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You've probably got your midweek family meals sorted thanks to your slow cooker or air fryer, but planning food for something out of routine like a child's birthday party can be rather challenging. You want something that will impress, feed a troop of fussy little ones, but also not add too much stress or expense to the day.
Luckily, Mumsnet is a veritable mine of kids' party food ideas. You only have to look at the discussion threads in the Parties forum topic to see we definitely know our Skips from our Wotsits, and our 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.
To help you plan the best party ever, we've collated Mumsnetters' top tips for making sure you're the hostess-with-the-mostest when it comes to filling your guests' bellies, including 31 easy ideas for you to try.
Kids' party food ideas: savoury food
This is the part of the tea you do to salve your conscience (a little) before the inevitable sugar-fest begins. Also at going-home time when some little treasure tells their open-mouthed mum: “It was great – all we ate was chocolate cake!”, you can swiftly counter with, “Oh no, we had sandwiches and carrots sticks, too, remember?”
1. Sausage rolls
A kids' party classic. You can also make alternative versions with veggie sausages or a sausage mix.
2. Mini pizzas
If you don't feel like making the pizza dough from scratch, you can try using naan bread, crumpets or pittas. Alternatively, you can make pizza pinwheels, if you're feeling really fancy.
3. Garlic bread
Who doesn't love garlic bread?
4. Cheese straws
Sure to be a hit with the kids.
5. 'Lunch on a stick'
This is a quick and easy one – simply thread skewers with a cherry tomato, a slice of cucumber, a cube of cheese, and a rolled piece of ham or turkey.
6. 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.”
7. 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.”
Another classic kids' party food idea (not for littlies, though – choking hazard and all that).
9. Breadsticks with dips
Because children always seem to like dipping things in goo.
10. Pizzas they can make themselves
“We provided the bases, some tomato passata and lots of different fillings, and the children made their own.”
11. Party boxes
“You need about five things to put in each box. A small yoghurt and a 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.”
12. Party sandwiches
Remember to keep the combinations simple, like grated mild cheddar and ham. Small children also like sandwiches cut into shapes with biscuit cutters, if you can be bothered.
13. Tiny pinwheel sandwiches
Flatten the bread with a rolling pin, remove the crusts, apply filling, then roll up tightly and wrap in cling film. Stick in the fridge for 30 minutes, then cut slices so you get a lovely spiral effect.
14. Stripey finger sandwiches
Use one slice of white and one slice of brown, fill, then cut into fingers.
15. Open sandwiches, done like little boats
These are basically finger rolls, halved, then spread with things like cream cheese egg or Marmite and then a cocktail stick stuck in top with a little flag made out of a sticky note. (Obviously, not advised for very small children.)
16. Fairy bread
Use white and brown bread slices, spread with butter or margarine and put sprinkles on top.
17. Make-your-own sandwiches
“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.”
18. Tortilla wraps
“I gave seven-year-olds a tortilla wrap each and put a load of different fillings – tuna and mayo, ham, cheese, cucumber, tomatoes, mayonnaise, crisps and ketchup – in the middle for them to make up their own wraps. It was a big hit and they all ate well.”
And, as this Mumsnet user wisely points out:
"Key thing to remember – it's 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 them."
Related: Speed up family mealtimes with our guide to the best pressure cookers
Kids' party food ideas: sweet food
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.
19. Fairy cakes
You can decorate fairy cakes with a dab of buttercream and a Smartie on the top. You can also throw some fruit in there, like this Mumsnetter says: “My sister-in-law made delicious buttercream once by putting raspberries in it, making it all pink and yummy.”
Plain breadsticks, with the end dipped in melted chocolate and then hundreds and thousands or chocolate sprinkles. They look very pretty, the children like them and they're not overly sweet as the chocolate element is pretty small.
21. Number biscuits
Make the biscuit dough (the best food processor can help here if you want to make things easier) and cut it into circles, then press the number cookie cutter in the middle - enough for an imprint, not to go all the way through.
22. Party rings
Yuuuummmmmy (we suppose they can have some too.)
23. Fruit kebabs
Strawberries, grapes and bits of satsuma threaded on to half a wooden skewer.
24. Chocolate crispies or Rice Krispies on Mars
Make bite-sized ones – they always get scoffed and look pretty piled onto a large serving dish.
25. Strawberries dipped in chocolate
Simple to make, and they WHOOSH right off the table.
26. Melon balls
“I almost got laughed off Mumsnet for considering these for my daughter's seventh birthday but they were a huge hit. And nice and cooling when they've all been running around doing my head in.”
27. Mini strawberry tarts
Make mini pastry cases (just like jam tarts) and bake them while empty. Cool them, then fill them with either whipped cream or crème fraîche with a bit of icing sugar beaten in (it's delicious) and top with a strawberry on each.
28. Little strawberry mice
Use a strawberry for the body then complete with Milkybar button ears and a jelly lace tail.
29. Chocolate fingers
“There is no limit to the number of chocolate fingers that can be consumed in any party setting.”
30. Chocolate Martians
Mini rolls stood upright with Liquorice Allsorts faces. A faff to make, but well worth it in the end.
31. 'Free from' options
Make sure to also have some 'free from' desserts for kids with allergies, as this Mumsnet user advises:
"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."
Mumsnetters' tips for kids' party food
"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 and tasty food and all they ever sodding eat is the crisps."
"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 anyway!"
"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 yourself for the next umpty-two weeks. Rule two: Keep it minimal and simple. Rule three: Buy yourself a big bottle of wine."
"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 three tablespoons of milk in a bowl over simmering water. Once it's melted, stir and let it cool. Then drizzle it over the cake."
"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."
Related: The best multi-cookers for busy family life
Children's party drinks
Gone are the days when no birthday tea was complete without gallons of fizzy drinks. Dare to bring out such additive-packed stuff now and you'll cause a full-scale E-number alert among all assembled parents.
Which pretty much restricts your options to water, squash and/or juice.
If you want the eco-friendly version (and to minimise breakage), provide a paper cup and a pen (and some stickers, if you want to go all out) for each child to label as theirs. Have jugs of water available (depending on the kids' age, adults can help with refilling). Make sure you have lots of water because little ones get thirsty.
If you go for juice, you could get those little individual cartons with straws. They're pricier but they don't spill (much) when they get knocked over (and they will). But do have some water on hand for kids who aren't allowed 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 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 an extra edge of almost-grown-up cool.
Should you make 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.
This is what Mumsnetters have said about providing refreshments for parents:
"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, crudites 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."
Five key questions when you're planning kids' party food
What time should the party be?
If you've been 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.
How old are the kids?
Any Mumsnetter worth his or her party-host salt will tell you that the official ratio of healthy party food to sugary 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…
How many children will be 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 your 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).
Where's the best children's 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.
How much of a domestic goddess are you?
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.
Your at-a-glance birthday party planner
Three weeks before: book the venue
Two weeks before: send out invites; plan menu and make your party food shopping list
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)!
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