Party planning tips [and a paper airplane-themed first birthday party]

The end of the year was crazy, and I have a feeling Decembers will get even crazier in the years to come. It started with birthday party prep, then Christmas prep, then Christmas travel. January has been much more relaxed so far, yet somehow Corban is already 13 months old and I’m just now sitting down to share his first birthday party.

I’m no party hosting expert, but I do enjoy planning a good little fiesta. Here is an assortment of things I learned while planning Corban’s first birthday party.


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1) Choose a theme – or at least a color scheme – and let that guide the rest of your planning. When it comes to parties (and, well, anything creative) I get easily swept up in brainstorming. This is good, up until a certain point, when it becomes overwhelming. There are SO many cute ideas out there (if Pinterest had existed when I was planning our wedding, I think my brain would have exploded into a million vintage farmhouse-inspired pieces) so it helps to have some focus. A cute invitation design inspired my original theme idea and color scheme – airplanes; sky blue and red. Then after Pinteresting it up, I found this stamp and decided paper airplanes are even cuter and easier to pull off.

The paper airplane theme gave me good direction for decorations (hello? Paper airplanes everywhere!), activities (decorating paper airplanes), snacks (peanuts and pretzels) and little details (signs like “in-flight beverages” by the drinks, which of course included ginger ale).





Simply using colors as a theme works well too. Light blue tablecloths, red plates and silverware, light blue decorations — it pulls the room together without much effort.


2) E-invitations can be just as cute as paper invites. I love (LOVE) paper and also am a big fan of sending (and receiving) mail. But I wanted to keep this party fairly low key, so a mailed invitation seemed inappropriate. There are quite a few sites out there for sending e-invitations, and some of them have really nice invite designs. I fell in love with Paperless Post, which may be the next best thing to mailing custom invitations. Their designs are exquisite, with details right down to envelope liners. It’s not free, but it costs far less than mailing invitations, and for this party it perfectly accomplished my goal of sending a formal invitation in a casual way.


3) Grocery store cakes can be just as cute as bakery cakes. Although I love to bake and decorate cakes, this party called for something a bit larger. I checked out a few local bakeries and was not too excited about the prices. While doing some shopping at a Pick N Save near our house I decided to inquire about their cakes, and ended up having a great conversation with the store’s cake decorator. She was young and seemed to really understand what I was looking for. I tasted their frosting (their buttercream doesn’t use real butter so I opted for the whipped cream frosting, which is pretty good) and went over all the details of the design I was envisioning. It helped to pull up some photos on my phone of cakes I had pinned. The result was an awesome cake for $33.99 (half sheet with a layer of chocolate buttercream filling).


I made Corban his own layer cake (using Pyrex storage containers as baking pans) using this recipe.



Bottom line, find the right grocery store cake decorator and you can have a fancy looking cake without the fancy pricetag.

4) Have an activity for kids, but don’t expect them to do it. We only had a handful of kids at Corban’s party, but I wanted to have a little something to keep them entertained so their parents wouldn’t have to worry about them. Folding paper airplanes seemed like an easy, appropriate craft (supplies needed: paper. (Actually, I found an old book with 20 different paper airplane tutorials that I had as a kid, so I put that out too)). I picked up some stickers from the dollar store so they could decorate them even if they weren’t interested in flying them.


But the activity I was excited about was a paper airplane test course. I hung a hoop (embroidery hoop, actually) from the ceiling with the idea that kids (or adults) could test their paper airplane creations and try to fly them through the hoop.


As it turns out, having a hoop hanging from the ceiling and a bunch of balloons on the floor is confusing. It turned into more of a basketball hoop. A paper airplane or two was made and decorated, but I didn’t see any flying. Actually, Corban’s birthday gift from us, a mini indoor jungle gym, was the exciting thing to play with that afternoon. That and balloons. And that was totally fine. It’s good to have a little something planned for the kids even if it’s not a kid-centric party, but don’t spend lots of time or money on it because they’re usually just as happy playing with whatever.



5) Play with Pandora. Every party needs some music in the background. Pandora iPhone app + borrowed iPod speakers was my super simple plan for that. I spent a couple days tweaking a Pandora station specifically for the party while listening to it at work. The mix of pop, country, contemporary Christian and Christmas music worked out just fine and took no extra time to plan.

6) If you request no gifts, some people will still bring gifts, and that’s OK. We asked guests not to bring gifts because this party wasn’t really about Corban. It was about us getting together with friends, family and those who have loved Corban and supported us during our first year as parents. Our family, of course, still brought gifts, and a handful of other guests too. Some people just like to give gifts. I have trouble remembering this, but the appropriate response is “Thank you!” — not, “You shouldn’t have!” or “You weren’t supposed to!” We waited until after the party to help Corban open his presents. Opening them during the party would have just been awkward for those who honored our wishes.

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7) Hang decorations from the ceiling. Even if you’re decorations aren’t paper airplanes, hanging decorations go far in making your house look festive. I also like these pinwheels and your (now) standard tissue balls (the smaller ones look the best).


8) The Dollar Store is a party mecca. My local Dollar Tree is my go-to place for goodie bag items (I didn’t do that for this party though), colored paper plates/utensils/tablecloths and other miscellaneous supplies. They have tons of glassware and foil balloons, too. One word of advice though: take into account quantity when shopping there. For example, their plastic silverware isn’t always cheaper per utensil (and while we’re on the subject, it’s not very high quality either – works fine for cake, though). I think that’s how they make money — some things are overpriced and others are underpriced. It takes a little experience to find the best deals.

9) Everyone loves a good photo montage. The most time-consuming part of planning this party was creating the photo album of Corban’s first year that I wanted to have displayed at the shindig. It was worth it, though, to have the completed book out for guests to peruse. I used Shutterfly because I already had a lot of photos uploaded there, but there are tons of sites that can help you create a digital scrapbook. This is also the time to put together the month-by-month photo montage you’ve been plotting all year. I took a giant frame I had bought years ago and never filled, chose a photo for each month of Corban’s first year, used Picasa to add text to the image and had prints made of the photos. Also a great opportunity to check out the familial resemblance between you and your kid by displaying some old photos of yourself.



Peter as a toddler!

Peter as a toddler!

10) If you’re design-minded, there are free programs that can help you create logos and custom printed items for your party. I used Inkscape, which is pretty easy to pick up on if you’re familiar with Adobe Illustrator. It let me easily design things like this banner and the food tags.




11) You can DIY a custom shirt for the birthday boy or girl for about $3.50. Expensive etsy shirts be darned! Tutorial coming tomorrow.


12) A mini candy bar is a visually appealing way to add some extra sweets to your table without much work. I picked up some cool glassware at Goodwill, bought a few different candies in our color scheme (worked out well that Christmas M&Ms were out) and voila. I want to do this for every party from now on!



It was kind of crunched in the windowsill.

Phew. So that was Corban’s first birthday party. I had a blast planning it, and was so happy we could share the day with friends and family who love Corban (almost) as much as we do.

Any fun birthday party themes (kid or adult) that you’ve attended or planned? Do share!

Coming soon: 13-month update, already late!

Matron of Honor speech/rhyme

My sister, Lauren, got married this past weekend!

It was an absolutely gorgeous wedding (no surprise since Lauren has incredible taste) and a long weekend packed with fun. Before I get to the title of this post, here’s a quick recap.

It started Friday with manis and pedis.

Then onto the church for the rehearsal, followed by a huge rehearsal dinner (seriously, like a small wedding reception).

Saturday began bright and early with hair and makeup.

Then it was time – they got married! After, the wedding party took a trolley ride around Chicago for photos at several locations.

The reception was at the Chicago History Museum and gave us ample time for visiting with family and friends, eating, drinking and dancing to a live band.

The fun continued on Sunday with a brunch at the Hancock building during the air and water show.

We came back to Naperville that afternoon and lounged around Lauren and Kevin’s new house, then had pizza and played cards with my parents.

Today we drove home, unpacked and relaxed, finally. Phew.

It goes without saying at this point, but Corban was a doll. Even at his most sleep-deprived state he was smiling while being passed around and played with by dozens of people, many of whom were strangers to him. We truly hit the jackpot with a happy-go-lucky baby – at least thus far!

And yes,  he wore a full tux to the wedding.

Anyway, I had an absolute blast being Lauren’s Matron of Honor. I got all pinterest-crazy with her bridal shower in June, had so much fun helping make her bachelorette party amazing and enjoyed supporting her through every step of wedding planning (although really, she and my mom had it all under control and didn’t need me). On her wedding day, I was there to hold up her train so it didn’t get muddy during photos and hold her bouquet so she could clasp hands with Kevin as they said their vows. That was all fun.

The scary part of this role, of course, is the speech traditionally associated with it at the wedding reception. I had lots of time to contemplate possible courses of action for my speech, but at some point earlier this summer, I had a revelation. I wouldn’t just say what I wanted to say. I would rhyme it. Somehow that made it seem less daunting.

Of course, deciding to take on the task of rhyming an entire speech is one thing. Actually writing it is another. And in true Alison fashion, I left that to less than a week before the wedding, which, in my world, is actually the equivalent of doing it well in advance.

Oh, and here I am re-copying it into neat handwriting on – you guessed it – the morning of the wedding.

I ended up with plenty of time to revise, edit and fact-check, and, though it was no Shakespeare, I was feeling confident in the words, as long as I could successfully deliver them.

Kevin’s best man, his brother, Eddie, gave an awesome, hilarious speech that was interrupted frequently by applause and laughter. He set the bar high, and, honestly, I was shaking in my nude patent leather heels right before taking the mic. But once I got going, I have to say, delivering my speech turned out to be just as much fun as pinning pink-themed bridal shower DIY projects. I know writing in rhyming iambic tetrameter and reading your work to a crowd of 246 wouldn’t be most peoples’ idea of fun, but it actually was yet another highlight of my stint as Matron of Honor. Mainly, I’m just glad Lauren and Kevin were surprised and enjoyed it right along with every other amazing detail of their day.

Several people asked me afterward if they could have a copy of the speech or if I’d be posting it to my blog. Since I can’t remember who all asked for it, here it is for the entire world wide web to enjoy.

On March 14th of ’89
a girl was born, that sister of mine.
One month before, on 2/15,
a boy named Kevin came to be.

In Naperville both lived and grew,
just streets apart, but neither knew
that they would someday meet and fall
in love and stand before us all.

But let’s not get ahead just yet.
First back to long before they met.

As a baby, they all say,
the boy was quite content to play
alone, in fact, his family knew,
he’d disappear out of the blue.

And after checking all the locks,
they’d find him playing with a cardboard box.

The girl was quite a different kid.
For your attention she would bid
relentlessly, both night and day.
Her little voice had lots to say.

She loved Barney till age five.
At eight tried to keep tree frogs alive.
That didn’t end well, if you know what I mean.
But she still kept her room painted lime green.

Now back to the boy – I can’t resist.
How many times did he break his wrist?
And ankles too – and some may scoff –
he almost chopped his finger off.

Accident prone? Are you kidding?
Maybe he should take up knitting.
But football was the sport he chose,
resulting in some broken toes.

Now here’s the part you want to hear.
On their first day of freshman year
this girl named Lauren sat in class
while Kevin gave the teacher sass.

She looked cute in her Benet skirt,
but neither were inclined to flirt.
They met, but then, you might be shocked,
three years went by before they talked.

It may have never taken place,
but both were urged by David Case.

Lauren was Miss Popular
while Kevin was more jocular.
He played football while she cheered.
She loved Harry Potter; he thought that was weird.

Then senior year: Homecoming dance,
Turnabout, Prom, this sweet romance
would last beyond their high school years
despite long-distance dating fears.

From here to Arizona State,
Platteville, De Paul, they continued to date.
Not easy, but they made it through
with lots of calls and texting too.

Their phone bills may be through the roof,
but now these two are living proof
that when you give someone your heart,
no distance can keep you apart.

As soon as they had their degree
Kevin got down on one knee.
Lauren laughed, smiled, cried, no less,
so overwhelmed she forgot to say, “Yes.”

So one year later, here we are,
taking advantage of an open bar,
and wishing you endless happy times,
hopefully with fewer cheesy rhymes.

Corban says his hope is this:
a cousin Dennis or Beatrice.

Truly we’re here to celebrate
your two lives leading up to this date
and the one life you’ll share starting now,
forever blessed by your wedding vow.

Lauren, though I’m older than you,
you’ve always been one I’ve looked up to.
You’re full of class, spirit and life.
I know you’ll make a wonderful wife.

Kevin, I’m proud to call you brother.
For Lauren there could be no other.
Your patience and humor are perfect for her.
I know you’re the one if ever there were.

So now let’s raise a glass and cheers:
To Lauren and Kevin, many happy years!

From house to home, and a Valentine’s Day wreath

Of all the things that have changed since we brought Corban home from the hospital, perhaps the most unexpected is my relationship with our house.

In the almost three and a half years that we’ve lived here, I don’t think I ever truly took pleasure in our home until I started spending a lot more time in it while on maternity leave.

For 3+ years, I woke up every weekday morning, scrambled to get out the door to work, rushed to the gym or another activity after work, perhaps making a brief stop at home to cobble together some sort of dinner, and then came home to crash in bed and repeat it again the next day. On the weekends, I spent most of my time at home undertaking cleaning or yardwork tasks — clearing piles of clutter, dishes, laundry, papers, etc. that had accumulated during the week.

That’s an exaggeration, but the truth of it is that my time at home was more often than not a pit stop between time spent elsewhere, which made our house a dumping ground, and therefore a battleground on which I constantly struggled to undo the mess that inevitably creeps up when your home is more a storage facility than a sanctuary.

In theory, I cared about making our home the place I wanted it to be — painting various rooms, decorating for different holidays, updating a few things — but in reality, it didn’t bother me on a daily basis that it wasn’t. I didn’t spend enough time there to care if there were pictures on the walls, curtains on the windows or even a Christmas tree.

When my pregnancy-induced nesting instinct kicked in, I finally checked a few things off my to-do list of home improvements. You may have read about some of them. But I still was rushing around — more than ever, actually — and home was the place where I slept more than anything else.

But now that I’m not working, everything seems different.

My job is to feed a hungry little boy who at times ties me to the couch for seemingly hours on end (this is getting better, finally), and I’m finding that I finally have time to get joy out of our physical home. I spend time just being here, and I look around and remember why we bought this house. I delight in the lovely open floor plan with lots of light. I look at the pictures I finally placed in the frames hanging in our family room, and I think, “how nice!” I start to get crazy thoughts about decorating for Valentine’s Day. I have a whole new perspective now that I spend most of my time here.

Sure, I still struggle with laundry piles and dirty dishes and the like (and I admit I have an ongoing battle with clearing the clutter), but those war zones aren’t my focus all the time now. I must say, it feels really nice to get pleasure out of our home instead of battle it.


On that note, I did actually do a tiny bit of Valentine’s Day decorating. I was shocked that I even had the urge, but I guess this nesting thing is no joke, and it continues well after the baby is born.

Inspired once again by Pinterest and saddened that our door was bare after finally taking down our Christmas wreath, I decided our front door could use a wreath for all seasons. I had a hankering to make one of those yarn wreaths that seem to be all the rage on the Internet these days, but create it in a way that I could update it for various holidays by switching out different colored felt flowers.

It’s a good thing I started this project mid-January, because wrapping yarn around an entire wreath is a time-consuming endeavor, and large chunks of free time are just not a part of my life right now. With spare minutes spent here and there wrapping, wrapping, wrapping white yarn around a wood wreath (still in the packaging — important to note!), I finished up last night. You could probably finish it while watching one or two episodes of “The Bachelor” if you don’t watch “The Bachelor” while nursing your infant.

My plain, white yarn wreath is a blank canvas for festive flowers. And festive felt flowers, as it turns out, are way easy to make!

I used this tutorial to make the roses, this one for the layered, bright pink flowers (except I cut circles instead of flower shapes) and this one for the fringy ones like the big red one. The bright pink ones were the most time consuming, but the roses and the fringy flowers (not sure how else to describe them) were a cinch. All you need is felt (24 cents a sheet a Michaels), scissors and a hot glue gun.

To make the flowers detachable, I used old bobbie pins (from my wedding day hairstyle, which had over 100 pins in it! I knew I was saving them for something) like this:

I bent the pins in two places for the small flowers and one for the larger flowers. The goal was to have a U-shape to hot glue onto the back of the flowers, with a tighter U-shape or simply the straight pin hovering slightly from the base. Pictures describe it better than words:

Then you can arrange the flowers on the wreath without gluing them permanently on. Just poke the bobbie pins through the yarn.

I hung it on our front door using ribbon…

…and tying the ribbon to a hook that was already on the back side of the door to hang holiday wreaths. A bow gives the inside of the door a little decoration and hides the hook.

I’m excited to make more felt flowers and transform the wreath for various seasons throughout the year. At least for a few days we’ll have some Valentine’s Day festivity though.

I ended up making a few too many roses, so the candles on our mantle got some dressing up for the season too.

Working folks, I’m curious to know, how much pleasure do you get out of your home? Are you like I was before maternity leave forced me to slow down? If so, how can you change that? That’s one thing I’ll be thinking about when I go back to work!

A fun valentine

I am a card-maker. I have been since elementary school. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve bought a greeting card since then (thank you cards are my exception since I go through so many of them).

A while back I saw this cutout for a valentine on Pinterest and fell in love, so last month in a burst of late-night energy after C fell asleep, I actually made it. (A+ for getting it done well before Valentine’s Day!)

The first step was to print out this guide (yeah, that page is in Chinese, or something). Then I put a piece of white paper over it and held it against my computer screen to lightly trace the design in pencil.

Easy part over. Now let me warn you, it is way harder than it looks to cut it out nicely! I ended up slicing a lot of it with the blade of a sharp pair of scissors rather than actually cutting.

Before you make any rash folds, like I did, study the picture and note that there are several spots where the paper will be folded. Again, not as easy as it looks!

After I glued it down to a piece of red construction paper, I just did a simple stamp design on the front.

The whole thing is not perfect, and I could probably do better now that I know how to get it right, but there’s no way I’m re-doing it now.

Still, I’m pretty excited to give it to my dear Valentine (whom I am assuming is not reading this). We don’t usually do much for Valentine’s Day, but I try to at least make him a card each year and write him a note.

Are you a card-maker or -buyer? I know some people love browsing the greeting card aisle, but I always get so overwhelmed! Making cards saves me that stress of picking out the perfect card.

Homemade Frappuccino

I’m not a regular coffee drinker (which was nice since it was easy to give it up during pregnancy), but sometimes after a long night with Corban all I want in the morning is a strong brew. With a side of morning smileys, of course.

(I never have my real camera nearby when he flashes one of these, so iPhone pics will have to do. He is definitely smiling a lot more these past few days!)

I came across this recipe for a homemade vanilla Frappuccino on Pinterest and modified it a bit using what I had. These babies don’t taste quite as good as the real deal from Starbucks, but they’re also a lot healthier, cheaper and good enough that I look forward to one every day or two. I tried making it two different ways and right now I’m kind of liking the second version better, but that’s subject to change.

Homemade Chocolate Frappuccino Version One
Makes 1 large drink

10-13 ice cubes
3/4 cup cold coffee
1/4 cup skim milk or vanilla soy milk
1 heaping tablespoon hot chocolate mix (I use good ole Swiss Miss)
1 heaping tablespoon Vega chocolate shake ‘n’ go smoothie mix*
Whipped cream (optional)

Blend ice cubes in blender until crushed down to a very fine texture. Add remaining ingredients except whipped cream and blend until smooth. Top with whipped cream and enjoy through a straw.

Homemade Chocolate Frappuccino Version Two
Makes 1 medium drink

10-13 ice cubes
1/2 cup skim milk or vanilla soy milk
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
1 heaping tablespoon hot chocolate mix
1 heaping tablespoon Vega chocolate shake ‘n’ go smoothie mix*
Whipped cream (optional)

Blend ice cubes in blender until crushed down to a very fine texture. Add remaining ingredients except whipped cream and blend until smooth. Top with whipped cream and enjoy through a straw.

*The Vega Shake ‘N’ Go mix is from a sample I picked up at the Healthy Living Summit 2010 (yikes) and just recently opened. It has lots of good nutrients in it, but doesn’t truly taste like chocolate, hence the necessity of the Swiss Miss. You could eliminate this or sub in another protein powder or health mix if you wanted.