The Almost Sleepover Party: The Birthday Party Solution You've Been Waiting For

"The parties that stick in kids' memories are the ones you have at home," says Jenny Rosenstrach. The cookbook author and creator of the popular blog Dinner: A Love Story has cracked the code and come up with a half-dozen joyful ways to celebrate a child's big day without losing your mind or breaking the bank. Here's one of our favorites.

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

An Affair to Remember

"You can't underestimate how much kids love doing the silliest things," says Jenny Rosenstrach. This may explain why the birthday party chapter in her latest book, How to Celebrate Anything, is full of loopy themes and old-school games. Her experience is hard won: "We had a couple of toddler parties with nothing planned that were doozies," says the mother of two who has built a loyal readership based on her wry humor and dedication to nightly meals at the family table. "I figured out early on [that] you either had to embrace the chaos or know that you have to be on for two hours." An inveterate planner, she came up with a master formula, breaking up a party into six elements — an art project, two games, food, cake and party favors. Once you choose a theme — say, secret agents or Japan — the slots practically fill themselves.

Photography by Heather Ramsdell

The Case for DIY

Why make the effort? "You can outsource anything," admits Rosenstrach of the temptation to hold a party at a restaurant or gym. "But you get a lot of bang for your buck in the memory department when you have a party at home." Standing in the middle of Food Network Kitchen, piping icing onto a sheet cake decorated with sleeping bags (get it?), Rosenstrach explains her passion for such old-fashioned rituals. "As parents, we're looking for day-to-day opportunities to infuse meaning into our kids' lives. Anything you do on a birthday will have a greater chance of sticking with them than on any other day of the year." 

The Almost Sleepover Party

"This is a party for kids who are too young to have a real sleepover. It makes it exotic to do it at night — even if it is just 6 to 8 o'clock, so it's dark. You dress in pajamas and bring a sleeping bag. You can also do it in the morning where kids come over in PJs. You can make a cake out of a stack of pancakes and kids can make custom smoothies."

Art Project: Decorate a Pillowcase

"Having an arts and crafts project ready [at the start of a party] gives kids something to engage in as soon as they walk in the house," says Rosenstrach. "They immediately have some sense of control." For an Almost Sleepover Party, set out plain pillowcases and fabric markers in a few coordinating colors on a cleared work surface. "Having a theme helps you come up with ideas for activities," says Rosenstrach. 

Game 1: Purple Socks

Rosenstrach writes in her latest book: "I grew up playing this game, and somehow I seem to be the only person who has ever heard of it. Cut about a hundred sock shapes out of purple construction paper (they don't have to be perfect, and it goes a lot faster when you fold over and layer your paper). Make a list of about twenty things the kids might show up with. For instance, for an Almost Sleepover Party, you might list 'sleeping bags that are pink,' or 'sleeping bag that has an animal on it,' or 'stuffed animal,' or 'pajamas with a princess on it,' or 'anything that sparkles.' The last item should always be purple socks. The leader says, 'Raise your hand if you have…' and reads each item from the list. For example, 'Raise your hand if you have a stuffed animal.' The leader then gives a purple paper sock to every kid who has brought a stuffed animal. Kids get double points for wearing actual purple socks. At the end, whoever has the most purple sock cutouts wins."

Game 2: Jelly Bean Counting Contest

This classic is another great way to start the party, says Rosenstrach. "As soon as the guests arrive, direct them to a Mason jar filled with jelly beans. (Or M&Ms or marbles, or candy corns or sweethearts, depending on your theme.) Place a piece of paper next to the jar with a list of all the guests' names, then have each guest write (beside his or her own name) a guess for how many jelly beans are in the jar. In addition to being a real head-scratcher for kids, this exercise is hilarious for grown-ups. One year, I remember the range in guesses spanned from 24 to 1 million." Count the jelly beans before the party ends. The winner with the closest guess gets to take home the jar.

The Food: Pigs (and Other Foods) in Blankets

You can go store-bought with frozen pigs in blankets. If you decide to make them yourself, think beyond just mini franks. Bundles of blanched green beans, roasted sweet potato wedges and cooked carrots are easy to wrap in strips of puff pastry and great for dipping. Serve them with small bowls of ketchup, honey mustard and barbecue sauce.

The Cake: Sleepover Sheet Cake

"A sheet cake is basically a blank canvas that can be customized to a theme," says Rosenstrach. Here, she teamed up with Food Network Kitchen chefs to make a sleepover cake with vanilla wafer guests, fruit leather sleeping bags and marshmallow pillows. "For a Summer in the Winter Party, you could do a beach cake," Rosenstrach says.

Party Favors

Rosenstrach's philosophy when it comes to favors: "Include one edible treat, like chocolate, and one toy that isn't destined for the floor of the back seat of the car." Small stuffed animals, glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, chocolate mint squares, fairy stickers, and a photocopy of the birthday girl or boy's favorite breakfast recipe are all good options for a sleepover party. "I also like to play games with prizes through the course of the party — like pass the parcel and candy hunts. The activity doubles as a party favor," says Rosenstrach.

Get More Creative Party Ideas

Adapted from How to Celebrate Everything: Recipes and Rituals for Birthdays, Holidays, Family Dinners and Every Day in Between by Jenny Rosenstrach © 2016 by Jenny Rosenstrach. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.