By Maria Mayo

With a little imagination you can turn your child’s next birthday into an unforgettable experience that won’t break the bank. Each of these winning ideas is rated as expensive $$$, moderate ($$) or affordable ($)

Gone Fishin! Party
Ages: 3-8 years
Start off with a brightly colored invitation shaped like a fish. Kids can help out cut the invitations out of construction paper and decorate with tropical designs. At the party, set up a curtain or lay a card table on its side so kids can’t see what’s behind it. Give each child a fishing pole (wooden dowel or paper towel tube with a string tied to the end) and have them practice casting off and reeling in. Have an adult hide behind the table and attach a prize to each child’s line, giving a firm yank to let the child know he’s caught something. If you’re up for more adventure, why not take the whole crew fishing? Head to your favorite fishing hole (see below) Be sure to have plenty of adults on hand for adequate supervision. At the end of your party, present each guest with a goldfish in a plastic bag, along with a small glass bowl and can of fish food. ($$)

C is for Cookie Party
All ages
For this cookie decorating party, hand-deliver your invitations: simple cards with a cookie attached. When the guests arrive, seat them around a large table covered with plastic and equipped with a host of cookie decorating supplies: icing, sprinkles, gumdrops, red hots and chocolate kisses are just a few possibilities. Each child receives several sugar cookies to decorate any way he or she wants. Have a contest and award prizes for the most beautiful and most appetizing cookies. As party favors, guests take home chef’s hats and wooden spoons with their names painted in bright colors. ($)

This Old House Party
Ages: 8-14 years
With plenty of adult supervision, let kids enjoy a carpentry party. Deliver invitations written on thin pieces of balsa wood to this B.Y.O.H. (Bring Your Own Hammer) party. Give each guest instructions, supplies and pre-cut wood to make a simple project like a birdhouse, napkin holder or bookends. Or provide guests with scraps of wood and paint and let them create their own original work of art. Each child gets to keep his project along with a small tool belt equipped with a tape measure, screwdriver and carpenter’s pencil. ($$$)

Campfire Party
Ages: 8-14 years
For this birthday campout, send invitations on cards shaped like tents or accompanied by a small bag of marshmallows. Remind guests to bring sleeping bags and flashlights. Prepare a feast of hot dogs, marshmallows and s’mores for the campers to roast over your backyard campfire or grill. Pitch your tent in a flat area and leave room for guests to sit in a circle to eat and tell ghost stories. Flashlight tag or a spooky backyard hike make for fun after-dark activities. For experienced campers, pack up the whole crew and head for the woods for a weekend-long birthday celebration. ($)

How Does Your Garden Grow?
Ages: 5-12 years
For this party, send out details on a construction paper flower invitation. Upon arrival, give each guest a pair of gardening gloves and, as a craft, let them plant a few seeds in individual clay flowerpots they can take home.
For an unusual dessert, fill a small flowerpot with ice cream (if there is a hole in the bottom, line with foil or use a saucer to catch drips) and add Oreo cookies you’ve crushed in a blender on top to simulate soil. Finish by sticking a plastic daisy in the middle. As a party favor, send home each guest with a plastic watering can. ($$)

Countdown to Party Time

2-4 weeks before the party
Decide on the date place and style of the party you want to host
Draft a guest list
Plan the menu
Mail or email invitations
Make arrangements for any items you’ll need to rent or borrow

1-2 weeks before the party
Call guests who haven’t responded to your invitations
Buy charcoal or propane gas for the grill
Start cleaning your home
Make your grocery shopping list (review your budget)
Check your linens and table ware to ensure everything is clean and you have enough pieces (or buy disposable items)
Order flowers, deli trays, cakes or other items you’ll need from your local grocery store)
Prepare and freeze as many foods as possible ahead of time.

2-3 days before the party
Shop for as many items as possible
Recheck your recipes to make sure you have all ingredients
Plan your cooking timetable
Prepare nonperishable items, such as snack mixes

The day before the party
Finish your shopping
Clean the house
Prepare an area for gifts and personal belongings, such as coats and purses.
Arrange and set your tables and serving areas.
Ensure you have ample seating and room for guests to mingle.
Prepare as many recipes and ingredients as possible. For example, chop vegetables you’ll cook as part of a recipe.
Thaw frozen items in the refrigerator if they are perishable.

Party Day
Finish decorating and cleaning
Pick up bakery and deli items.
Ensure all cold foods and beverages are chilled by party time.
Prepare foods according to your cooking timetable
Wash dishes as you got o save cleanup tiem later. Don’t forget to run the dishwasher before so it will be empty and ready for party dishes.

30 minutes to one hour before the party
Put the finishing touches on the meal and tables
Set out appetizers or snacks
Turn on music

Local Fishing Holes
As always, call first to confirm the details and obtain the correct fishing licenses. If you are going near the Rappahannock River, wear a flotation device. The water is deceptively calm and several young adults drown each summer near the shore in seemingly shallow water.

City Dock
The Rappahannock, below Fredericksburg, has white perch, largemouth bass, crappies, yellow perch, bag channel catfish, and huge blue catfish. Picnic tables, canoes, boats, fishing, nature trails and hiking.

Lake Curtis
Lake Curtis is a 91-acre, department-owned lake in Stafford County. The Lake has an abundance of standing timber. The lake is located on the boundary of Curtis Memorial Park, a facility that has tennis courts, a swimming pool, a golf course, grills and picnic tables. With ample shoreline access, it’s an ideal place to practice fly fishing or take a youngster out for the day.
58 Jesse Curtis Lane
Stafford, VA 22554

Mott’s Run Reservoir
This 850-acre natural area including the 160-acre reservoir, is a haven for fishing, boating, canoeing, hiking and picnicking. The park has jon boats and canoes available for rental, nice docks to fish from and picnic grills and tables. Open April 1st to October 31st from 6 am to 9 pm, 540-786-8989, 6600 River Road, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 22407