Picture the average child’s birthday party: streamers, balloons, cake, ice cream, pizza (all on disposable plates), presents stacked in one corner, plastic goodie bags stocked with cheap toys for all the children to take home.

Now let’s imagine the waste created by the disposables, the wrapping paper, and all the little junk toys that eventually get thrown out by the other kids’ parents.

And if you’re a Simple Mom trying to be anti-materialistic in our culture of “more”, you may also cringe at the contents and quantity of the gifts for the birthday kid.

I know I did.

Last year when we allowed my then 5-year-old to host his first “kids” birthday party, I really wanted to allow him to invite whomever he pleased, but I didn’t want a dozen new toys brought into our already overstuffed house. (For anti-materialists, we have a lot of stuff.)

We were so proud of my son for choosing to take the high road, in my opinion, and foregoing toys while asking his friends to bring donations for a local organization that serves school kids a sack supper.

If you’ve got birthdays or other occasions coming up, I want to encourage you that you can have an eco-friendly party without purchasing a bunch of expensive “green” supplies. You won’t even have to work hard at it. Here are 5 simple steps you can take:

1. Request “No Gifts”

We were able to achieve 100% compliance with the simple request on our invitation:

Please bring food for Kids’ Food Basket instead of a gift.  Paul would love to open your cards or drawings, though.

I recently took Paul to another friends’ party where the invite simply said, “No gifts, please,” and it seemed that nearly half brought gifts anyway, much to the mom’s chagrin.

I highly recommend offering an alternative to a gift. I think it was easier for the kids (and parents) to come with no gift since they didn’t have to arrive empty-handed. Request donations to a local charity or at least handmade cards. The guests at Paul’s party last year had so much fun making their creations for him, and it was really a beautiful thing to see the pride on their faces as he opened and enjoyed each one.

More than one of the children in attendance requested that their parents  do the same thing for their own parties, which just warmed my heart. Children naturally like to give to other kids. It makes them feel good, and it’s an important parenting strategy to encourage empathy, gratitude, and generosity.

We also enjoyed teaching Paul about service to the community by taking him on a special Daddy/Mommy/Paul (no little sister) trip to hand deliver his “birthday loot” and volunteer at Kids’ Food Basket. We made over 100 sandwiches and helped pack sack dinners for over 2,000 local kids. It was one of the best experiences of my year, which you can read about here.

2. Host a Work Bee

I’m totally inspired by a friend whose son’s birthday party was planned for a “city park clean up” day. All the guests brought work clothes and picked up litter from the park, then had a big Nerf gun battle. What a way to instill environmental values in children!

Although this year’s party mimics last year’s for Paul, I can see him getting into the idea of a work bee party. He loves our yearly earth day tradition and is determined to pick up the trash from the entire woods this year. (The photo above is one of my “before” shots.)

3. Simple Foods

Repeat after me: I do not have to feed a dozen children a full meal at a birthday party.

Simple finger foods, cupcakes, and a pitcher of water is just as nice, easier to prepare, and you can get by with just napkins if you want. I don’t shoot for a “no waste” birthday party, because I think that would stress me out. I don’t even feel the need to purchase fancy eco-friendly disposable plates that can go in the compost (but cost an arm and a leg). I just keep the fare more simple and rejoice in the fact that I’m not creating very much waste for a party with a dozen kids.

I wouldn’t be averse to a party with a box of popsicles or that platter of cupcakes as the only treat, too. This year we’re having popcorn, cupcakes, and some fruit. Simple, and on the healthy side as well.

4. Use Real Dishes

I have a love affair with my dishwasher, and I’m not afraid to rely on it to wash ten little plates, glasses and forks. If your food is fairly simple, you can easily pack plastic cups (we save them from restaurants to use in the bathroom) and little plates for each guest. Just toss them in a bag at the end of the party and load right into the dishwasher when you get home.

You can see the real cups in the photo above, and we just served ice water from pitchers instead of juice from a plastic disposable container or single serve packages.

5. Skip the Goodie Bags

Again, please, repeat after me: I do not need to feel obligated to give gifts to each guest at my child’s party.

Most likely the parents feel at least a little like you do about cheap trinkets. In my head, it goes something like this: “Oh, no, where am I going to put that?” And also: “I wonder how long until that breaks.”

Although I admit it’s kind of fun to have a few prizes for the kids, I could easily skip those as well, and I’m just not going to send each of them away with a bag of sugary treats or plastic toys for the junk drawer. Not only am I a low-waste, anti-materialist kind of gal, but I’m pretty cheap, too.

A simple party in the park is a blast, whether you plan games, play on the playground, or have a massive soccer or softball game, depending on your child’s age.

What low-waste party options have you utilized? What ideas do you have for simple locations?

(For a super fun but slightly indulgently wasteful and not very simple party idea, check out this messy party for the most special of occasions!)