As a mom and semi-retired professional, here are my tips for how to plan a great party.
{could work for any party but you might want to skip Pin the Tail on the Donkey if your guests are over the age of 12}.

how to plan a great party

1.  Chose a theme I know what you might be thinking - I don't want a theme.  No one said you have to have Sesame Street or Backyardigans as a theme, though there is nothing wrong with that.  Inspiration for a theme can come from your child's Halloween costume, nursery/bedroom or their latest obsession.

E's first birthday was a lamb theme because that's what she was for Halloween.  For #2 she had an Oh La La Pink Poodle party because she was/is obsessed with her pink poodle lovies.

Themes can even be just a color scheme and pattern like pink and green polka dots or blue and brown stripes.  Whatever your theme may be, you can carry it out through invitations, wardrobe, decorations, food, goodie bags, games and thank you notes.  It makes the party cohesive.

2.  Make your guest list. Having your guest list ready at this point will be beneficial to selecting your location, planning for DIY projects, etc.  If you want to be super organized, put the list in a spreadsheet and mark columns for "invitation sent", "Accept/Decline", "Gift Received" and "Thank You Sent."

3.  Select a location. The best location for your party may not be your own house or backyard.  Think of your guest list.  What is the ratio of kids to adults?  Would the guests have a great time at a kids' gym or children's museum or an early afternoon BBQ?  Also brainstorm friends and family who may let you host at their house.  Madeline's first birthday is Labor Day Weekend.  Nonna and Poppa have a pool - done!

When choosing your location, research all inclusive packages.  Some venues might seem expensive at first but may include food, invitations, even goodie bags.  Also look into deposits and cancellation policies.  Make sure you know all the details before booking.

4.  DIY or Outsource? Some parents have more time than money, for others that statement might be more appropriate reversed.  Either way, decide what you want to do yourself and what you would like to purchase and then plan ahead.  Things like invitations, party decorations, goodie bags, food and thank you notes can all be done yourself but plan carefully and be realistic with your time constraints.

If you can't do it all {which really, who can?!} check out Etsy for party decorations that look homemade - if you lived with Martha Stewart.  ;)  You'll find birthday banners, party hats, outfits, cupcake toppers and everything in between.  And if you don't see what you need, you can put in a custom request under the Alchemy tab.

5.  Order Invitations While I have received e-vites to parties, there is something exciting about receiving an invitation in the mail that I can't give up on.  Printed invitations do not have to be spendy.  If you are creative or great at desktop publishing you can design them yourself and then print on card stock at Vistaprint or on photo paper at Wal-Mart or Costco (you may have to purchase envelopes separately) for as little as $.09 each.

Etsy is a great resource for invitations.  Some sellers offer printing services or you can just purchase the design and print on your own.

Tiny Prints is my all time favorite and now has a 'Studio Basics' line where invites are less than a dollar a piece.  You will also find your child's favorite characters there as well from Dora to Wonder Pets to Hello Kitty, there are all at tinyprints.com.

If you chose to order online, make sure you place your order 6-7 weeks before the party date so you won't be stuck with paying extra in expedited shipping costs.  Invitations should arrive 3-4 weeks before the party day depending on the date.  You might want to send them out a little earlier if it's a holiday weekend or a little later if everyone is local and it's not a busy weekend.

6.  Activities/Decorations/Menu The guests are coming, now what are you going to do?

Activities Age appropriate activities are a must to keep the party going.  The classics like Pin the Tail on the Donkey {or the nose on the clown or the badge on the firefighting dalmatian, etc, etc}, limbo, relay races, etc. are always going to guarantee a good time.

If you are thinking about renting a bouncy house, consider purchasing one instead.  Little Tikes has them for sale for around $200 which is the price it would be to rent one for a few hours.

When having a pool or water party, be sure to note to bring a bathing suit and towel on the invitation.  Also require a parent to go into the water with their child or hire a lifeguard to keep everyone safe.

Decorations One of my favorite places to shop for decor and goodie bag stuff is Oriental Trading.  They have everything and everything is cheap!  Shindigz is also a wonderful place to order party supplies and even create your own banners.

You also may have banners or decorations that you made for the party.  Do as much as you can the night before, especially if the party is inside at your home.  If your party location is being rented, you may have a limited amount of time for set up so bring a few extra sets of hands and delegate!  ;)

Goodie bags are always fun for the guests and can be something as simple as themed, iced sugar cookies or bubbles and stickers.  Whichever direction you go, stick with the theme and your guests will remember the fun they had for weeks, even months!

Menu Your food and drinks are other places you can incorporate your theme.  Doing a Luau?  Hawaiian Chicken and fresh sliced pineapple could be great additions to the menu.  Or if it's a Carnival you're planning, hot dogs and popcorn would be a menu must.

Depending on your start time, you may want to serve a meal or just do snacks and dessert.  If your party time includes noon or 5pm, guests will expect a meal.  If you would prefer to stick with snacks, try an afternoon event from 2-5.  Fruit, drinks and cupcakes can go a long way.

Try to chose menu items that can be made ahead of time or have your event catered.  Even purchasing a few items like fruit/veggie trays and the cake can be huge time and energy savers!  Edible Arrangements will turn your fruit into a centerpiece and have it ready to go on skewers but contacting the local produce department at the grocery store works, too.

For drinks, bottled water and juice boxes are a must.  Soda, beer, wine and cocktails may be appropriate just consider the time of day and guest list before making your final decision.

7.  Enjoy the day! Make a timeline of how you would like the day to go.  Plan time for guests to arrive, food, games, cake and opening gifts {some families chose to do this after the guests leave but I always love to see the recipient open their present!}.  It doesn't matter if you don't totally stick to the schedule, but then you'll have a map of everything you want to get accomplished so nothing gets forgotten.  Trust me, it can happen.  We still have a full, intact pink poodle pinata from a year and a half ago sitting on Ellie's closet shelf.  ;)

Ask a friend or extended family member to be a photographer and videographer.  Also have a couple extra hands to help run games, get drinks and serve food.

8.  Say thanks. The cake has been devoured, the gifts were opened and the guests have all left.  Ahhhhh.  Just kidding!  But be sure to say thank you to everyone that came and those that weren't able to attend but sent gifts.

If you have a great picture from the party that you want to turn into a thank you note, try uploading to Shutterfly and creating your own card.  We did this for Ellie's first and third birthdays.  For her first birthday thank you, I did a card with 8 pictures and started in the top left corner and went around with her eating her first cake.  She started off clean and by the last pic she was a total mess!  For the third birthday thank you, we had planned a Circus party and took pictures of all of the kids in a 'photo booth.'  Ellie's picture was on the front of the card and then I had every child's picture on the inside along with the thank you message.

While every party does not have to cost a full year's preschool tuition, there are ways you can personalize it and make sure everyone, the party planner included, has a great time.  :)

What are your party planning tips?