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Make a wish! Plan a milestone birthday party

Have a friend who is turning the big 3-0? 4-0? 5-0? Anne-Marie O'Neill of Real Simple shares some tips for throwing a fun fiesta.
/ Source: TODAY

Know someone special who's celebrating a milestone birthday? Revisit the magic of childhood with everything from cupcakes to penny candy. Anne-Marie O'Neill of Real Simple shares some party-perfect advice from the magazine's new book, “Real Simple Celebrations.”

All birthdays are special, but some are more significant than others. For adults, these are milestone birthdays, you know, the ones that end in zero and make you feel the passage of time. So when you think back to childhood birthdays, what do you remember most? Chances are it's not the presents or the parties (though those were nice, too). It's the magical feeling you had, like you were queen for the day. The next time someone special celebrates a big birthday, why not help her recapture that magic? This party revisits the whimsy of childhood, with everything from cupcakes to penny candy.


  • Perfect for a surprise party, create a combination invitation and mask. Make color copies of a photo of the guest of honor's face, then cut the copies out and glue them to Popsicle sticks. Write the party information on the back of each mask, along with a note asking guests to bring the masks to greet the honoree.
  • Branch out from the typical birthday invitations with a clever card that marks the passing of years in a more unexpected way than “over-the-hill.” The text reads “come celebrate another year of growth” and has the rings of a tree next to the party info. Download the template and use an arrow to point out the (approximate) tree ring that corresponds with the honoree's age.

When should you send the invitation?Mail birthday invitations a few weeks in advance. And if the party is a surprise, be sure to clearly mark this on the invitation so there are no slip-ups.

What if you accidentally spill the beans before a surprise party?
If you let the cat out of the bag, you can't stuff it back in again, but you should still handle it with care. Try to keep the host from knowing you've blown the surprise so the party won't be ruined for her as well. Consider making a deal with the would-be surprisee that neither of you will tell the host about your mistake. If the host does find out, do your best to make up for it by offering to help her prepare for the party.

Food and drink
Let's face it: adults like cupcakes as much as your average 10-year-old and at a party, they're easier to serve (no slicing the cake required and guests can just pick up their favorite flavor). Real Simple suggests serving basic cupcakes in disguise. Start with boxed yellow and chocolate cake mix and add surprising flavors and fresh embellishments for a more grown-up version of a childhood favorite. If serving ice cream, the night before the party, spoon ice cream into muffin tins lined with paper baking cups, then transfer the tins to the freezer. That way, when it's time to serve the cake (or in this case, the cupcakes), you can simply remove the scoops from the baking cups and drop the ice cream onto waiting plates.

Beverage basics for the party There's no need to offer a full bar, so keep drinks as streamlined and simple as the food. Any sweet bubbly will work, such as an inexpensive Italian Moscato d'Asti or Spumante, and for extra significant birthdays, a pricier French Demi-Sec. When buying wine, estimate one bottle for every two guests. Then throw in an extra bottle or two, just in case. Place the wine in the refrigerator a day or two before the party, then transfer the bottles to buckets or cooler of ice water half an hour before guests arrive.

Decoration and set-up

  • For a festive focal point, hang a cluster of inexpensive paper lanterns from the ceiling (about $5 each @ It's much more dramatic than your standard balloons and they can be stored flat and reused anytime.
  • Cover the table with a white paper tablecloth, then use a paint pen or a colored marker to note historic or personal events from the honoree's lifetime. It can vary from the funniest, most important or oddest happenings over the course of the birthday person's life. Those that are more artistic can also incorporate drawings representing the events.
  • Continue the theme of nostalgia with party favors that make guests feel like kids in a candy store. Fill goodie bags with nostalgic treats like Mary Jane and Bit-O-Honey pieces and those Candy Buttons you used to love biting off the paper. Web sites like carry retro candy from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.
  • For flowers, stand up simple, sturdy blooms, like daisies or tulips, in mismatched soda bottles, then place them around the table in casual clusters for a bit of fresh decor and recycling savvy.
  • Why should just the birthday person get to blow out candles? Encourage guests to make wishes on their own cupcakes. Roll up paper napkins, tie with a ribbon, then slip in a candle and a match. Attach a sign that says “Make A Wish!” Supply a large box of matches to use as a communal striker.


  • Ask each guest to bring a picture of the honoree to the party (formal, funny or otherwise). Place a photo album, a stack of index cards, and a pen on a table near the entrance to the party and instruct each guest to write a clever caption on an index card relating to his or her photo. Slide the card and the photo into facing pages of the album. At the end of the night, the honoree will have a permanent — and with any luck, humorous — memory to take home.
  • What will the honoree be up to on her next milestone? Have guests write down predictions — from the completely credible to the totally out-there — and stick them in the photo album. Or invite guests to write their predictions on the paper tablecloth for the rest of the party to enjoy.

Gift ideas
There can be a lot of pressure to come up with a big gift idea for a big birthday, but the best ideas are often personal ones.

One simple solution: framing the invitation. Buy an appropriate-size frame from a housewares or art-supply store, glue the invitations to the mat provided, and place everything back in the frame. (Note: If the invitation is white, help it stand out by first gluing the invitations to a piece of colored construction paper, trimming the construction paper to leave a small border of color all around, then adhering the invitation and border to the mat).

If you've known the guest-of-honor since childhood, find an old picture of the birthday girl (or boy) they may not have or have forgotten, make a copy and have it framed. Another option is to find a picture of the two of you together, because there's no better gift than a friendship that has stood the test of time.