Okay, it’s taken me a few goes to figure out how to throw the best low-waste, vegan kids’ birthday ever but I think I’ve cracked it. Other than the fact that the guests loved it and my little one was over-the-moon happy, I am most proud of the fact that we generated less than a small garbage can (20L) worth of landfill waste for both parties we hosted. Everything else was eaten/reused/upcycled/recycled and composted.
I live in Hong Kong (proud 香港人 here) and all my recommendations of businesses and services will be local ones but all my green party planning principles apply to parents all over the world, so I encourage you to support small businesses (especially mom-owned) that offer similar solutions in your city/town.
I believe that the best way to inspire others to action is by showing them how awesome an environmentally-focused life is. In the case of entertaining, I’m going to call this party-activism. If you tell the average person it’s entirely possible to host a little kids’ get-together without plastic or meat and dairy and still have a colourful, delicious time, most people will struggle to believe you and politely smile while mentally classifying you as ‘that hippie mom’. However, if you can show them how it’s done, you can have an impact. Which is what I did. Show don’t tell, right?
There are two people other than my husband who were instrumental in making the parties a huge success: one is my mom, who is without a doubt the best mom in the world and I can’t tell her this enough. Not only did she bake vegan chocolate chip cookies and help me with organising and planning, she made TWO vegan lion cakes. This is a woman who unabashedly LOVES cheese and butter and had never baked a vegan cake before but for her daughter and grandson, well, she went above and beyond.
The second person is Louise, mom of two and founder of Eco Parties HK, Hong Kong’s first rental service providing reusable party supplies and waste-free solutions for parties and events. I rented all my plates, utensils, cups, and decorations from her plus was she vital in helping me to arrange the gift bags and the party games. Many of the ideas I mention below are hers.
How to do fun decorations without wasting fossil fuels
First of all, you have to QUIT BALLOONS. There is no compromise on this one. Yes, I know: they are so fun. Yes I know: every party you have ever been to had balloons. Yes I know: kids love balloons. But balloons could NOT be worse for the planet and for wildlife. They are an eco-disaster (all of them, even so-called “organic balloons” or recycled balloons) and we must quit them. I spent hours researching actual alternatives but the bad news is, there’s no real one-to-one replacement.
Instead, choose reusable, plastic-free, and upcycled alternatives. The party had a jungle/animal theme since my little one loves wildlife and forests and nature, so it was a lot of leaves, animals, trees, oranges, greens, and browns, but obviously for your own party, go with colours and concepts of your choice. We had animal and cloth leaf bunting, leaf tablecloths and table runners, fun animal cloth napkins, orange paper balls which we hung on the ceiling and reusable leaf cutouts that we put all over the walls and the floor for a real jungly feel (all from Eco Parties, Louise makes the tablecloths and bunting herself from waste fabric). We also had a homemade giant 3-D ‘2’ made by my loving husband from waste cardboard and crepe paper (see photo).
Eco party game ideas that we loved
Pass the parcel
This quintessentially British and super old-fashioned party game is full of charm and was a hit with the kids (and the parents because all the kids have to stay seated). You wrap a gift (I chose a set of eco paints) with old newspapers in multiple layers (I added mini crayon packs with each supplemental layer so there was more than one winner) and then you put on music and the kids ‘pass the parcel’ until the music stops. Whoever has the parcel opens it, and then you keep going until all layers have been uncovered. It’s a sweet party game for the ages, and I highly recommend trying it.
Bash the Piñata
I am #Latinadecorazon (Latina by way of the heart) as I like to joke, so I love all Latin party ways and what’s more fun than hitting a piñata until candy comes flying out! I can tell you that this was a highlight for all the children, and even the shyest little ones got involved. My poor husband didn’t fare so well on the other hand- had to hold a broomstick on which we attached the piñata because we didn’t have somewhere to hang it on the ceiling and his arm went numb because toddlers hitting power is slow going.
We managed to find an almost-plastic free lion head piñata (the ONLY item I purchased at the party store, where I almost had a panic attack because of all the single-use plastic waste), but for next year, we will make our own because it’s so easy to do so (so many DIY tutorials online).
But what about the filling, I hear you wondering? Well, I made my own of course. I bought candy in bulk (in Hong Kong you have Live Zero and Slowood that stock sweets without packaging, though for Slowood the vegan ones are unmarked so do check) and then I created little coloured tissue paper bags tied with ribbon that I was upcycling form old gifts). I stuffed them in the piñata and voila: plastic-free fillers. The little ones loved the candy and it was so colourful and fun (and the ribbon was reused, while the tissue paper was recycled).
Jungle play-dough FTW
Louise suggested this (and provided all the bits) and it was an absolute hit both times. See the photo to visualize it but essentially you sit children around a table and provide them with homemade green playdough (Louise even added calming essential oils to it- this worked like a charm), plastic animal figurines (which were returned to Louise to be reused), wooden sticks, real pebbles and stones and real leaves and sticks that I foraged myself in the mountain behind my house (only dead stuff of course). They then create little jungle setups and you can take photos. Everyone loved it. So creative, thanks, Louise! Frankly, this is a useful game for any old Saturday afternoon, and the fact that kids are being connected to nature and natural materials is just so wonderful.
The goodie bag controversy
I am Indian by blood and Punjabi by party nature so letting my guests leave empty-handed is NOT a possibility. The problem? ‘Loot bags’ (I despise this term, it feels so grabby and consumerist) are usually made of cheap plastic and filled with wasteful tat that kids will use once (if at all) and forget all about it. Ugh. Luckily Louise of Eco Parties found the most perfect hand-stitched cotton gift bags with little animal faces on them in a range of colours and suggested we fill them with second-hand kids book by the Hong Kong NGO Rebooked (started by this 15-year old superstar) for the first party. For the second party, I filled with Peppa pig raisons in paper boxes and Little Miss/Mr books, as well as Uno card packs (also a suggestion by Louise). Many parents and caregivers have already messaged to say how useful the little bag is to pack snacks and water on playdates and for school, so I am thrilled.
A plant-based menu enjoyed by all
Since we had two parties, I got to do some menu testing. The first time around, there were definitely some fails, such as:
- Cucumber finger sandwiches with vegan butter and finely sliced peeled cukes- this is my favourite part of afternoon tea but none of the kids felt the same way. The triangles sat there uneaten for most of the party and I ended up stuffing my face with the whole the lot for dinner that evening.
- Vegan hot dogs in homemade BBQ sauce on toothpicks. Sadly, the vegan dogs (Lightlife brand) did not make any friends, they ended up being rubbery and unappetising. The sauce was a must-repeat (ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, maple syrup), but next time I will try a different brand and I will have buns. People like buns.
- Apple doughnuts aka sliced apples covered in vegan cream cheese and sprinkles. Well I was warned on this one. Despite Pinterest being filled with posts about how popular these are (they do look great in photos), the kids were not interested, and some of them even told me they felt cheated! I guess there’s no “healthifying” doughnuts. When you say doughnut, people want fried dough, end of story. Oh well…
- Melon ball “kebabs”: not sure if our melons weren’t good or if kids just don’t want to be served fruit at a party but I think a grand total of zero children tried one. Epic fail. Queue pints of melon juice the following week to use up what can’t really be described as leftovers.
Here’s what worked really well:
- Peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. You could sub almond butter/ jelly. Pro tip: go crustless.
- Soda water mixed with apple juice- we used our home soda maker and bought the juice (recycled the Tetra-Pak, of course).
- Berry smoothies (blend frozen berries with coconut cream and oat milk, add a dash of maple syrup)- these look great in photos (hello IG) but most importantly the little people slurped them right up.
- A selection of potato/corn chips- everyone loves chips, I mixed sea salt and tortilla chips but whatever you fancy is great.
- Chocolate banana cake squares (take any chocolate cake recipe, replace butter and milk with plant-based version, sub-mashed bananas for the eggs and cover with sprinkles when it comes out of the oven. Serve in squares).
- Homemade OmniPork spring rolls (with chopped carrots, cabbage and long beans)- these did not even last an hour. So good!
- Homemade hummus- it’s a party and I’ll dip if I want to. Served with carrot sticks, it’s a really great low-waste, low-cost option and everyone loves hummus.
- Last but not least, the aforementioned vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan lion cake made by my super mom. Every year for my birthday she would make these incredible cakes from ballet slippers to a hamburger to a candy shop, and now she is continuing the tradition with my bubba. Yep, she is the best.
Normally, I am more of a homemade food kind of gal when it comes to entertaining, but with Covid-19 making life super tough for my favourite vegan food artisans, I felt called upon to support them by showcasing their talents at Party #2, where we had a lot of parents to feed (the first party was mostly just kiddos). Plus, my preferred way to help people along on their meat and dairy reduction journey is to serve them outstanding animal-free food. When people enjoy food, they are open to changing their ways and their minds.
We have some truly exceptional food purveyors to choose from in Hong Kong, but no matter where you are in the world, show your support for the artisans in your area. Here’s the stuff we got catered:
- Vegan sourdough pizzas by Latvian father-daughter duo over at Mayse Artisan Bakery– always a hit at markets and fairs and your home party. I especially love their tomato sauce, something I am picky about.
- A selection of vegan French patisserie (made bite size) by Bien Caramélisé– the chef Jessica Chow is a genius, truly some of the best patisserie ever, vegan or not. Her éclairs and hazelnut cream millefeuille are the stuff of pastry dreams.
- A vegan cheese platter by Chef Tina Barrat served with sourdough crackers (also by Mayse)- been stocking Tina’s cheeses for years now, her selection is varied and impressive, the guests devoured them. Tina also does outstanding raw vegan cakes on order by the way.
And what about presents?
Since I was throwing the party, I didn’t need to buy presents BUT I wanted to make a few suggestions of some great gifts that we eco moms (and our eco bubs) love. If you prefer classic gifts, suggest wooden, educational and plastic-free toys. Also, books are always welcome!
NB: I originally wanted to say no gifts to all the invitees. I was vetoed by my family. Apparently, I’m no fun. My ideal situ: people make a donation to a charity of our choice. But, with kids, presents are part and parcel of birthday parties. Here goes, some Green-Queen-approved ideas, most of which support a circular economy:
- A gift card or outfit from Retykle, the chicest preloved baby and kids online store I’ve ever found. The packaging is earth-friendly, the service is top notch (they have a complimentary personal shopping service) and they stock top brands- mompreneur Sarah Garner is truly an inspiration.
- A selection of books from Rebooked, the NGO run by teenager Bailey Cherry (as mentioned earlier).
- A trial membership at Happy Baton, Hong Kong’s first toy rental subscription company. Read more about this clever circular startup started by two moms here.
- A Cheeky Monkey Kids custom film to celebrate the little one in questions. Filmmaker Joanna Bowers’ (she of the award-winning documentary The Helper) side hustle is making the most delightful 2-3 minute video montages of precious recorded moments in your child’s life. It’s probably a little overkill as a gift for your child’s schoolmate but if you’re looking for the ideal present for your niece/nephew/grandchild/godchild, nothing beats this forever keepsake that everyone in the family will love. Pro-tip: gift the family a voucher instead of the finished film so they can choose their own videos, music, etc.
And that’s how it’s done, folks! You can be kind to the planet while celebrating your pride and joy and keeping all your guests happy and well-fed. Yes it’s more effort at times, but your little one (and Mother Earth) is worth it, wouldn’t you say?
All photos courtesy of Green Queen / Sonalie Figueiras.