Don't plan the party around mealtime unless absolutely necessary
9:30 - 11:30am, 1-3pm or 2-4pm are ideal times, depending on children's naptimes. Not having to plan and serve a meal cuts down on a lot of the planning and stress of making sure everything is ready on time, providing extra chairs, booster seats, etc. Munchies give everyone the opportunity to eat if they're hungry, but everyone saves room for cake, and you don't have to worry about the "no dessert if you don't eat your lunch" dilemma. I like to keep kid-friendly snacks on low tables, and everything else out of reach of little fingers so they have to ask their parents before taking a handful!
Limit the guest list
Sure, your child may have 6 friends that they see on a regular basis, but if you add in parents, siblings, and any extended family that you want to invite, the guest list can snowball quickly! Case in point: we only invited 3 of C's friends this year, but the total number of people at the party was 15. If you want to limit your numbers, consider holding the party mid-week. Once children get old enough, they can attend without their parents.
Plan simple activities, but go with the flow
Have a few planned activities to whip out if there is a lull in the activity, but don't interrupt kids having a good time just so you can play a game at 2:15 like you scheduled! Be patient and understanding if kids aren't interested in playing what you've suggested, and don't spend a lot of money on an activity, in case you don't get to it. For toddlers and preschoolers, no activities are really needed, and it's hard to get them to follow directions anyways! A play dough or craft table is always a hit, and lets kids come and go as they please. If you have a bunch of a particular kind of toy, set up a couple of play stations (we've had Little People at one table and trains at another). My favourite play dough recipe is here.
Create ambiance with music
Play some kid (and adult) friendly music in the background to create a party mood when your first guests are arriving. Several kids in a room will get noisy pretty quickly, so you may want to turn it off after several guests have arrived. I've downloaded some fantastic (inexpensive and legal) children's music from emusic.com. Some of my favourite upbeat musicians for the preschool set are Justin Roberts, Rhythm Child, Dan Zanes, and Bari Koral. The children's album by the Barenaked Ladies (Snack Time), and the Jazz for Kids CD are both pretty great, too. Click here to see a few of our favourite kid-friendly adult songs.
Make homemade decorations
While the dollar store has tons of inexpensive party decorations, think about using what you have already before buying too much. My daughter's birthday is on Valentine's Day, so we cut out and coloured construction paper hearts to tape to the windows. We filled up wine glasses with candy, and I sewed scrapbook paper circles together and hung them from the ceiling interspersed with dollar store shiny heart garland.
Make homemade food
It's cheaper to assemble your own fruit and veggie tray, provided you have the time to to the chopping. Ditto for the cake, whether from a mix or from scratch. Icing the cake can be tricky though! This year I made a "kitty cake", as requested by the birthday girl. When she saw a photo online, she chose it as the design. Now I know I can draw freehand with icing!
Homemade loot bags are easy too!
Last year I sewed felt loot bags. This year I made bags from envelopes, melted chocolate into candy molds, and sewed felt covers for barrettes. I added in books, stickers, toys and cookie cutters, depending on the age of the recipient (we had 3 year olds with 1 year old siblings). The loot bag images were royalty-free and provided by many talented bloggers who share their artwork (check out this link for some). I printed the Valentines on cardstock using images from Vintage Holiday Crafts.
Have an at-home birthday party
Why rent out a hall, bowling alley or pizza parlor unless you have to? (Granted, this is easier when your children are young and don't care where the party is!) Winter parties can be tricky if you have limited space, but for warm weather babies, backyard parties are always fun. There's also the option of having the party at a nearby park.
Don't use disposable dishes
Yes, you read that right, I said don't. Some of this is the eco-minded part of me. I hate the thought of all those paper plates and plastic cups going into the garbage. But there's also the cost. Why would I spend money on dishes when I already have a cupboard of them at home, where the party will be? Glass for the parents, plastic for the kids. It's pretty easy to throw in a load of dishes after cake is served. You'll have half a dozen adults asking if they can help with the clean-up anyways. And paper napkins seem like a total waste to me - they're not absorbent enough for spills, and they rip apart when wiping sticky faces and hands. I'm a cloth napkin convert, and for little kids, I just keep a stack of baby washcloths around that can be wet and used to scrub sticky faces. I can just toss them in with my laundry after people leave. Even paper towels do a better job than fancy paper napkins. Kids don't care whether they wipe their hands on something plain or something with a cartoon character printed on it. Save your money.