Oftentimes, those who are seeking party-planning advice are also looking for good recipes! It sort of comes with the territory. For the purposes of this book, my goal was to look for only the most delicious recipes that you could make for less than $12.00, ideally even less than this since you’ll want to be able to spread your party costs around. What follows are the results of my asking different people, both online and in person, about some of the strategies they personally use to create recipes for their children, on their birthdays. More specifically, I wanted to know what parents made when they were working from a limited budget. There are many strategies that parents had discovered at all levels of the baking process–from purchasing ingredients to baking the batter–that cut costs steeply, sometimes by as large an amount as four or five dollars! Not only that, they were able to make some of the most inventive recipes I have personally ever witnessed, and ultimately showing that creativity knows no bounds when a child is at stake.

While this is not a chapter of recipes per se, what follows are helpful hints and suggestions that grew out of my research of the most creative and most affordable recipes that money could buy.  The list is condensed to only the most important few strategies that led to not only really effective purchases, but also to some of the most creative recipes. While making an entire chapter on baking was beyond the scope of this book, I do believe that what is contained here will provide you with some very actionable steps you can take to ensure that the birthday-food gets made!

The Wonders of Cake Mix

There is a whole lot you can do with cake mix, and I decided to dedicate a whole section of this chapter just for it! Under the cake mix section are a list of the most affordable and yet most creative and delicious recipes I could find.


Believe it or not, as of 2014, a batch of 24 delicious cupcakes with multicolored frosting will only cost you around $5.00! Moreover, if you don’t want to go the full spectrum of the rainbow with the frosting you use, you can use jam instead to vary the flavors up a bit. A little dash of sprinkles and you’re good to go!

Duncan Hines has been mentioned as one of the cheaper brands, with a “deluxe” edition I am told you can get for $3.00! The beauty of the Duncan Hines mix is that you can go as fancy as you’d like, working within your own limits, to produce what will look like a bang-up job in the kitchen! Across the internet, you’ll find several Betty Crocker and Betty Crocker-esque recipes, but my personal favorites, weirdly enough, can be found on sites like Pinterest which has entire communities dedicated to making some of the best and most affordable cupcake recipes you’ll ever taste. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these.

Mini Caramel Apples

Watermelon Cupcakes

Nautical honeydew

Yep, all tasty and all within $3.00! Duncan Hines has been widely cited but there are other brands that will work well, like Funfetti.

And sorry, but did I only mention sprinkles? Why stop there when there’s such a variety of other amazing toppings to choose from! How about alphabet cereal, gummy bears, caramel, and mashed Oreo cookies? I’m told M&Ms also go really well with cupcakes! Toppings generally cost anywhere between $1.00 and $4.00!

The Grand Birthday Cake

The baking of cakes can very often be one of the most creative artistic enterprises and can really be a manifestation of parents’ love for their child! Parents have found so many ways to decorate their cakes ingeniously and affordably that the very task of writing a section on the birthday cake, I have to admit, was sort of daunting. There were just so many fun, creative options out there that it was very difficult for me to choose! Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, you should be on the right track toward baking the cake that is right for you! Remember that you don’t need to be elaborate cake–unless you really want to! Work smart, not hard!

All parents can collectively sigh with relief as I print the following words that provide news as recent as 2014: Making a cake with frosting probably will cost you less than $5.00. Assuming you’re using all of the proper channels, like your local Dollar Store, Walmart, and whatever tools you have lying around the house–from spatulas to pans–you can expect to be well within your $12.00 budget!

If you’re thinking that maybe you’ll go the chocolate route, chocolate cake mix is usually–as a general rule–one of the least expensive items on your budget. Not only that, it comes with recipes on the back so that you don’t have to scour the internet looking for something to do with the material. Follow the step-by-step instructions on the back, which shouldn’t push you beyond an hour. If you’re finding the recipe is sort of bland looking, you can also consider using some added toppings, like Oreo pudding, whipped cream, fresh fruit, or ice cream.

Cakes can also be well-garnished with whatever party themes you’re going for. You’ll be able to find many an action figure, plastic dump trucks, and cartoon character play models at your nearest dollar store. You can use these toys to your advantage, strategically placing them around the cake so that they enhance and highlight the party’s theme.

This is where you can get really creative! Is your party all about the color red? Then make a red cake with food coloring! Is the theme dinosaurs? Then make a dinosaur cake, using little dinosaur figures looking as if they are eating the edges of the cake?  You might also check your local thrift store or peruse Craigslist ads for free specialty cake pans (teddy bears, dinosaurs, sailboats, etc.). Use multi-colored sprinkles if you want more of a rainbow effect. Cake mixes are great because they give a parent a lot of flexibility in determining appearance.

While we’re on the topic of sprinkles, here are some color themes you may wish to incorporate, along with accompanying dishes that you can add to spice up the party. Just choose foods in one or two color themes and run the whole party on those themes.

Red-strawberries, red licorice, Kool-aid, fruit punch, apples, pizza or pasta sauce, tomatoes, strawberry ice-cream, strawberry cereal, strawberry cake mix, raspberries,  Jell-O, red hots

Yellow-yellow cake, cheese, lemon sherbet, lemons, corn on the cob, pineapple. Polenta, lemon meringue, custard, pineapple Jell-O, banana popsicles

White-marshmallows, white cake, white frosting, string cheese, cauliflower, pasta, bread, potatoes, dip, ranch dressing, rice, ice-cream

Green-broccoli, mint ice-cream, pesto, kiwi, grapes, spinach, apples, honeydew melon, veggie chips, sherbet, limes, avocado, Jell-O, peas, peppers, green beans, salsa Verde, pistachio pudding

Blue-blueberries, raspberry punch, sprinkles for cake, PowerAde, Jell-O, blue corn chips, popsicles, gumballs, fruit roll-ups.

Pink-food coloring, watermelon, pink lemonade, grapefruit, raspberry sherbet, salmon, shrimp, cotton candy, taffy, frosted animal crackers

Orange-orange sherbet, apricots, carrots, mandarin oranges, oranges, peaches, tangerines, pumpkin, mangoes, candy corn, cheese puffs, cheddar popcorn, cantaloupe, cheese

All of the accompanying dishes will really add to the overall aesthetic and make the party much more definable in terms of theme!

An interesting anecdote: One parent decided that she was going to make an ice cream cake by cutting the cake in half and placing ice cream in the center of it, topped with cool whip frosting. And another parent decided that she was going to be really inventive and unconventional, cutting up the cake into large chunks and placing them into a miniature yellow toy dump truck, using chocolate pudding as glue and chocolate chips scattered on top. How’s that for creativity!

There is literally an unlimited number of ways you can add your own signature to the birthday cake. And, of course, your biggest allies? The Dollar Store, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s, and Publix (if you’re down South). Stroll on over to or for some useful recipe ideas (more links in the glossary). You can literally choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of inexpensive recipes, all at the tip of your fingers!

If all of this sounds a trifle bit overwhelming, and you’re thinking that maybe you want to settle for something a little less labor intensive, don’t worry because I have provided many recommendations below for those parents who are thinking they probably want to go another direction, while still hitting that sweet tooth!

Brownies, Cookies, Pies, and Tarts

Brownies, cookies, lemon bars… there are so many great substitutes for the birthday cake that it seems almost crazy to associate cakes with birthdays! I didn’t necessarily want to make this chapter “cake-centric,” but I felt it was important to recognize just how creative one can get when baking a cake. But the creativity doesn’t have to stop there!  I could probably write at least an entire book alone on the many great desserts that are out there just waiting for you to discover—desserts that will create just as many memorable moments as those created by cakes! And after reading this chapter, my hope is that you’ll start to wonder why you even considered cakes in the first place! Here is a sampling of what you have to work with:


You know those little cream puffs with miniature mountains of chocolate syrup dripping down the sides? Well, they are very inexpensive to make and can be very fun for the children, not only to eat but to also make. This is definitely one of those treats that you want to invest some time in learning how to make, not only for its time-saving value but also for its socializing potential! Tell me who wouldn’t jump up at the offer to bake some profiteroles? Even the children will probably be curious, and you can show them how—even if it’s your first time as well! Certainly far cheaper than the birthday cake and definitely less time, the profiteroles may be a very effective option!


Believe it or not, Jell-O can be a really popular birthday treat! It’s also another one of those desserts that is surprisingly “do-able” to make, and only involves the bare minimum of ingredients. If you can buy some slicers that cut the Jell-O into really interesting shapes and sizes, than you probably have the basis for a party theme, whether it’s dinosaurs, ghosts, or whatever else is convenient! Another birthday dessert that is terribly underrated, this dish will save you time and money and still create some wildly fun moments.

Rice Krispie Treats

Another irresistible treat that makes an excellent cake-replacement, the Rice Krispie Treat is quick and easy to make. Although it isn’t as easy as Jell-O, the beauty of Rice Krispie Treats is that you have many more options as to how you’d like your Rice Krispie Treats to turn out. You can make chocolate Rice Krispie Treats or more fruity-pebbled Rice Krispie Treats, for example. You can add extra gooey marshmallow or just stick with the more minimal ingredients.  You can color the Krispies or keep them neutral. Chocolate frosting, mini-marshmallows and sprinkles can be your best-friend! I have known some parents to get so wildly crazy with Rice Krispie Treats that they actually start to resemble cakes! Also, another tip when making these is to use a cookie sheet as opposed to the usual 13 x 9, as it will give you more cut-outs per batch. Another worthwhile consideration in your budget saving arsenal, go check out the message boards for some really useful recipes (more links in the glossary section!)

Ice Cream Sandwiches

Sounds a lot harder to make than it really is. Purchase some chocolate chip cookies and stick some ice cream between it, and you’ll have yourself probably one of the tastiest desserts you’ve ever had in your life! The really great thing about making ice cream sandwiches is that you don’t have to make them alone, and like many of the other desserts listed in this section, you can use the ease of making this dessert to serve as the basis for some extra socializing! Why not have the birthday kid and her or his friends make their own ice cream sandwiches? Have the grandparents or spouse assist with this? Any other relatives in attendance? Maybe the whole family can sit around the table and slap ice cream together with cookies. Why not? It’s tasty, easy to make, and guaranteed to strike up some lively conversations!

Chocolate Wafer Cakes

This is sort of related to the previous ice cream sandwich dessert mentioned above in that the ease with which you can make this could easily form the basis of the entire party (“Wafer Sandwich Party, anyone?”); however, this dessert merits its very own section in this chapter

because wafers themselves, unlike crumbling cookies, are less messy and thus easier to clean up. Also, like ice cream sandwiches and Rice Krispie Treats, you could literally build upon layers, using a whole range of toppings, from whipped cream to glazed strawberries, until eventually the wafer becomes a sort of stacked wafer cake! Just dribble a little Nestle’s chocolate if you don’t mind the mess-factor, and you’ll be good to go!

Cookie Pizza

Again, very similar to ice cream sandwiches.  Purchase some cookie dough and mold it inside of a pizza pan. Bake the cookie and when it has cooled, you can decorate it with all of those toppings previously mentioned in the Rice Krispie Treats section! Use frosting or marshmallows or even some chocolate syrup. You could even use this chocolate syrup as glue for yet another cookie layer and still another, until you have a very stacked cookie pizza! Guaranteed to delight the kids!


And of course, there’s always the good old fashioned brownie. If your child loves chocolate, then this dessert will definitely satisfy the sweet tooth. Sure, brownies have some prep time and a few more restrictions in the baking process than the other recipes, but they are still just as enjoyable to eat as birthday cakes. And the best part? If moist enough, you can stick candles on top of them and have a memorable birthday-song-gathering moment! There aren’t a lot of ingredients here, so if you think chocolate is the way to go, why not consider these delightfully savory treats?


Probably one of the most simple of birthday treats on this roster, this dessert has been quite popular at many a birthday gathering, particularly for those parents who have children celebrating their birthdays in the warm summer months! Nothing like a good birthday popsicle to moisten the mouth on an arid and dry summer’s day. Although you’ll probably have to find other activities to fill up time, this could work really well for parents whose strengths lie outside of the kitchen! Use this dessert to your advantage by giving yourself more time to prepare other fun activities. Popsicles with a good movie or game should definitely provide the grounds for a very fun and memorable birthday party!

Pies and Lemon Tarts

In terms of costs, I’ll admit that you could probably do a lot better (see the above mentions). However, I mention pies and lemon tarts because they do often serve very comfortable replacements for the birthday cake, especially since the shape, consistency, flavor, and even the process are often very similar. Yes, birthday candles do fit atop these desserts really well, but if you’re thinking that maybe you want to cut costs on food, then pies and lemon tarts probably won’t be the answer. However, if you’re wanting an amazing “cake moment,” without the cake, then this probably is the closest you’ll get to it without going beyond the $12.00 limit.

Of course, you can choose from a variety of lemon tart and pie recipes, deciding on the basis of design, flavor, composition, and color and consistency! As with the birthday cake, you can go many directions with this and really aim to make the dessert your own creation, a labor of love.


Hopefully you’ve found this chapter helpful in your party planning.  There are definitely a lot of delicious and really inexpensive desserts to choose from, so many creative ways to celebrate a birthday party, in fact, that I’m inclined to say that you should almost never feel the “birthday cake-burden” ever again! Clearly you’re limiting yourself if you think conventionally about birthdays!

There’s only one more category of food that I need to mention because it can potentially be another crucial life-saver. This food can be categorized as the “non-dessert” for obvious reasons, and I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend them in this chapter, especially given that I have been told by many parents that non-desserts are the way to go! After all, not only are they sometimes healthy, but they also save you a lot more time and money than any of the other options listed in this chapter. And did I mention that they are equally as delicious, in their own way?

Yep, a pizza can definitely serve all of the purposes of cake and so much more! With virtually all of these recommendations you’ll find yourself not only saving time and money once again, but also preparing yourself and your party guests for some pretty memorable moments. Not that this wouldn’t happen anyway, but having some kind of food, whether it’s a dessert or some type of lunch, can enhance the party atmosphere. I also think you’ll find that guests, for the most part, don’t tend to be picky about what’s put on their plates; as long as they are eating, they usually have no complaints!

Hot Dogs

Hot dogs are a big winner with kids! Ditto with adults, although you may want to dress them with some toppings to vary the flavor. Try using some chili to make chili-dogs for the adults, and regular old mustard and ketchup for the kids. You can save a heck of a lot of money if you cook your own beans, and for this, I would recommend shopping at Aldi’s for their instant 30-minute chili dishes. Other toppings you may wish to include: chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, and relish. Guests can dress their own dogs or have someone else do it for them. Just one caveat: you may want to cut the hot dogs in half so that the food is easier for the party guests to digest, especially for the children as young as four!


I have actually heard of people putting candles on a frozen pizza! I am also told that you can purchase a pizza and some cupcakes for well under $12.00! Although I have never personally tried this combination, I do think this idea is really creative and could probably be even more efficient and enjoyable than any of the other party food-combinations I have already mentioned. After all, heating a pizza isn’t as labor intensive, and the added benefit of cupcakes makes for a rather nicely balanced birthday eat-out! Sure, you won’t exactly be eating the healthiest of foods, but it’s only for one day in the year! You could even cut back on either the cupcakes or the pizza if you are really concerned about putting on the pounds. The great thing about pizza is that, like many of the dishes mentioned above, you have a lot of options for how you want the dish to look and what you want it to go with. Definitely one of the more economical and practical dishes to consider for your child’s birthday party!


Many parents often fear using vegetables at their children’s birthday parties because they have such a bad reputation for being so disgustingly healthy to the point of being just bland; however, I have read from many parents that using, or at the very least incorporating, some carrots, celery sticks, and miniature tomatoes often does get a warm reception from the guests. The adults will certainly appreciate the thought, as will many of the kids.

Arranging the vegetables by color and shape or designing something may prove to be a fun twist on what would otherwise be an intolerable birthday dish.  I advocate considering vegetables because they have worked well, and as I’ve said before, if you’re going to execute a birthday party for the purposes of being with your family and friends and loved-ones, then it shouldn’t matter what it is that you’re eating. When the expectation of a party is that you’re going to enjoy other people, the materials that you use to make this happen become secondary! Also, trust me when I say that your friends and family members will thank you years later when they realize how integral you were in nurturing their healthy lifestyles! Start today!


In this chapter, we discussed different types of birthday foods that can be included at your child’s birthday party. We covered the what, where, and why of a whole gamut of birthday foods, and I included some links and resources, and went into some length about the ways you can plan these different foods so that you’re minimizing the cost and time that it usually takes most parents to set up a conventional party, birthday cake and all. A total of three sections were covered in this chapter: a section dedicated entirely to cake mix, since many birthday desserts rely on this key ingredient; a section dedicated exclusively for birthday cakes, because they are the most sought-after when it comes to celebrating birthdays; and finally, we also explored the potential for “alternative” desserts and even non-desserts to create for charmingly unique experiences. I provided reasons for why choosing non-cake desserts are entirely valid options, possibly even better than any of the standard dessert menus typically included at parties.

Hopefully by now I have convinced you that not only do you not have to exceed $12.00 when it comes to making purchases on food, and you can do it in such a way that the party is not only enjoyable, but actually greatly enhanced because of these little strategies that you’ll be integrating. I also hope that I have convinced you that you can really have a lot of fun just in the process alone of planning this party and that getting your ingredients together and then finally preparing the food doesn’t have to be a lonely, solitary event that you bear the burden of. You can get other people to help you, including the birthday children (if they are old enough). Sometimes seeking extra help is what makes the difference between a mediocre party and one that is really successful.

You have also received helpful tips on where to shop for food, what to shop for, and how to shop for food. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of these resources, invite your friends and family to help you prepare; peruse the glossary at the end of this book for some excellent added guides on where to go for recipes, stores, and ingredients; or just pencil in a date and time for your next shopping trip! With the strategies you’ve learned in this book, you should be well on your way toward creating a fun and memorable birthday party, for $12.00 or less!

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