Consider having the party away from home - We've been doing this for the past several parties, and it's turned out to be a major stress reliever. Instead of running around like crazy the days before the party trying to clean everything, getting upset at the kids if they pull things out of place, and facing a huge mess to clean up after the party's over, we've opted for the party away from the house. We don't have to spend our energy being human tornadoes cleaning up the place. The kids can be kids without worrying about hearing "I just cleaned that!" And cleanup is minimal or nonexistent. I still remember the joy I felt at Dylan's 4th birthday party when the Monkey Joe's staff came into the birthday room with vacuum cleaners. And while my kids were running around at the party, I wasn't worried about anything getting broken. It is so relaxing to walk into the house after the birthday party and realizing that it looks the same way it did when you left to go to the party.
Plus, having the party somewhere else can open the door for some cool themes. Dylan loves to cook, so we held his birthday party at a cooking studio for kids called Lil' Chef. We had the party in the morning so the kids could show up in their pajamas to make chocolate chip pancakes (one of Dylan's favorite meals) and have fun. You can go for an elaborate theme by having the party at a museum - which paleontologist-to-be Dylan also debated - or as simple as a pool party. It's easier than you may think to get ideas - surfing the internet or checking out local magazines can help a lot. Here in Raleigh, we have a free periodical available called Carolina Parent, and their website had a wealth of birthday party provider suggestions.
Partying outside? Watch the weather! - We just had a pool party for my 7 year old son Jason. The week before, I was reading every weather report I could find, just in case we ended up having storms rain on our parade....um, party. Fortunately, there was no chance of rain (and given the drought we're in, our weather reports would have mentioned ANY chance of rain), so we didn't need to think about contingency plans. But if the party's planned for outside, keep an eye on the weather...and make alternate plans if necessary.
Don't go overboard - We held our pool party mid-afternoon, so we didn't have to feed partygoers a meal. We just had cake, ice cream, lemonade, and sweet tea, and that was enough. The kids didn't want to spend their time sitting at a table, they wanted to spend it in the pool. We had the food available during a pool-mandated break time, but then let the kids get back to swimming.
And we didn't even go overboard with the cake, even though it looked like it. One of the area grocery stores does an amazing job decorating cakes, and the kids love the cakes that come from there. There's a binder with available patterns, and we order the cake during our regular grocery store visit to pick up the next week. When we brought the most recent cake home, my son repeatedly said, "I did a great job picking my cake," and parents and kids alike raved about it at our party.
Party favors - For our most recent party, I hit our local party store and went to town putting together goodie bags. I found all sorts of silly fun things for the kids - plastic flying disks, Chinese yo-yos, monster finger puppets, cheap beads, pencils - nothing fancy, just silly fun. The one rule that I followed was not to pick anything that made noise, and the parents expressed their appreciation.
Don't forget the thank-you notes! Birthday parties are a great opportunity to teach kids about expressing gratitude. Thank you notes are a great chance to remind children to let others know when they've done something nice. And for younger kids, it's a great chance for writing practice. For really small kids, there are pre-made thank you notes that only require the gift name and signature to be completed. They're available in all sorts of patterns (no surprise that we got dinosaurs) and turn thank you notes into an easy exercise for little ones. Older kids can work on writing sentences by putting together a simple note in an empty card.
This also brings up a good reminder for the parents of the gift givers - let us know who you are. At our latest party, two of the gifts were in plain blue bags with no card. Luckily, in the age of email, it's easy to find out whose gift is whose. I just sent an email to both moms and asked, since I wanted my son to be able to properly thank folks. Both quickly wrote back to let me know, and it gave me a chance to add on a thank you from me.
Parties are a great chance to give kids a special day, and it doesn't have to take a Herculean effort to pull it off - just some planning and focusing on what really matters.