When I was growing up in the 1990s, most birthday parties followed a homogenised template. We would spend most of the evenings playing stapu, tippy tippy tap, random ball games, cricket, and musical chairs. This would be followed by a sit-down meal of wafers, chowmein, samosa, chhole bhature or idli sambhar. All through my childhood, between the ages of 4 and 12, there was no deviation from this meal plan. There was only one time that a spontaneous addition was made—at a classmate’s 10th birthday, when a child swallowed a 25 paise coin during a game, and had to be fed copious amounts of bananas to allow for the metal intruder to pass through the next day.
Today, things have changed. Children’s parties are events that families plan for at least a couple of months in advance, finalising the theme, venue, guest list, and more. Some do it themselves, others rope in caterers for the one area that has seen most innovation—the food menu, supervised by discerning Gen Alpha kids. It can set them back by more than ₹20,000 for a party of 12.
As the parent of an 11-year-old, I have observed this change from close quarters. My daughter’s hyper-energetic classmates, whose sole job is to sweep across the house like a hurricane, refuse to rest at one place to eat. So, a sit-down meal is out of the question. There are as many allergies in the room as there are kids—gluten, nuts, lactose, kiwi, eggs, etc. The food menu needs to cater to each of these.
When I was growing up, cake—of any kind—was the highlight. Now children are specific about what they don’t want—no fondant, less buttercream, low on sugar, only jaggery...you get the drift. So it’s not surprising that caterers and professional chefs are now putting together contemporary menus even for birthday parties, be it creating finger foods meant to be eaten on the go, options that combine nutrition with taste, innovative live counters, boxed meals to be consumed during plays or movies.
Chefs believe such events give them free reign creatively too. So, chef Varun Mathur of Birch by Romeo Lane, Delhi, crafts vibrant and whimsical menus—both for external venues and parties within the restaurant—with mini mac and cheese cups, rainbow fruit pizzas and DIY tacos.
Amiel Guerin, who runs the modern French restaurant Amiel Gourmet in Bengaluru, lets himself be guided by the likes and dislikes of children. He recently organised a Halloween-themed barbecue event for more than 20 children. The dishes included bloody beetroot burger, graveyard pumpkin, Dr Hannibal pork brisket, haunted salads and chocolate eyeballs.
Subhasree Basu of the Mumbai-based Hungry Cat Kitchen, a cloud kitchen and catering service specialising in slow-cooked comfort food, picks up insights for children’s parties during other assignments and projects. For instance, she is currently catering to an international school with mostly foreign students, working around dietary restrictions such as no sesame, nuts or chilli flakes. “We have learnt so much from that job. It helps us when parents of smaller kids, aged below eight, approach with the brief of packing in nutrition with taste and creativity,” she says.
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So the Hungry Cat Kitchen creates beetroot-feta and broccoli quinoa sliders. Many expat clients ask for seasonal fruit skewers. “It is difficult to put a spin on that. But we have tried to do that with mini peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which are then added to a skewer of apples, bananas, and more,” she says.
The older children are extremely conscious about what they eat. Hummus is a hit, paired with pita, lavash or cucumber and carrot sticks. “They have a huge say in the menu planning and ask for dishes with Mexican and Middle Eastern influences,” says Basu. Wraps are a hit too, and the Hungry Cat team puts together a diverse range, such as the Greek souvlaki, burrito or shawarma. Not only are these easy to eat, they are considered “grown-up foods” by teens, who see themselves as cool young adults. Dumplings and spring rolls are in demand too.
While the food menus for younger children are crafted around character-based themes inspired by Paw Patrol, Frozen, Minions—some have even had sea-horse-based parties—the older ones focus on activities. “They call in specialists, such as those who can conduct science experiments and tricks. The other huge craze is around dance parties. Kids just want their parents to book a venue, call a DJ and dance away to Dua Lipa or Taylor Swift. At such times, they only want finger foods such as sliders, sandwiches, subs made with ragi (finger millet) bread or khapli ka atta (Emmer wheat flour),” explains Basu.
Even with fried foods such as buttermilk chicken nuggets, ingredients are chosen consciously: Alfredo pasta with lots of olives, puff pastries with stuffing like paneer akuri and chicken vindaloo.
Some parents prefer to mix and match food items themselves. Newly-launched rusks and toasts by The Baker’s Dozen—an artisanal handmade goodies brand that delivers to cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Delhi—are extremely popular.
Instagram stories show parents using butter garlic toast as a base to create easy-to-pick foods. This is lathered with a hung curd dip, with baked veggies added, or drizzled with a home-made chutney. “Even at my own kids’ parties (twin boys), I have realised food has to be on the go. Every 30 minutes, they want to pick up something new to eat,” says Aditi Handa, founder, The Baker’s Dozen.
Boxed meals have become a trend for birthdays at venues such as movie theatres, auditoriums, sports fields. “Parents want to do something different each birthday. So, now kids are going to national parks, turfs to play football or cricket on, trampoline parks. We end up doing customised boxes for such dos, which carry stickers of the theme. I remember doing a football box with related stickers on top,” says Bhakti Mehta, founder of Little Food Co., a bespoke gourmet catering company in Mumbai. Such meals contain four-five items (wraps or subs ), each individually wrapped. “It is not messy and if there is any excess, kids can carry the box back home,” says Basu, who is seeing parents sending boxed meals to teachers as well as an expression of gratitude.
And if there is a big birthday bash that features both youngsters and adults, live counters are the way to go. Mehta, for instance, does an ice-cream sundae station, among other things, with baby cones. Banana sushi turns peanut butter and banana into a fun experience. The newest addition to her repertoire of live counters is the exotic dosa counter; egg dosas and egg appams do really well, she says. For the grown-ups, she has kept options like a ghee roast mushroom dosa and another one with avocado and truffle oil.
“We also add a twist to crowd favourites. For instance, instead of French fries, we do sweet potato ones or air-fried ones. Thin crisp flat breads replace pizzas. Tacos live stations do really well,” says Mehta. The minimum requirement for live counters is 25 youngsters and 25 adults, while a kids-only party should require a minimum of 15-20 boxed meals.
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Then, there is the pièce de résistance of any birthday party—the cake. I got a shock when an 11-year-old looked askance at my daughter’s Harry Potter-themed cake (complete with house emblems, wands and glasses I thought were very cool) and refused to eat it, branding it unhealthy. Having learnt my lesson, I have now joined the following for nude cakes—or cream-less ones. Basu, for instance, has seen a rising demand for honey or oat muffin cakes amongst the older kids. The younger ones, of course, are still fascinated by fondant and buttercream ones. At The Baker’s Dozen, cake boxes with small 40 gm portion sizes in flavours such as banana are doing really well. Parents pick up an assortment of these, meant to be consumed as individual portions by kids. “Another thing that has come up is kids baking their own cakes at home along with friends. My children now do this too,” adds Handa.
In fact, desserts have become the playground for pastry chefs. Some, like Shreya Nagpal of Yazu Patisserie in Mumbai, have created DIY cupcake and cookie kits that allow children to unleash their imagination and decorate the cupcakes as they want. Chef and food technologist Gauri Varma, founder and CEO, Confect, too has noticed a fascination for interactive desserts, such as centre-filled jam cookies and adaptable cake pops, and doughnuts meant to be decorated by kids.
Shreya, who prefers to use the first name, offers theme-based cookies too. “Be it in cakes or cookies, I use jaggery. There is no place for artificial sweeteners in my kitchen. I can do buttercream if requested,” she says. Since a lot of children have allergies, she does gluten-free cakes and cookies, as well as vegan cakes.
The latest at Yazu Patisserie is the smashed ball. Shreya creates a big red ball with premium chocolate, safe colouring, and stuffs it with chocolates. The youngsters have fun smashing it and picking out chocolates from this edible pinata of sorts. Adults too have caught on to this idea for Diwali parties. After all, why should kids have all the fun!