Monday, April 14, 2014

The Not-so-Plain Party (kids birthday party on a budget)

The measure of a good birthday party is not whether it's picture perfect and looks like it could be featured in Donna Hay's Party Edition.
It's how wide the smiles of the kids are. It's how happy the birthday boy is and how hard he hugs you when he says, "Thankyou mama for an awesome party."

That's success right there; that's what you do it for. Not for pretty pinnable pictures or accolades from fellow bloggers - you do it for the shining eyes and happy laughter of your child and his pals as they have FUN.

By which standard I would say that Scrag's Just Plain Party was a resounding success.

Our "just plain party-on-a-budget" was created to the birthday boy's exacting specifications. Every game played, every item of food on the party table, every guest on the list, were all according to his wishes.

The birthday boy counts down the sleeps, crossing off each day on his calendar. Until finally the day dawns clear and sunny, despite the weatherman's predictions of rain.

[my sketchy "Scrag" figure from the invitation was printed out large and used as decoration ]

When guests arrive there are Dressups to change into, in our carport boutique. (We culled our costume collection and donated double-ups and outgrown items to our happy young guests).

Our resident Face Painters are also on hand to decorate the faces of party guests...

Who needs professionals when you have clever big sisters like Fab and Yaz around?

Game time begins with energy-burning Sack Races...

We use old pillowcases for the sacks and have several rounds, followed by  a "plate" and a "cup" final. The paparazzi are there to interview the winners...

It is hilarious (as well as easy to organise and fun to do).

Next up, Musical Mats. Fun and super easy.

We play the music and make them dance. Each round we take away a mat; the music stops and the dancers race to find a place to stand. We keep going until we have a winner. Or two.

[toadstool mats re-used from our fairy party; super easy to make]

It's thirsty work, all that jumping in sacks and dancing on toadstools. Just as well we have refreshing old-fashioned (homemade) lemonade on hand...

We catch our breath by sitting down for a game of Pass the Parcel - with a twist...

Between each layer is the ubiquitous lollipop, for sure, but every so often there's a note instead, daring them to take up a challenge in order to get their sweet treat...

[Stuff marshmallows in your mouth and say "fluffy bunnies"; hop on one foot for ten seconds
while patting your head; sing the national anthem - a few simple dares liven up this classic party game ]

The random dares keep things moving; it livens things up and keeps them all on their toes.
While they've been passing the parcel, I've been hiding treasure hunt tickets around the garden (for after we eat) and bringing out the food.

And now finally it's time for the colourful birthday feast...

We have all the party food favourites on offer: pikelets with sprinkles, red cocktail sausages, chips, popcorn, mini donuts and fruit skewers, as requested by the birthday boy.

We also have rainbow jellies and cupcakes...

(which I am rather proud of, I must say)
Finished eating? Had enough sugar? It must be Treasure Hunt time...

Hunt around the garden, in trees, under tables, inside letterboxes. You're looking for yellow tickets...

Look around the garden - there's some on the driveway too... Hey! Why is everyone rushing off to the driveway? Two canny lassies stay back and scoop the pool, finding loads of tickets while everyone else scours the driveway. Kids are so funny. But don't worry - everyone finds a ticket and gets a prize. Eventually.

We're almost out of time. Oops almost forgot  to do the birthday cake. We can't have that!

"Happy birthday dear Scrag, happy birthday to you...." we sing (tunelessly).

The party guests leave wearing their upcycled dressup outfits, sporting facepaint, lugging more upcycled prizes and a goody bag filled with sweets (just in case that gleam in their eye is from having so much fun not so much sugar).

The birthday boy is happy. He hugs me and tells me he loves me.
We pulled it off. A themeless classic kids birthday party, filled with colour and fun for ten guests costing under $100 for everything.
It's possible. I just proved it.

And didn't we all have such a loverly time?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Partying Big on a Little Budget (Plain Party Challenge)

Just a few days now until Scrag's 6th birthday "Just Plain Party" and do I look worried? Do you see me rushing around like a headless chook, spending weeks making and creating?
Hardly at all.

Why? Because it's a Just Plain Party, created to Scrag's very specific instructions and it's wonderfully simple, while at the same time colourful, festive and fun. And cheap. Stylish-but-cheap. Simple but beautiful. Easy but fun.

I have set myself the challenge of creating all my parties this year for under $100 each for everything including food sweets drinks decorating, the lot. So far, just a few days out I am sticking ruthlessly to my budget and I can see the finish line.

With a combination of re-using, upcycling, dollar-store shopping and a bit of ingenuity and creativity the party is promising to be a load of colourful fun. I even have a rain plan.

Here's how I'm putting on a great party for ten kids for under a hundred bucks...

Re-using, Re-cycling:

  • DRESS-UPS: I have gone through our mountainous pile of dressups and pulled out a bunch which we are happy to part with. When the guests arrive they will be able to choose a costume to wear and they will be able to keep it. This helps me clear space in our cupboards and sends each guest home with a cool new dress up outfit = win. (Cost=zip)
  • FACE-PAINTING: We are pulling out our collection of face-paints and upon arrival the guests will also have their faces painted by Miss Fab and her clever pal, Yaz (who rocked Scrag's Carnival Party with her awesome paintjobs). I love getting the big kids involved in running the party. The girls will also take photos of the guests dressed up which I will email to their mums afterwards. (Cost = zip)
  • LEMONADE STAND: Where would I be without my trusty Lemonade Stand? I built it last year (myself!) for the carnival party - it cost nothing because it was made out of ripped-up decking timber. You could easily build something very similar using pallets found free at the dump. (Cost = zip)
  • DECORATIONS FROM PREVIOUS PARTIES: I have a few bits of bunting and a ribbon chandelier that we will be re-using - the more bunting the better, I say. My clever friend Deb has also whipped me up a strand of gorgeous vintage sheet bunting for (in exchange for a book) which is a dream come true. (Cost = a book).
  • PRIZES: Scrag has requested Pass-the-Parcel and a treasure hunt. For the prizes we are making use of unused Happy Meal toys (cars, packs of game cards) as well as outgrown DVDs, leftover choccies from the goodie bags and a few other repurposed bits and pieces. More on the games later on. Cost=zip.
  • GAME PROPS: Scrag also wants to play musical "chairs" and have a sack race. I'm pulling out my felt toadstools (made for Miss Fab's fairy party six years ago) to use as the "chairs"; I'm using old pillowcases for the sack races. I did splash out on a $2 medal for a prize for that one. (Cost $2)


I have tried hard to juggle cuteness, colour and party-cool with Scrag's requests and the restricted budget. By shopping at the dollar store  and making use of every colourful dish and plate in my possession the eclectic style will scream "fun". Everything is paper (straws, cups, plates) so it is recyclable (good for the planet); I found the same style you usually see in boutique party stores but at a fraction of the price. (Most of it I found at "Look Sharp", a new dollar store which has a massive party range, really cheap; when I went in they also had 30% off everything - bonus!)

I am particularly proud of  my recycled painted tin cans in their wooden holder (found at Typo a while back for a bargain; I use it all the time). The cans have their labels peeled off, are washed and painted using left over testpots. The holder will display straws, spoons and napkins.


Of course a party of mine would not be complete without some printables. These ones are based on Scrag's hand-drawn party invitations, and are perfect for a non themed party for either a girl or boy. I printed them out black and white and then hand-coloured them with colour pencil (being so very budget conscious). If I were braver I might have let Scrag help me colour them. But I wasn't.
First we have "Thank you for coming" labels...

Next is the "fizzy pop" soda bottle labels, which turn .85c Homebrand lemonade into a work of art....

I plan to drop a couple of dots of colour into each bottle just before the party, for a bit of excitement without too many nasty chemicals....

These labels print out black and white on an A4 page; you can then colour them in yourself or get the kids to do it (if you're brave). Click to view them larger. Right-click to save to your computer. Print them out then colour them in, trim and use. Enjoy!

Game Ingenuity and Rain Plans
So all this was of course planned to be gorgeously outdoors under the trees, with bunting flapping gently in the breeze. The weather forecast has put a bit of a dampener on that and after a brief moment of panic (and disappointment) I've made a Rain Plan.

Some the of the games can easily be played indoors: Pass the Parcel, Musical Mats and even the Treasure Hunt. But Mr G is convinced that we can still do Scrag's favourite Hide'n'seek outside along with a few other energy-burning faves if we tell the parents to send their kids with gumboots and jackets.

We shall see. But in the meantime, at least I'm prepared and not freaking out (the weather is so unpredictable at this time of the year; hope for the best but plan for the worst).

[I used leftover Christmas wrapping paper for the layers and a collection of treats and repurposed gifts for the big prize]

Pass the Parcel can be a bit "meh" for those of us watching on, so I've added a couple of surprises in some of the layers along with the inevitable lollipop between each layer, just to shake things up a little. The kids who unwrap three random layers will find a note saying: "To get a lollipop you must...." Sing the National Anthem. Hop on one foot for ten seconds while patting your head. Stuff these six marshmallows in your mouth and say "fluffy bunnies" three times. Hehe.

Meanwhile my upcycled treasure hunt is a wonder of cleverness and ease (if I do say so myself). On the left you see twenty (mostly upcycled) prizes tied up with curling ribbon and tagged with a numbered ticket.
The tickets are left over from the carnival party last year and have a matching ticket which will be hidden either around the garden or the house, depending on the weather. I have added colour coded ribbon - pink for girls' prizes, blue for boys', green for gender neutral; no boys will end up with Barbie Mariposa, and the girls should avoid ending up with a bag of toy cars.

It can easily and quickly be set up either indoors or outdoors depending on how the weather turns out. Feeling so clever right now.

And there you have it. Three more sleeps until my first ever Just Plain Party. I think it's coming together nicely.

  • KEEP the things you make for one party to be reused at other parties. Keep the crafty leftovers from one party to the next. I collect all my leftover bits and bobs in file boxes - ribbons, string, tickets, feathers, fabric, you name it. You just never know when that stuff can be used again. Toadstool mats from the fairy party will come in handy again, as will the lemonade stand, the ribbon chandelier, the bunting. The tin cans you carefully collected and peeled labels off for Boy vs Wild, will be reused and/or repainted. Save yourself time and work by keeping what you've already made.
  • COLLECT/INVEST in things that can be used again and again. Like a face paint collection you add to bit by bit. Like our glass drinks dispenser, the mini glass drink bottles, whitewashed crates, mini blackboards, cake and cupcake stand... over time these generic items have accumulated until now we have enough cool stuff to whip up a stylish party at a moment's notice. They have all been used again and again.
  • PLAN AHEAD so you can shop on sale: If you know what the plan for your next party is well ahead of time, you can grab the bargains when you spot them. Adding a bag of sweets or cake decorating bits (when you see them on sale) to your groceries over time also helps absorb and spread the cost.
  • BE CLEVER. Instead of spending 10% of your budget on a bunch of helium balloons, buy a pack of long balloon sticks from for $2. Or make faux helium balloons like I did here. Don't buy branded soft drinks - get Home Brand and then add your own printed labels (use my freebies; I have loads of styles). Use what you have, borrow what you don't; enlist friends and even your kids to help run the party instead of parting with cash for entertainers and face painters.
  • REMEMBER that the most important thing is that the kids have fun - not that your party is fit for Donna Hay. Take the pressure off and simply enjoy celebrating your kid.

Party on, my friends!

More Party Inspiration:
Monday, April 7, 2014

Meanness, Vulnerability and Social Media (a mother's rant)

All he wanted for Christmas was an iPod 5. After much negotiation, a handy discount and some birthday money thrown in, we wrapped up the device and put it under the Christmas Tree.

(He's 11, off to Intermediate, all his friends have them).

There were rules of course. No Facebook. A private profile on Instagram. We know his passwords, follow his feed and regularly screen his posts, checking for swearing, bullying, rudeness and other dodgyness in the posts of those he follows. Anyone we see doing anything less than kosher is immediately deleted and blocked. And if he were to be found participating in anything dodgy? He would lose his right to an Instagram account. Those are the rules, which he agreed to and followed.

So my feed is dotted with his selfies, and we check his account on a regular basis. A few people have been deleted along the way - some swearing, some minor rudeness - enough to block them but nothing sinister.
Until last night.

He comes into the kitchen holding his ipod, his shoulders slumped.
"I've just been bullied on Instagram..." he says.
Parenting protective radar kicks in.
We grab the device and pepper him with questions: who? what? how?

It seems that no matter how many rules and boundaries you put in place to protect your child, nothing can completely shield them from meanness that gets personal.

We're not even talking trolls or cyber-stalkers here, but a couple of immature kids who once played on his football team.

It all started with one of those silly "vote them out" games kids play on IG. Someone puts up a collage of faces, tags in a bunch of their friends and then invites people to "vote them out". The last kid standing gets TEN CENTS and winner's kudos. Ha. Silly, right?
Yes, but not harmless. Not when you vote someone out and they turn on you with viciousness in a personal attack. Then it's not a silly game for ten cents and bragging rights - then it can be crushing.

"F U Dash! Your just a stupid crybaby who cries every time they get beat in soccer!"

It was like a knife to the heart when I read what that boy wrote. He has no idea what my child goes through or what it has taken to get to the place where he can manage his emotions. He has a vulnerability, an Achilles heel (most of us do) and that boy turned a silly game into a personal attack on a weak point.

It hurts to be judged. It hurts to be misunderstood.
All of us have been there at times, and the online world is riddled with people who are quick to judge and quick to condemn. That makes it a potentially dangerous place for those who are vulnerable.

I'm not at liberty to share with you Dash's struggle (though he has bravely shared with his whole class, he doesn't want me to "tell the whole world" here on my blog, so I respect his wishes). Suffice it to say that the message that boy posted so publicly on Instagram calling my son a cry baby attacked him right where he wears no armour.

Another boy joined in at that point, agreeing with the first boy. Both previous team-mates. Both boys who had seen my son in his weakness and judged him for it.
(I deleted and blocked both boys immediately. Dash just doesn't need people like that looking over his shoulder, commenting on his life and judging it).

Afterwards, as I rubbed my son's back and tried to let words of encouragement pour oil on his wounds I talked to him about how far he's come, how hard he's worked, how much progress he's made.
How he doesn't need to let other people's judgement take away from who he is.

This article makes me sick to my stomach - the author has obviously never experienced depression or
she would never have written such a pile of nasty drivel. Poor Charlotte Dawson,
still hounded and misunderstood even when she's dead. Shame on you Deborah Hill Cone! But then she apologises here -
after getting a rather awful taste of Charlotte's medicine in the backlash that followed -
which goes to show that what goes around comes around. Well done Deborah Hill Cone. Apology accepted.

And I told him the story of Charlotte Dawson. Hounded by trolls and the media. More vulnerable than most to nastiness, as the Black Dog of depression chased her down. If only she could have not listened to those who were kicking her where she was weakest (deleted her Twitter account?) then maybe she wouldn't have gotten so low that she took her own life.

But sometimes we are drawn back to the source of the pain, like a mouth ulcer we just can't help poking our tongue into. We can't leave it alone. And for people like poor Charlotte whose vulnerability is out in the open for all the world to see, they are sitting ducks for the nasty side of human nature.

There's nothing I hate more than meanness and bullying. I despise it.
I know that it is out there in the world, running rampant through social media and the schoolyard - so what will my response be in order to protect my children?
Will I throw the baby out with the bathwater, and delete my son's Instagram account completely because there is a chance he might come across meanness? Because he is more vulnerable than most?
I will if I have to but at this point I think we can both learn a lot from the experience.

We can keep doing what we've been doing. Keep a close eye on things, talk things through, respond quickly and model wisdom, common sense and kindness.
We can give good advice (and then follow it ourselves): Keep the mean rude people as far away from you as possible. Pick and choose your friends carefully (both online and in real-life). Don't invite trouble. Don't engage in debate with people who misjudge you and say cruel things - walk away and cut those meanies out of your life. Don't repay back evil for evil, because then they have succeeded in dragging you down to their level.

I told Dash I don't want him joining in those Instagram games anymore. He can't help it if people tag him, but I don't want him to participate. No voting. No commenting.

Social media can be fun but it can turn nasty in seconds. Vote out the wrong person on a silly game and they can turn on you, kicking you where it hurts.

Social media is a huge part of today's landscape; There is meanness in the online world and there are bullies; I want my son to learn how to cope with both when he comes across them, rather than run screaming for the hills and simply ban everything.

Social media in and of itself is neutral - it's as evil or as good as the people using it.
My job as a parent is to guide my child through the minefield and teach him how to conduct himself well and bounce back from the knocks while providing boundaries to protect him as much as possible.

What would you have done in this situation? Have you experienced any cyber bullying - either you or your kids? What has been your response?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lemony Baked Berry Cheesecake (with Berry Coulis)

I'd never been a fan of cheesecake (waaay too sickly)  until I discovered baked cheesecake back in the nineties. From then on whenever I spotted that particular dessert in the cake cabinet of a cafe, I ordered it with my cappuccino.

Although I've loved baked cheesecake for years and it has remained a favourite cafe treat, I never actually attempted making it... until now.
For the occasion of Mr G's birthday I googled a recipe, adapted it to my liking and today I'm sharing with you the result.
It's light, it's tangy, it's delicious... and it's EASY. I served it with Berry Coulis that I made myself (again: so easy), so I'll share that with you too.

Here is my take on Lemony Baked Berry Cheesecake

250g packet of plain sweet biscuits (I used malt)
150g butter, melted
500g of lite cream cheese (2 pottles)
3/4 cup of caster sugar
the zest and juice of one medium-large lemon
3 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 140oC fan baked (or 150oC regular). Grease a 20-25cm springform pan.

2. Process the biscuits until they are fine crumbs. (I don't have a processor, so I put my biscuits in 4 layers of plastic bags and smashed the heck out of them with a rolling pin, which was more work but did the job.)

3. Add the melted butter and mix together, then press the crumb mixture evenly into the springform pan to create the base and sides. Refrigerate for 15 minutes while you prepare the filling.

4. In a clean bowl beat the cream cheese, sugar and lemon zest until smooth. Then add the eggs one at a time, mixing until just combined. Add the lemon juice and beat for one minute. Stir in approximately a cup of frozen berries.

6. Pour the mixture into the biscuit base and then bake in preheated oven for one hour or until the filling is just set. Cool in the oven with the door ajar, then refrigerate for four hours.

Now for the Easy Berry Coulis...

This is ridiculously quick and simple but adds a berry zing to an already delicious dessert.

I found the recipe on Creature Comforts Blog (thanks Google - what a lovely blog packed full of awesomeness) and having tested it out and found it brilliantly simple and delicious, I now share my take on it here....

2 cups of frozen berries
1/8 cup of water
1 Tablespoon of lemon juice (about half a lemon's worth)
4 Tablespoons of caster sugar

Put all the ingredients in a pot, simmer on a low heat, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and squishy. Now you can either serve as is, with berry bits (a simple berry sauce) or you can turn it into a "coulis" by mashing it through a sieve and discarding all the seeds and pulp.

Serve this delicious dessert to your delighted family with whipped cream on the side and ENJOY! (candles and birthday wishes optional).

For all my other tried-and-tested favourite recipes check out my