How to Throw a Harry Potter Party Without Spending 1000 Galleons

All Photos: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

My daughter’s favorite film (for the moment) is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When she suggested a Harry Potter-themed birthday party this year, I jumped at the chance. After seeing the phenomenal Hogwarts hootenanny Jenn shared last summer, I knew there were a lot of great ideas out there to be found for the big day.

Last year we chose a party at a local venue, and not only did it feel like it lacked my daughter’s personality, the cost was sky high. Determined to make this party one to remember without breaking the Gringotts bank, I handmade almost all of the decorations and activities. Here are a few ideas for your next Harry Potter-themed party, inspired by Pinterest and my own love of all things Hogwarts.

Costumes for Guests

You can’t have Hogwarts students without proper robes, but at $30-$40 a pop for the licensed costumes, there was no way we could afford to get one for every guest. Pinterest to the rescue! Pieces by Polly has the genius idea of turning adult XL black T-shirts into robes with very little sewing. I don’t own a sewing machine, so I sewed nine robes by hand, but I got started early so it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of work. You can find black T-shirts at a craft store like Michael’s for $3-$4 each.

After the kids were sorted, we pinned a paper house crest to each robe. Take a look at the party activities below to see what we did for the ties!

Wands can also be expensive if you look for official merchandise, or you can make your own for practically free that can withstand a lot of dueling during the party.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

All it takes is chopsticks, hot glue, and paint to craft a wand. There are quite a few tutorials out there, but one of the best can be found at Give Peas a Chance.


Guests were greeted by Platform 9 3/4 on the front door, which they had to pass through to get to Hogwarts.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Again, there are many instructions for how to make a brick wall, but it simply takes an inexpensive white twin sheet, sponge, and red paint.

Inside the house, we wanted to re-create the look of the Great Hall, so we hung paper towel tube candles with fishing line.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

This also called for the hot glue gun, along with white paint, cardboard, and battery-powered tea lights. (I found a set of 12 on Amazon for around $6.) Harry Potter Wish List has all the details for creating this magical effect.

By this point, I was having so much fun making Hogwarts-related items that I even carried the theme over to the water bottles for the party.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Or, as I like to call them, Potter Water!


With a birthday in January in Seattle, my kindergartener is destined for indoor parties for the foreseeable future. (So much rain!) That meant instead of playing Quidditch in the park, which would have been highly entertaining for all, we had to be a little creative for our party activities.

After sitting under the Sorting Hat (a witch’s Halloween hat in our version of Hogwarts), kids worked on their first activity for the party, coloring paper ties for the House they were sorted in.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Use this fantastic template to print a tie on cardstock, punch two holes, and tie an elastic cord.

Once the students were in proper attire, it was time to play!

I drew a Pin the Glasses on Harry Potter poster with markers, along with cardstock glasses for each guest.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Partygoers also played Freeze Dance to the wizarding-world hit “Do the Hippogriff” by The Weird Sisters, which you can find easily on iTunes on the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire soundtrack. If dancing isn’t your kid’s style, you can play Freeze Duel instead, where kids pretend to have a wizard’s duel but must freeze when the music is paused to win the duel.

Like Skylar’s birthday party that Jenn attended, we had a “Have You Seen This Wizard?” photo booth made of poster board.

Our one big splurge was the Harry Potter-themed candy we handed out to guests. I ordered Jelly Slugs from Candy Crate for each guest as their “goodie bag” (and they took home their robes and wands as well). I also happened to find Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in a candy store for less than offered online, so I just had to pick them up. This turned into a hilarious activity at the party, as kids spent time studying the box and daring each other to taste test a flavor.

All in all, our little wizard had a blast, and her guests enjoyed their time at Hogwarts. I hope yours do, too!

GeekMom’s Ultimate Birthday Party Playlist

Photo © The Not-Its

Got the kids gathered in the backyard ready to play and party, but only the mundane sounds of the neighborhood fill the air? Forget the Frozen soundtrack for the 100th time, and don’t stress about taking your chances on a Pandora station. Just use GeekMom’s picks below for the perfect all-ages, slightly geeky soundtrack for a birthday party, playdate, or fun-filled family time together.

1. Birthday – Caspar Babypants (iTunes/Amazon)
2. Popcorn – Recess Monkey (iTunes/Amazon)
3. Why Is Dad So Mad? – The Board of Education (Bandcamp)
4. Roy G. Biv – They Might Be Giants (iTunes/Amazon)
5. KidQuake! – The Not-Its (iTunes/Amazon)
6. Thingamajig – Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band (iTunes/Amazon)
7. Rockin’ Little Neutron Star – Beth Nielsen Chapman (iTunes/Amazon)
8. Jet Pack – Recess Monkey (iTunes/Amazon)
9. I Scream, You Scream – Frances England (iTunes/Amazon)
10. Gotta Be Me – Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (iTunes/Amazon)
11. Googly Eyes – Caspar Babypants (iTunes/Amazon)
12. Recess – Justin Roberts (iTunes/Amazon)
13. Dance Happy – Danny Lion (Bandcamp)
14. Rock, Paper, Scissors – The Not-Its (iTunes/Amazon)
15. Meet the Elements – They Might Be Giants (iTunes/Amazon)
16. The Princess Who Saved Herself – Jonathan Coulton (iTunes/Amazon)

And, all right, maybe toss “Let It Go” in there for good measure.

Do you have any favorite kids’ songs to add? Let your fellow party planners know in the comments below!

The Cost of Licensing a Birthday Party

All Images Sarah Pinault

With my eldest son turning five this year, and my youngest having just turned two, we have a decent number of birthday parties under our belts. This weekend was the first time we had a thorougly licensed birthday party though, and it was a little shocking. We opted for Thomas and Friends for my youngest son’s second birthday and didn’t give it a second thought until putting together the decorations last week: Wow that’s a pricey tablecloth.

When we hit the local party shop to pull together our ideas, we got a bit of ticket shock. Somehow we managed to pull ourselves together, away from the $10 balloons, and put together a licensed birthday party that was still over-priced but not too far over budget! Here are some tips on reducing the cost, and stress, of that licensed party.


We opted to use a fifty-fifty approach to decorations. We purchased one Thomas tablecloth, and two plain blue dollar store deals. The Thomas tablecloth provided that extra pizazz for the cake and gifts, and my son was sufficiently enthralled by everything on it. We also stole an idea from a friend’s recent Princess Sofia party. Themed plates are only “necessary” for the children attending. Adults can eat from plain dollar store options. Who knew? The limited number of plates added to the decorations, but didn’t add too much to the cost. At $3 for 12, it was still extortion in my opinion, but again, was well loved by the birthday boy. The main splurge of the day was the Happy (insert date here) Birthday banner, which given a little time could probably have been handmade, but for lack of stress and beauty of banner I give it a ten out of ten. For even cheaper decorations we placed several of his toy trains on the table with the platters of food.

My favorite cheap decoration came from a Pinterest find. Yet even though it was my favorite, it seems no one took a picture of it! Using blue painter’s tape, we laid a train track from the front door to the church hall, where the party was being held. Not only did it provide guests an easy route to the party, it provided endless entertainment for the kids who chuffed along it quite happily. And my fear of having to take 100 ft of tape up at the end of the day? Apparently peeling tape up from the carpet in six inch increments is great fun for kids aged four through nine!


No themed food here. Good old triangle sandwiches and cheese balls for us! For the cake, rather than attempt to pipe icing in the shape of Thomas, we opted for flags and accessories purchased in bulk from Amazon, and added them to simple cupcakes. I also took a leaf out of Bakeat350’s book, literally, and made decorated sugar cookies using the flood and fill technique. Now I know Thomas is the number one engine, but after putting a number two on my son’s first birthday cake (and then fixing it) I had to go with Edward’s number and make color correct #2 cookies. We attempted to cut out the sandwiches using a Train cookie cutter, but it was rather a sad looking train, so we dispensed with that idea very quickly. Other shapes worked quite well, but weren’t in keeping with the theme.


Here perhaps was our biggest win of the licensing game. We inherited quite the collection of wooden track from friends, so rather than splurge on entertainment for our rowdy crowd, my husband and I spent the night before the party setting up our very own Island of Sodor. It was easily 12 by 12 feet, and suffered minimal construction work during the day, even with kids aged between one and nine playing on it for three hours. If you don’t have access to quite this amount of track, but have a tot sufficiently interested in Thomas, it might be a good gift suggestion for the party. Then you can add to the track as guests arrive. Any other Thomas game we had was brought out of the closet and set up around the room. The kids entertained themselves for hours and had an absolutely “chuffing” good time.

A staple at any of our birthday parties is a well stocked coloring table, for this year we had a selection of crayons and coloring pencils, as well as an assortment of Thomas themed stickers and coloring pages. We purchased an enormous pad of stickers and coloring sheets from Sam’s Club and I tore the book apart for individual projects. It was an amazing deal for the quantity and quality we got, not to mention the leftovers that will be getting used up over the next few months.

DSCI6871Goody Bags

When we decided on this theme months ago, I decided not to do goody bags. Then the week of his birthday came around, and my mother’s guilt chip kicked in. Last year we gave out bags of Chips Ahoy with a sticker on them proclaiming, “We’ll eat you up we love you so!” It was a Maurice Sendak birthday. This year we went for a bucket of train whistles; thank you Amazon Prime and the two day delivery! These were fairly inexpensive on Amazon, but be warned, of the 24 we ordered only 12 actually made a whistling sound. A file and some elbow grease will fix them, but alas not in time for the party. Next year I will definitely be checking out the suggestions provided by my fellow GeekMom, Kelly Knox, for goody bag alternatives.

While a licensed birthday party can bring a substantial amount of sticker shock, it can also bring a great deal of joy. I would certainly choo-choo-choose this theme again.

Happy Birthday! 32 Kids’ Goodie Bags That Are Actually Good

For better or worse, goodie bags are a birthday party staple that seems to be here to stay. That doesn’t mean you have to load up your kid’s friends with plastic junk, though. Here are 32 fantastic suggestions for goodie bags that aren’t stuffed with little plastic toys from Oriental Trading Company or tons of candy.

Read on for ideas from GeekMom and our readers who shared their wisdom in our original post about goody bag alternatives. (Thanks, commenters!)

  • One year I used boxes of Crayola crayons as balloon weights! Each kid got to take home a weighted balloon and a dollar-store coloring book. – GeekMom Patricia
  • I ironed-on Thomas the Tank Engine pictures on little 4×4″ canvas bags. Then I bought ONE large Thomas the Tank Engine coloring book, and gave each bag 3-5 pages from the coloring book along with a 24-pack of Crayola crayons that were $0.25 each at a back-to-school sale. – GeekMom Patricia
  • For the last few years we’ve had “hands on” parties and the kiddos leave the birthday parties with things used – i.e, a Flamenco party for my daughter meant all the girls got to wear the dresses and flowers in their hair for the party and KEEP them. – Autumn
  • My twin boys’ science party all the kiddos decorated lab coats, had notebooks, pens, and a list of how to recreate the experiments. – Autumn
  • For my daughter’s last birthday, we did a sundae bar and bought dollar store sundae glasses for each child. They loved them! One of her friends had a screen printing party and the kids had to bring their own shirts and pillow cases. – Cherie
  • Last summer I found very nice $2 boxes of sidewalk chalk at Target and ribbon tied a sheet of .50 stickers and voila! A useful and fun outdoor project! – Jane Berger
  • Custom coloring books made from clipart to go with the theme of the party (magical creatures, dinosaurs, pirates). – Ellen
  • Painting cheap tiles with ceramic paints. – Ellen
  • Customized sets of Yu-Gi-Oh cards made to feature the kids attending the party (using a free online template). – Ellen
  • I picked up a number of interesting items over several months (books, folding fans, decks of card, refrigerator magnets, etc.) The kids each got a bag containing two random items, with the instruction to swap until they had something they liked. This was incredibly entertaining for both the middle school aged party attendees and all of the adults in attendance. – Ellen
  • We also do crayons that I pick up at school supply time for super cheap. As a kid who loved to draw (and eventual artist), I have always loved crayons and always see a use for them in our house. – Cheryl
  • Last year, my 4 year old had a Spider-Man birthday so I raided Oshkosh of their $5 T-shirts for boys and girls picked one our for each attendee (plus a few extras). I tied them each to a very long string of yarn with their name on the end and hid them throughout the yard. With the strings all tangled up, it looked like a spider’s web. – Stephenie
  • Flower pots paired with seeds or a small seed kit can create a party favor that lasts months after the birthday party. You can even add a few items related to the party theme, and paint and personalize the pot if you have the time. – GeekMom Kelly
Photo: Kelly Knox
  • For a favor a little over $2, you can dress up watercolors with a ribbon and stickers or a printed label. – GeekMom Kelly
  • Large bubble wands are also cost-effective and easy to decorate with a party theme — and can double as entertainment as an outdoor birthday party winds down. – GeekMom Kelly
  • Tea cups for a tea party – decorate them. – Chris Rusanowski
  • Chocolate coins and a “real” money pouch for pirate party (for a treasure hunt during party). – Chris Rusanowski
  • At my son’s third birthday it was a Thomas party at a train store. The goodie was a wooden train they painted. – Angie
  • For my older kid who turned 8, we did T-shirts that they decorated with fabric markers. Marvelous all around. – Valerie
  • For his 4th birthday, it was jungle theme. So, hubby and I made safari belts with pockets that contained magnifying glasses, cheap compasses, and some plastic pretend camping things. – Ann-Marie
  • For his 5th birthday, we had a space party. With only 5 kids invited, we made a bit more effort and created rocket jet packs out of postal tubes. Inside we put glow sticks and glow stars for your bedroom walls. – Ann-Marie
  • I am going to let the kids decorate their own crowns and take those home as party favors. – MJ
  • For my daughter’s upcoming birthday (fairies and kings theme), the kids will make terrariums (fairy gardens) in glass jars. I also made a simple cloak with faux velvet for each of the boys coming and bought fairy wings for each of the girls. – Rachel
  • We did a scavenger hunt for the items that went in the goodie bag. We made the kids run all over the park to find the objects like small frisbies, a bubble wand, small balls and a couple of candy stops. It was fun and they got some exercise. – VandyJ
  • We buy $5 Amazon gift cards to give to folks, suggesting that they purchase 5 songs. – Anne
  • My favorite that we have done is kites! We got a bunch on clearance at Target the year before. – Lisasjm
  • I’m sewing the loot bags so they can be reused, and putting things in them like pieces of amethyst. I got a good deal on a bulk pile of Audubon Jr. Nature Guide type books for around 50 cents apiece. – AliA
  • My eldest chose Wonder Woman for her 7th birthday party theme. It was the same thing I had chosen for my 7th birthday. Instead of goodie bags, I went to Michael’s and got blank T-shirts in blue ($2.50 each) and then printed out a Wonder Woman as Rosie the Riveter saying “Girl Power” image and ironed them on the T’s. The T-shirts then became the “thank you gift.” – Natali
  • The past few years we have done a pool party and as each kid arrives, they get a pool toy as a favor. I can usually get rings or diving toys for 3/$1 in the dollar aisle in Target. – Karen
  • What we’ve done for my children’s parties is create thank you notes ahead of time — something like “Thanks for coming to my party! Hope you had a good time!” or something. The kids have a blast decorating these with stamps and stickers, etc. Then we attach those to a little Lego set, a mini-fig or a small book. (Once, when my daughter was 3, we just attached them to balloons! Seemed a little cheesy but the kids LOVED it.) – Shannon B
  • When all of the party guests were fifth grade Webelos Cub Scouts, ready to move to Boy Scouts, everyone got a real (but low end) $4 compass. – Sharon

Do you have even more ideas to share? Let party planners know in the comments below!

Top photo © patchattack / Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Are You the Parent of a Train Geek? Throw a Birthday Party at a Tourist Railroad!

Parents can check with their local tourist railroads to see about having birthday parties on-site. We did this in 2006 and it was great! Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

I almost didn’t post anything for Birthday Week. It wasn’t until GeekMom Kelly posted about banning the goody bags that I remembered a clever goody bag idea… which was in itself part of a wonderful birthday experience for my oldest son.

In 2006, when the family was living in Apex, North Carolina, we had the chance to hold my oldest son’s 4th birthday party at the nearby New Hope Valley Railway, which was about 20 minutes south of our town in New Hill, North Carolina.

The railroad wasn’t operating excursions on the day we held our party, but for only $75 you could rent out a dining car that’s specially outfitted for parties and the party guests could take tours of the stationary locomotive and train equipment.

My son was Thomas the Tank Engine’s biggest fan at the time, so we had a great time “Thomas-ing” things up for him.

The cake was my first-ever hand-decorated cake…I was taking Wilton cake decorating lessons at the time and this was my first star-tip-covered cake. It was quite the workout, putting all those little stars on a cake that feeds 50!

I had a lot to learn about mixing greyshades, but this wasn’t bad for a first-try, was it? Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

For the goody bags, I purchased 6″ miniature tote bags and printed pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends on iron-on paper. I hand-ironed pictures on 24 of those bags! Instad of putting items in the bags that might end up in the trash, I filled each bag with a 24-box of Crayola crayons and several Thomas the Tank Engine coloring book pages. I had hoped that these bags could make it into Moms’ tote bags in the future for church, restaurants or shopping trips to keep the preschoolers happy.

The goody bags also doubled as balloon weights for basic latex helium balloons.  Then each guest could take home a balloon too!

I had ironed pictures of Thomas, Percy, James and Lady for the kids. Lady is a purple train that made for great goody bags for the 3-4 girls at the party. Unfortunately, the only picture of these bags between my and my friends’ photo albums was this one of Lady. Photo: Maryann Goldman, used with permission.

Want to take the plunge for the ultimate train geek birthday party experience? All it takes these days is a simple Google search for birthday parties at scenic railroads. This might not be so helpful without knowing what tourist railroads are nearby. There are numerous internet guides to tourist railroads available, with being one that has worldwide tourist railroad information.

Happy Trains!

How to Throw a Pre-School Pirate Party


My Son's 2nd Birthday Cake © Sophie Brown
My Son’s 2nd Birthday Cake © Sophie Brown

Last September was my son’s second birthday party. Unlike with his first, I spent a long time considering what theme to go with; at two he was certainly old enough to have an interest in his own things, but not yet old enough to choose his own party theme. I eventually picked a pirate theme for two reasons: firstly he was enjoying the Disney Junior show Jake and the Neverland Pirates a lot and secondly, it seemed fairly easy for me to do. Here then are my tips and ideas for hosting a pirate party for little ones:

1. Invitations

The party invitation I designed on Photoshop © Sophie Brown
The party invitation I designed on Photoshop © Sophie Brown

I wanted to keep my costs down as much as possible, I try not to be a Scrooge over these things but it’s not like my little boy understood what was happening. Even so my guest lists expanded past what I was happy with because of village politics (you can’t invite kid A without inviting kid B) and at age two, parents have to accompany their charges to the party meaning every kid invited is actually at least two extra people- often more. We decided right from the beginning to book the village hall for sheer practicality, my house feels crowded with just two or three extra people inside – the thirty or so on my guest list would have been inconceivable.

The invitation is the first piece of your party puzzle and sets the theme for the event. I designed mine on Photoshop using digital scrapbooking supplies and had them printed as postcards by a photo printing company, a bonus of doing this is that it saves the cost of envelopes. If you wanted to avoid standard store-bought invitations you could also shop on Etsy where you can find thousands of sellers making fantastic themed invitations that can often be fully customised. If you want to design your own as I did there are hundreds of websites offering free fonts and digital scrapbooking supplies, check out my favourite designer Britt-ish Designs who often has small freebies that accompany her kits and who makes a lot of Disney themed designs.

2. Fancy Dress

My little guy in his pirate outfit - yes that's the leats blurred picture I have © Wendy Sharpe
My little guy in his pirate outfit – yes that’s the least blurred picture I have © Wendy Sharpe

This is one of the simplest and cheapest things to do as it requires virtually no effort on your part for all the guests costumes. I do however only recommend it with simple ideas such as our pirate theme – asking parents to dress their little ones up in complex or expensive costumes will not endear you to them. Pirate costumes can be a simple as a pair of shorts with an old stripy shirt; the kids at my party came in everything from these commandeered wardrobe costumes with homemade cardboard hats right through to store bought costumes and fancy homemade outfits. I also dressed up to help set the theme – this worked especially well for the pirate party theme as I became the captain for the day.

I wanted to dress my son up as Jake from the TV show but there was no official costume out so I made him one from an old white t-shirt, striped vest, shorts and some blue fabric. I found a pattern online to make the waistcoat, sewed on the cheap gold buttons and used double sided tape to attach the yellow ribbon trim as I knew it didn’t have to survive washing. One of the best things about pirate costumes is that tatty frayed edges are actually a good thing so there’s no need to hem the clothes if you don’t want. I also found a pirate t-shirt on sale for $2 at the supermarket; I bought it and roughly cut out the pocket designs, one of which had a sword in, and attached them to the waistcoat with tape to add some detail.

3. Games

Coming up with party games is always tricky, especially if you want them themed. We stuck with a good old game of pass the parcel to make sure every kid was involved in something. I also invented a treasure hunt game using my son’s two-piece animal jigsaw set, it went like this:

  • Hide one half of each animal around your venue, make sure they’re in places that are safe and kid eye-level
  • Split the kids into two teams – try and mix ages, then assign an adult to each team as a helper
  • Give the teams the other halves of the hidden animals, each team should have the same number of animals to find
  • The first team to return to you with all their completed animals wins

As a third “activity”, I had a costume competition which I mentioned on the invitations. I assigned an adult friend of mine who didn’t know any of the kids except my son (who was naturally excluded from the competition) to pick the costume she liked best and write the child’s name down on a piece of paper. I announced the winner at the end of the party. I kept all the prizes very small and cheap by buying a multipack of Playdoh with around ten small tubs included which I gave out to the treasure hunt players (winning team members also got a small bag of chocolate coins each), the costume winner got a book about pirates which I found in a publishers clearance store for around $1.

4. Music

Music is another easy and cheap way to set the theme for a party. I trawled the web for pirate themed music and made a playlist which I burned to CD and played through the venue’s music system. My pirate music choices included:

  • Imagination Movers – “The Sensible Life of a Pirate” and “Caribbean Rhapsody”
  • “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” Theme
  • Disneyland – “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me”
  • Everything I could find by “Sharky & Bones”, the pirate duo who sing at the end of “Jake & The Neverland Pirates” (who now have an album out, why wasn’t that out in September?)
  • Upbeat pieces from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” Scores

You could also use music by some of the many pirate bands such as “The Jolly Rogers” – just make sure you check the lyrics first as many are inappropriate, and how I managed to not think of using tracks from Muppet Treasure Island I’ll never know.

5. Food & Cake

The buffet with treasure map table cloth and toy ship centrepiece © Wendy Sharpe
The buffet with treasure map table cloth and toy ship centrepiece © Wendy Sharpe

We stuck with a simple buffet at the party, my preferred choice by far when dealing with a room full of small children, and we were lucky enough to have a venue with two rooms which allowed us to set up the buffet in one room while the kids ran riot in the other. I found a wooden pirate chest in the weeks leading up to the party which we now use to store small toys; for the party I filled the chest with popcorn and hid some gold chocolate coins among it. One of my favourite party memories was when a 3 year old guest was getting herself a handful of popcorn, she turned to her father in open mouthed surprise and shouted “THERE ARE CHOCOLATE COINS IN HERE!!!!!!”

I am a huge fan of cake decorating shows including Ace of Cakes and regularly visit Cake Wrecks, especially to see their Sunday Sweets so making my son’s cakes has always been a given. I baked the cake itself two days before the party and covered it that night to keep it fresh – I buy my icing pre coloured to save the effort of colouring it evenly myself. I also bought silver and gold powders which could be mixed with water to make edible paints. I used a skull cutter from Halloween and a circle cutter to make marzipan skulls and coins to go around the bottom tier (I pressed a chocolate coin into the circles to create a coin impression before painting it). The night before the party, my best friend and I spent the whole night creating the cake including drawing an intensely geeky treasure map on the top tier, it included instructions such as “come along Pond”, “don’t blink!”, and the Timewarp chorus. We created a treasure chest from a dense lemon loaf cake that could handle being sculpted, my friend decorated it with painted marzipan strips to make it look wooden and I painted candy bracelets and rings with the gold and silver paints to fill it, it was a very quick project that looked incredibly effective. We finished the cake base by crushing cornflakes, brown sugar and pale pink cake glitter together to form edible sand which we stuck down to the board with a thin layer of buttercream. The cake was by far my biggest expense ($30 or more) but I consider cake decorating a hobby and this is my only excuse for a big project each year so I justified the cost that way, plus it still cost less than getting in a professional.

6. Decorations

Decorations can easily run up the final cost of a party by a lot, my trick was to buy things that could cover a lot of the walls in one go. I bought some Jolly Roger banners and balloons on eBay which made up most of the wall decor. Our buffet table needed three table cloths to cover it, instead of laying out for three  I just bought one themed cloth for the centre to hugely reduce the cost. I also kept my eye out for bargains by checking in the local party stores each time I passed, I found a giant inflatable “two” half price which managed to decorate most of a wall by itself; it was also reusable so I was able to pass it on to another mother which helped justify its cost to me. I used a lot of objects we already owned as decorations, my son’s toy pirate ship became a centerpiece on the buffet table. Finally, I brought some of my son’s larger toys (paddling pool filled with balls, ride-on car etc) with us and asked local family to do the same. This resulted in a room filled with big toys that the kids shared (mostly) without incident and meant we didn’t have to pay for any activities.

7. Party Bags

The Treasure Chest party boxes © DreamParty via eBay
The Treasure Chest party boxes © DreamParty via eBay

Party bags can be a source of contention among parents, mainly because people’s ideas of what constitutes small take-home gifts can differ wildly. I didn’t want to spend much but was also determined to have them, after all what kind of pirate party doesn’t have loot to take home? I started by downloading free colouring-in sheets from the Disney Junior website, printed them off at letter paper scale and rolled them up before putting a rubber band around them to create free scrolls. I also included a bag of gold chocolate coins, a Jolly Roger eraser, an uninflated balloon and a sheet of stickers, as well as the customary slice of birthday cake. Rather than using actual bags for our loot, I sourced party boxes from eBay at the same cost, these are much sturdier and looked like treasure chests – some kids kept them after the party to store small items. To finish off I wrote each child’s name on a plain luggage label and tied them onto the handles with string.

That’s it! I’m already considering options for this year’s birthday; right now little one is into Postman Pat, Chuggington and Angry Birds although we still have some months to go and toddlers are fickle. However if those interests stay put I might soon be throwing my own Angry Birds party like Ruth last year!

Book Review: Big Book of Cupcakes

Many moons ago, I used to have a little baking company called “Princess Yum Yum.” I’m using the term “company” loosely. It was me and an oven. I would make birthday cakes, wedding cakes, shower favors, home made candies and lots of other goodies, and I made some nice cash doing it. I stopped because one year I made these awesome sugar cookies that looked like the Serenity Logo for some BrownCoat friends. A publicist got a hold of one and contacted me – could I make 20,000? Well, the answer was no! (See figure one where it’s just me and an oven…) I could have rented a kitchen and hired some help but it was just a step I didn’t want to take. So I took down the website and went underground.

When it came time to celebrate Vivi’s first birthday, of course, I wanted to make her cake. And I’m proud to say that it turned out pretty spectacular! It was like discovering some latent superpower and having it suddenly kick in! Despite years of babysitting and being a nanny, as a mom I feel like I’m often just trusting my gut or dead reckoning and hoping for the best. But cakes? Oh MAN, can I make and decorate a cake!

Vivienne's Birthday Cake

So when the request came in to review Jan Moon’s book Big Book of Cupcakes Presented By Southern Living, I felt like I was the perfect person to do it.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford

There was a little bit of discussion between the Geek Moms in our super secret underground lair about whether cupcakes were geeky – but several of us had such passion about our collection of colored sprinkles (okay, that one may have been me…) that it was deemed fit for review.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford

A little background: Jan Moon worked in the test kitchens of Southern Living Magazine, and eventually fulfilled her dream of opening up her very own bakery. Dreamcakes Bakery is in Birmingham Alabama, and they’re known for making cupcakes that are seasonal, whimsical and above all, beautiful. I’ve been invited to a wedding in Alabama this fall and I’m tempted to make a pilgrimage.

The first thing I loved about this book: Pictures. TONS of gorgeous color pictures pop out at you on every page – and she even mentions that she feels that “making food beautiful is as important as making it taste good.” Much as I’d love to lie to you right now and tell you how I adore The Joy of Cooking, it comes down to this: I love a cookbook with loads of pictures.

There’s no blase flipping through these pages either – I looked at all her creations and found them all firing up the flames of inspiration and creativity. And I’m happy to say – the beauty doesn’t come from rolled fondant. I’ve never been a fan of rolled fondant. Sure, it looks amazing but… well, yuck. Who wants to eat Playdough? (Don’t answer that.)

I then drove my husband crazy by forcing him to sit and listen to me list the recipes I wanted to give a trial run, and made him help me hone down the list. Eventually we figured that the best place to start was with a simple birthday cake recipe. From there I would jump off into “That’s Amore” – a marble cake of white and chocolate with vanilla and chocolate icing.

And one recipe in particular caught my eye – Tiramisu cupcakes. I don’t know about you – but I think Red Velvet is so very tired. But Tiramisu? That’s something I haven’t really seen done anywhere before.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford

When you bake a lot, you can tell right away when something is going to be good – it’s in the batter. Jan Moon’s white cake recipe is one of those recipes. I could tell IMMEDIATELY that it was something special and would produce a lovely cake. I’m not surprised to find that her “Wedding Cake” cupcake is the most popular item at her bakery. White cake with white icing? YUM.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford

And the taste is just divine – if you’re thinking about supermarket cake, think again. This is a depth of flavor that you don’t usually find in white cake. And it’s got enough flavor that when you marble it with chocolate cake, the white doesn’t get obliterated by the strong taste of cocoa.


Photo: Kristen Rutherford

The tiramisu cupcakes were made with a butter cake recipe and a cream cheese icing. The filling was also cream cheese icing flavored with coffee extract.  You slice the tops off the cupcakes, put the filling in, and then put the tops back on.

Photo: Kristen Rutherford

I made them for a Memorial Day party and people just went nuts over them.  Like I said, it’s just not a flavor you usually find in a cupcake.


Photo: Kristen Rutherford
Photo: Kristen Rutherford

The only nitpicky problem I had with the book is that some recipes called for a cake or icing located on another page. I totally understand why that is – it would clutter up the beautiful layout to keep reprinting the same recipes over and over – but when I was multitasking in the kitchen going from batter to icing back to batter, it was kind of a pain to have to keep flipping around.

I’ve already offered to make cupcakes for several birthday parties coming up this month and next – and have made more of the recipes in the book since the ones I originally picked to try. Which is really the best compliment I can give a cookbook; that it make me excited to try more recipes and get in the kitchen and start baking!

How to Throw an Angry Birds-Themed Birthday Party

A thieving pig, dirty from his last tower destruction, awaits the next Angry Bird KO.

Almost-two-year-olds aren’t very responsive when you ask what kind of birthday party they’d like. Especially mine, who isn’t the talker that his sister was. Three connected words are still a rarity, so when he spent a whole evening repeating, “Ang-y Birds par-ty! Ang-y Birds par-ty!”, I knew we had a winner.

I, on the other hand, was like Jared Newman–I simply didn’t get the Angry Birds phenomenon. I even tried playing it a time or two, and it reminded me of a thousand Flash games I’d played before. But how can you say no to “Ang-y Birds par-ty!”? You can’t. (I have since, as a result of planning this party, given in to full Angry Birds addiction.)

Step 1: Angry Birds decorations

This isn’t the sort of theme you can throw together the night before. Party City doesn’t have a convenient kit for an Angry Birds party. No pre-printed cups or packaged party favors. That leaves it to the DIY GeekMom. I focused on the bright, generally primary colors that Angry Birds uses and worked from there.

The most important step was sticker paper for the printer. The Oatmeal has a great image scaling the likability of the various birds. At the bottom, he offers a PNG file of the images he made for the birds–make a page full of them, and presto, stickers! I stuck them to everything–cups, balloons, favor boxes, children…

Then I got two shades of green posterboard and started making pigs. It took only one evening and two sheets of posterboard to make a dozen pigs of various sizes. I also downloaded the Angry Birds font and cut out my son’s name to make a banner.

For favors, I bought some generic red treat boxes and applied the aforementioned stickers. I filled them with gold-foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, gold eggs filled with glittery silly-putty-type goo, egg-shaped sidewalk chalk, and more stickers. (And bubbles, because who doesn’t like bubbles? But they were completely un-thematic.)

Step 2: Angry Birds cake

Of course, there’s the famous playable Angry Birds cake. But since we played much larger Angry Birds (see the end of this post), we didn’t need to play with our cake too. Well, not much.

I made small pigs on cupcakes the same way I did my daughter’s Helly Kitty cupcakes last fall. Super easy. They’re displayed in small (5”) versions of the live Angry Birds boards (which you’ll see at the end of this post).

Angry Birds cake

Then I made one large, 3D pig with a ball pan and lots of green fondant. I found the Touch of Gold Egg Decorating Kit in the dollar store and used it to make a dozen gold eggs. The large (slightly cracked, ready to be defeated) pig sat atop his stolen golden eggs on an old Easter egg stand I had around.

And just to complete the effect–as well as to amuse my five-year-old daughter for a while by letting her fill the pan one spoonful at a time–the inside of the large pig was made of “ground up Angry Birds”:

I tried to go thematic with other food, but that was a challenge. If you’ve got time on your hands, these Babybel Angry Birds are amazingly cute. But what did we do for food? Well…you know how the birds in the game don’t have wings? It’s because they were served on our party table with hot sauce.

The grand finale: Live Angry Birds game

Back in March, I saw “Live Angry Birds” on the SXSW schedule, which led me to tweet:

It actually turned out to be pretty fun:

Helping the birthday boy up to the launch

And not that hard to build. The first thing you’ll need are stuffed pigs and birds. You can go the lazy-but-expensive way and buy them at or on eBay. The DIY GeekMom way is to make them. Making them also means you can stuff the birds with beans to give them some heft. The shapes are pretty basic, but if you’re short on time or just like to have something to follow, obsessively stitching blog has great instructions and printable patterns.

For the walls, I bought a dozen sheets of foam board and cut them into 10”x10” squares (5”x5” for the cupcakes). Then I gave them each an appropriate wash with some tempera paint–blue for the glass (or ice? I’ve never been sure), brown with a quick swirl for woodgrain, and gray for the stone. I found that the most stable construction, especially since we played outside, was to cut only partly through some of the boards. If you perforate the foam board with an Xacto knife, then bend it to break through, one piece of the paper will stay intact. Bend at that joint to make a V shape, and place a fully cut 10”x10” board on top. Then start stacking! If you’re outside with the chance of a sudden breeze, it helps as you stack to place a pig inside once in a while to weight it down.

Then it’s time to launch the birds! Have two adults hold the ends of a resistance band. It might take a few tries to get the technique, but it’ll work as a slingshot. The best way we found was to grip the bird from the outside of the band.

It’s a bit late to mention, but…

Overall, it helps to be planning this party around Easter since it makes it easier to find things like chalk-shaped eggs and gold egg dye. I even sent extra kids on an egg hunt around the yard while other people were shooting birds (heh).

Party on, Angry Birds lovers.

This Fantasy Interlude Brought To You By GeekMom

Of course you’re enjoying a stress free, completely uncrazed holiday season while your butler tends to all of life’s nagging little details.

You’re probably lounging around reading that trashy novel, trying to decide whether to nosh on bon bons or order your chef to whip up something a little more substantial. Caviar on toast points, perhaps.

But remember, balance is essential. You know how boring relaxation gets day after languid day. Go ahead, throw an impromptu party tonight. It’s easy thanks to hints in Amy Sedaris’ book I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Those hints are so helpful they include the particulars of entertaining lumberjacks.

So give your household staff the night off this evening. Besides, you don’t want those starched aprons watching your pals compete to win multiple rounds of margarita stacking. But first, go back to that restful bliss you were enjoying. Maybe even get in a little nap. You need to be fresh for this evening’s soirée.