Planning a friend’s birthday bash can be a lot of work. The invitations, the decorations, the food…and those are just the basics. Throw in having to choose a theme with grownup appeal, and it can cause your stress level can spike.
Thankfully, we’ve got some ideas for how to make it a simple, seamless, and guaranteed good time. Try on one of four birthday party themes for adults — the Cocktail Party, the Dinner Party, the Tailgate Party, and the Milestone Party — for the ultimate birthday celebration.
1. The cocktail party
Who: The birthday girl’s best friends, plus a few more
When: 5 p.m.–7 p.m.
Where: Your back patio with an outdoor fire pit roaring
Why it’s great: Everyone gets a taste of fun, and there’s not a huge commitment. You can always continue to dinner at someone’s place or a restaurant.
How you invite your guests sets the tone. For a last-minute small group gathering, a casual text with all the details works — but expect jeans, not little black dresses. Looking to elevate? Hand deliver or mail a chic card with a special icon that reflects the guest of honor or event’s theme, such as a fishing rod, skis, or palm tree.
Flowers + conversation pieces
Flowers are a must, and can be conversation starters if they are original, such as a party cat made from ruffled carnations. Other selects should include something the guest of honor can take home as a special favor. Next to your bouquet, place some conversation cards. DIY suggestions: “What is the age you most associate yourself with?” “Where do you see yourself on this day in 10 years?” “What did you do for your 21st/30th/40th birthday?”
Set up drinks at a different spot from the food to encourage mingling. Serving just wine or a signature cocktail is acceptable for a smaller event.
What to serve
A wooden serving board with assorted cheeses, grapes, dried fruits and nuts, cured meats, olives, and a sprig of rosemary is a gorgeous focal point. Provide small china plates and cocktail napkins. Pro tip: The fastest way to cool a bottle is to put some water and salt in your ice bucket with the ice.
2. The dinner party
Who: The birthday guest of honor and date, plus three other couples
When: 6 p.m.–9 p.m.
Where: Your dining room
Why it’s great: Very few people throw a seated dinner anymore. It seems exclusive and unique to sit down with friends sans devices for a few hours and connect over candles.
Welcome guests with a glass of seltzer or wine – pre-poured at your prepared “bar” (any table will do). The setup: still water with lemon slices in a pitcher, individual seltzer bottles, red wine, and Prosecco and white wine in a wine bucket with ice. Don’t forget some cocktail napkins that match your theme, keeping in mind the guest of honor’s favorite colors or hobbies. Tennis or golf enthusiast? Find or make clever ones: “Tennis begins with LOVE” for the doubles player or “Queen of the Green” for the golfer.
Set the table before guests arrive. Lots of candlelight and low lighting are a must, as are flowers. These can range from something as simple as a favorite flower to a fun floral birthday cake made with colorful blooms and a mylar balloon. Keep them low to the table so you can keep the conversation flowing. A few thin, tapered candles add height to the table.
Pro tip: Use place cards. Put people together who wouldn’t choose to sit next to each other but who you know could connect. Then, have everyone switch spots for dessert — let the women sit at one end and the men at the other — which is where everyone wanted to be in the first place! Or “retire” to the living room for coffee and tea, petit fours, and other small treats. Give small boxes of individually wrapped cookies or mini bags of popcorn for everyone to take home.
Pro tip: Remember “B-M-W” for setting your table: bread, meal, water. The main plate goes in the middle, a bread plate to the upper left, and glassware to the upper right. Forks go to the left of your plate and the right in order: knife, then a spoon.
3. The tailgate party
Who: All the birthday guy’s buddies from town, plus their significant others
What: An afternoon of friends, football, and a firepit
When: Noon–4 p.m. (or around the kickoff time for the guest of honor’s favorite team)
Where: Your backyard
Why it’s great: Who doesn’t love a tailgate? Grilling in the cooler temps, local IPAs, and tossing the ball around make for the perfect party for your football-loving friend.
Set out a cornhole game and footballs to toss, and put out a bucket of seltzer and beer. Other fun outdoor activities: Have friends play the classic game of guessing how many candy pieces or cookies are in the mason jar, and whoever wins gets to take it home (make sure to give one to the guest of honor, too). Look into moving the TV outdoors under a covered patio and setting up your outdoor furniture with fuzzy blankets for cozy viewing. Finally, this party needs photographic evidence of all these cute details — so don’t forget a photo booth!
Pro tip: Outdoor festivities need tunes. Invest in a portable or all-weather speaker for your event.
4. The milestone party
Who: Family, friends, and acquaintances
When: 7 p.m.–10 p.m.
Where: A local venue, restaurant, or your house (or a destination!)
For this party, a text or an email won’t do. Printed invitations with an icon of your theme and all the details are a must. Remember to include the honored birthday guest in the planning to know exactly who she’d love to see, what part of her personality should be the focus, and even what colors she’d like the party to have. Let your preferences go by the wayside and make this about her. Send the invitations a month in advance but spread the word earlier if you want people to save the date. Ask for responses two weeks before the main event.
Sometimes it is the little things that count: Order personalized wine cups with the guest of honor’s name and a fun motif representing them. Hiring a local band will take the event to the next level, but you can also create a playlist of favorite bands or plug in a song to Spotify and have the app create one for you. Make sure you have a few areas for people to mingle.
Food + drink
Put your signature cocktail bar in one spot, and cheese and crackers with apple and pear slices in another. For dessert, have cupcakes decorated with the letters of the guest of honor (G and P, for example, for Gwyneth Paltrow). The trick here, though, is to have guests match up with someone at the party with the same letter so they can meet new people.
If everyone is well acquainted, play Two Truths and a Lie. In this game, each person comes up with three statements about themselves, but one isn’t the truth, and the others have to guess which is the lie. Take a moment to toast the honored guest. They can choose to say something in response or skip it — it’s their day!
Pro tip: If you’ve sent an invitation and asked for a reply date, note the number of guests who have said yes by that date. That’s the number of guests to go by for planning purposes. True, you’ll have stragglers who respond late, but people get sick or cancel at the last minute, so it should even out.
Birthday party gift ideas
Party planning is about focusing on one element or theme and letting it bloom. Work with the guest of honor so you throw a party they are going to want to attend. Don’t forget the little details, but when in doubt, dim the lights, turn up the music, and, like Bridget Jones said, “introduce people with thoughtful details.” And if you’re the guest? Your job is to mingle, meet new people, and have a great time. Let the fun begin!