakes
When it comes cake decorating, the world is literally your oyster – well, your pirate ship or Barbie doll, anyway. With a bit of imagination, a steady hand and lots of icing to cover up the joins, you can turn a plain old sponge into pretty much any shape you (or, more likely, your child) fancy.
There are lots of super-complicated cake-decorating books you can find in libraries but we think we might like these simple suggestions that other Mumsnetters have (most successfully) brought to the (birthday) table…
Star cake: Get some ready-roll icing. Cut out star shapes and spread them out on a sheet of paper, then mix some food colouring with a little vodka (don't worry: the alcohol evaporates). Use a small paintbrush and flick several (food-colouring) colours over the stars. Then stick the stars to the cake with egg white or icing. Easy and effective.
Snake cake: Make a ring-shaped cake (like a doughnut with a hole in the middle) and cover it will fondant icing (the sort you roll out). Then, roll out long, thin sausage-shaped snakes of coloured fondant and arrange them so they're slithering out of the middle of the ring. You could, of course, do the same thing really easily by using those long jelly snakes from the sweet shop.
Train cake: Cover a square cake in green butter icing and use matchstick chocolates to make three train tracks of different lengths, with chocolate fingers broken in half as buffers. Stick on three toy trains and candles.
Dinosaur cake: I made a normal round sponge, sandwiched with buttercream, then halved it, cut out the middle to make a semicircle shape and stood it on its end to make a sort of archway which I covered in 'grass' (dessicated coconut coloured green) and upturned choc buttons to emulate the spiky feel of a dinosaur. I then bought a pack of little toy dinosaurs and positioned them around and about, so it looked like a dinosaur scene and made lots of little buns as boulders.
Teddybear cake: I made one 8-inch round chocolate-flavour sponge cake and two cup cakes. I dusted them over with cocoa powder to give them the appearance of 'fur' and then put them on a foil-covered tray with the 8-inch round for the face and the cup cakes for the ears. I used Smarties to mark out the facial features, gave him a bow made out of ribbon and fixed it in place with a pin. It looked a treat!
Picture cake: Make a square cake and level the top. Spread butter icing all over the cake. Place a laminated photograph of the birthday child on top of the cake in the centre. Stick sweeties of your choice on the remaining butter icing and press on gently.
Arctic explorer cake: Cover cake with white ready-roll fondant, with icing sugar sprinkled on it for snow. Sugar cubes piled around for blocks of ice. An igloo made out of a teacup covered with icing and marked into bricks with a small icing entrance funnel thing. Add a Playmobil man with sled.
Sweetie house cake: Four loaf cakes stuck together with jam to make a cube. Another loaf cake, sliced diagonally in two to make a sloped roof. Cover in pink butter icing. Use After Eights for square windows and candy strip things for windowboxes with little sugar flowers in. Pink wafer biscuits for roof tiles. Jelly beans and dolly mixtures all around the edge.
Princess castle cake: Make a square sponge. Place one half on top of the other with jam/buttercream inside. Smother in pink buttercream. Take four empty ice-cream cones, smother in pink buttercream and place, inverted, at four corners of cake. Use imagination and liberal application of sweeties to make doors, windows etc. Cover with edible glitter, or that coloured sugar you can buy for added sparkle.
Pirate ship cake: Chocolate loaf cakes stuck together with choc butter icing, and carved into a boat shape at the bow! Cover with choc icing and chocolate fingers. Make portholes with any large round sweets. Make paper sails on bbq skewers. Top with small piratey Playmobil figures.
Barbie cake: Two sponges stacked on top of each other, slathered in pink buttercream, then various sprinkles to make it look like a Barbie ballgown skirt. Wrap a Barbie in tin foil up to her waist. Jam said Barbie into middle of cake. It was revolting but my daughter loved it.
At-a-glance birthday-tea planner
Three weeks before: book venue
Two weeks before: send out invites; plan menu
One week before: buy paper plates/food boxes, balloons, candles, table decorations, party-bag presents and non-perishable food; bake cake and freeze it (if you prefer).
Three days before: buy remaining food; bake birthday cake, if you haven't already; make up party bags; charge camera.
One day before: decorate cake; make jelly, fairy cakes, crispie cakes and anything else that can be made ahead.
The day itself: make sandwiches, prepare fruit; fill food boxes (if using); blow up balloons; put out extra loo roll; decorate table. And smile (it'll soon be over).
Mumsnetters' children's party food tips
I swear I am just going to put out bowls of crisps for my son's next party. Every year, I try to make healthy, tasty food and all they ever sodding eat is the crisps. Olihan
I really like cooking and making special birthday stuff. You want homemade stuff for the children and some wine and fab nibbles for the parents. Well, I do! muffle
Rule one. They don't eat much. I promise you, no matter how much trouble you go to, you will either throw it away or end up eating most of it yourselves for the next umpty-two weeks. Rule two. Keep it minimal and simple. Rule three. Buy yourself a big bottle of wine. TsarChasm
My favourite filling for chocolate cake is from a Jamie Oliver recipe. Scatter the top of the bottom layer with raspberries and/or strawberries, then cover with lots of fairly stiff whipped cream and then plop on the top layer. You then melt 100g each of butter, chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), icing sugar and 3 tbsp milk in a bowl over simmering water. Once it is melted, stir and let it cool. Then drizzle over the cake. mussyhillmum
Make the sponge bit of the cake the day before. If the cake's too fresh, it's really hard to spread the icing on properly.