25 Kids Birthday Party Favors That Aren't Junk – The New York Times

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In the past year, my kids (ages 9, 6, and 4) have started coming home from birthday celebrations and other events with goodie bags. You may be familiar with them too—Mary Poppins–esque sacks overflowing with candy and flimsy, single-use toys that bring joy for barely a moment before becoming trash. Listen, I’ll take the joy! But I also wondered if there might be a better way to approach these party favors—surely it’s possible to find goodie-bag contents that aren’t destined for the landfill. With input from some of my Wirecutter colleagues and fellow parents and caregivers, we made it our mission to round up and test fun, good-quality (but not too pricey) items that won’t feel like clutter—including books, art supplies, activities, tasty treats, and more.
Many of us have seen firsthand how much kids love digging through grab bags of small treasures, and we include plenty of suggestions that can be mixed and matched (and don’t cost an arm and a leg). But we’ve also found that when it comes to sending guests home with swag, sometimes less is more, and it can be equally satisfying to get one extra-special object. So some of our picks are standalone items—no bags required!
Meri Meri Neon Rainbows Tattoos ($5 for two sheets at the time of publication)
Tattly Wildlife Tattoo Set By Oliver Jeffers ($15 for eight tattoos at the time of publication)
Inked by Dani Temporary Tattoos Deluxe Assorted Party Pack ($40 for 50 tattoos at the time of publication)
The Meri Meri Neon Rainbows Tattoos are easily some of the most gorgeous, high-quality temporary tattoos I’ve come across. The gold metallic used in the designs is luscious, and the colors are richly pigmented and opaque. This set isn’t cheap, and the itty-bitty tattoos on the second sheet feel a tad throwaway. But if your kid and their crew are fans of body art, the foil rainbows alone are worth the splurge.
Similarly special, the Tattly Wildlife Tattoo Set By Oliver Jeffers—designed by the well-known children’s illustrator—is top notch. It features a coterie of beloved fauna—including peacocks, pandas, and sperm whales—richly detailed with fine lines and beautiful colors. These tattoos are nice and big, and each is cut individually, so you can buy a pack or two and give a couple of tattoos to each kid.
Hosting a bigger group? Check out the Inked by Dani Temporary Tattoos Deluxe Assorted Party Pack. Wirecutter style editor Catherine Kast got this voluminous, 50-pack set—loaded with designs ranging from roses to unicorns to ice cream cones—for her kiddo’s birthday party and effectively turned the scene into toddler Coachella. (We’re totally here for it.) If you want to go wild and ink everybody up on the spot without spending a fortune, this is the pack to buy.
Lego Dots Rainbow Bracelet with Charms ($6 at the time of publication)
Lego Classic Creative: White Bricks ($5 at the time of publication)
Lego Classic Creative: Blue Bricks ($5 at the time of publication)
Lego City Wildlife Rescue Hovercraft ($5 at the time of publication)
Lego sells a few lower-priced mini builds that make perfect party favors. Fashion-forward Lego fans might enjoy expressing themselves with a Lego Dots Rainbow Bracelet with Charmsj’adore those dangling hearts. But there are other cute styles, too, like this gamer-themed bracelet with lightning-bolt charms and an underwater-themed set of two slim bracelets decorated with glow-in-the-dark sea creatures.
The color-coded Lego Classic Creative sets are another favorite, especially the clever whale, train, and robot builds in the Blue Bricks set. Per the Lego site, because of the small pieces, these are not recommended for tiny tots. But they are simple enough for some preschoolers to do on their own—and if caretakers do need to step in and help, it won’t take up too much time.
If you’re buying favors for slightly more advanced builders, consider this Lego City Wildlife Rescue Hovercraft, complete with an explorer minifig and a monkey. The hovercraft is a bit more complicated to construct than some of the structures in the Classic Creative sets, so it could be a nice challenge.
Who Would Win? book series ($4 each at the time of publication)
National Geographic Kids Readers ($4 each at the time of publication)
I’ve never seen my children more excited about leaving a party than when they received a book from the Who Would Win? animal match-up series. These books pit members of the animal kingdom against each other, using scientific reasoning to deduce who would come out on top in a battle between, say, a lion and a tiger or a killer whale and a great white shark. And my kids can’t get enough. For those who prefer animal facts with a more pacifist flavor, the National Geographic Kids Readers series covers a range of habitats and critters—including manatees, caterpillars to butterflies, and meerkats—all sans showdowns. The Nat Geo series also features other scientific topics, like planets and meteorology.
Welly Bravery Badges Fabric Bandages ($7 for a pack of 48 at the time of publication)
The Welly Bravery Badges Fabric Bandages are a sweet way to wear your art on your sleeve. All my kids have gone through intense boo-boo phases, cleverly inventing injuries so they could slap on yet another bandage for the eighth time that day. These colorful, high-quality ones from Welly will give them all the more reason to keep on doing that. Welly’s bandages come in lots of different styles, so you’re likely to find a good fit by theme or age. We have the monster ones, and the ice cream and dinosaur bandages are next on our list.
Master Lock Combination Padlock ($7 at the time of publication)
This Master Lock Combination Padlock is precisely the kind of offbeat item you wouldn’t typically think of as a party favor, but odds are good that plenty of kids will find it exciting and a little grown-up. Bonus points if the lock fits in with an existing theme (spy party! sports party! High School Musical party!). After one celebration where this was the favor, Wirecutter’s Winnie Yang heard that her friend’s kid spent hours fiddling with the lock to crack the combination. Beyond the amusement factor, the lock is a finely tuned, durable feat of everyday engineering. And it’s something guests can use for their school locker, at the gym, or anywhere else they want to protect their belongings—all for under 10 bucks.
Hey Foly Sushi Fridge Magnets (about $12 for a set of eight at the time of publication)
MagMen Refrigerator Magnets (about $30 for a set of 20 at the time of publication)
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a parent holding a school calendar rescued from a kid’s backpack is in want of a fridge magnet. So while this quirky, slightly off-the-wall favor idea is technically intended for your young guests, it’s sure to come in handy for the whole family. The 3D pieces in the Hey Foly Sushi Fridge Magnets set look strikingly like real sushi, which, come to think of it, makes my kids crave sushi way more often than my wallet would like.
The MagMen Refrigerator Magnets—a set of bendy, multicolor figurines with magnets embedded in the hands and feet—ended up being the real sleeper hit. I’d recommend grouping at least two or three together, so kids can connect them in chains. (Though we tested these at home and didn’t have trouble with the magnets coming apart, as a safety precaution, we wouldn’t recommend giving these to kids under age 3.)
Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids ($5 at the time of publication)
What I love about putting Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids (and other books) into a goodie bag is knowing that kids can go home and slot it right onto a bookshelf, and then revisit it again and again. This book’s jokes—like, “What did the alien say to the flower bed? Take me to your weeder!”—might elicit a range of reactions, from groans to chuckles. But they are innocent and often quite clever, and they will definitely give most Dad jokes a run for their money. Our family has enjoyed reading this book aloud after dinner or on car rides, but what I didn’t expect was how much our kids would get into dissecting the humor (or lack thereof, if the punchline falls flat). This has even inspired them to come up with their own wisecracks.
TickleMe Plant Seeds ($8 for two packets at the time of publication)
My family has planted things with varying degrees of success, but we’ve all been especially delighted with how easy it’s been to make the TickleMe Plant Seeds grow. You’ll first need to soak the seeds for about 24 hours; once you’ve done that and tucked them into some fresh soil, they’ll start to sprout within just a few days. The best part is the plants are haptonastic, which—besides sounding like the next Nicki Minaj hit—means their leaves fold up when touched! (Get it? It’s like they’re being tickled!) For those who may feel intimidated by receiving just a pack of seeds, the company also sells full growing kits (which include the seed packet, a small nursery pot, and a soil pellet for getting started).
Archie McPhee Racing Tardigrades ($14 for a set of four at the time of publication)
Archie McPhee Happy Axolotls ($16 for a set of four at the time of publication)
Some people actually prefer their party favors to be nonsensical and impractical. So for them, may we present Archie McPhee, a website chock-full of novelty items and gag gifts—and really awesome ones, at that. My family has tried quite a few of its offerings, and we’ve been impressed with the quality. The Happy Axolotls—a set of four soft vinyl salamanders that would thrill a young herpetologist—were bigger and weightier than expected, and the rich pastel colors are just as appealing in person. If you want a little more action from your obscure creatures, may we suggest the amazing Racing Tardigrades? If you need me at all this week, I’ll just be in the corner, racing this wheeled set of water bears against one another. Wirecutter senior staff writer Doug Mahoney has also given McPhee gags like the thumb hat, squirrel underpants, and finger hands (they’re hands for your … fingers?), all to rousing effect.
Mad Libs: Meow Libs ($5 at the time of publication)
Mad Libs: History of the World ($5 at the time of publication)
The fill-in-the-blank word game Mad Libs hasn’t changed much since the series was created, way back in 1953—though the themes, like the History of the World and cat-centric Meow Libs, do keep evolving. It turns out that the simple concept of coming up with random words to create hilarious, unexpected stories never gets old. My younger kids are still learning all the parts of speech, so it can take a bit of work to complete a page. But the giggles that erupt when we’re reading the results are always a satisfying payoff.
Eoout Mini Kraft Notebooks ($20 for a pack of 24 at the time of publication)
The plain kraft covers on these Mini Kraft Notebooks can be gussied up with stamps or stickers. But even plain, these cute, simple journals (sweetly sized at 8.3 by 5.5 inches, with 60 pages each) are a hit. Pair one with any of our crayons, pencils, or other art-making picks, and you’ve created a great setup for kids on the go, whether they like to sketch at the bus stop or take notes on insect encounters while hiking.
Boba Cute Standing Pencil Case ($9 at the time of publication)
If your child is having a small party, you might consider splurging on something a bit more substantial for guests, because seriously, who doesn’t need an adorable Boba Cute Standing Pencil Case? Not only is this zippered canvas pouch ultra-endearing, but it’s functional, too: It stands up on its own, and the top portion slides down to provide easy access to pens, pencils, or a budding makeup collection. My kids especially like the boba print, which comes in various colors and resembles the tea-based drink with its signature tapioca balls. But the case is also available in corduroy, cat, and rainbow styles.
Kid Made Modern Gem Jackpot Crayons ($14 for a set of 12 at the time of publication)
Ooly Stars of the Sea Crayons ($6 for a set of eight at the time of publication)
The Kid Made Modern Gem Jackpot Crayons and Ooly Stars of the Sea Crayons—both novel takes on the classic crayon—are lovely when scribbled across the page and beautiful to look at, too. In fact, some of the shapes are so striking that I almost regret putting them away when a coloring session is done. The gems and the smiling starfishes are special enough that you can send just one or two crayons home with each guest. Some of the gem crayons are a little bulky, so they might be best for kids age 4 and above, whereas the star crayons are perfect even for toddlers.
Zebra Mildliners ($30 for a set of 25 at the time of publication)
For a little color, Zebra Mildliners are beloved by stationery fans, and if you’ve ever tried them yourself, you’ll understand why. The double-tip pens (one side features a broad tip, the other a fine one) come in lovely, pale pastel and neon shades; they’re more translucent highlighters than traditional markers. As you write, Mildliners fly smoothly across the page, and they’re good for building and layering color without getting too streaky (or bleeding through paper). These sets aren’t cheap, but you could include one or two markers alongside a notebook in a goodie bag.
Melissa and Doug Water Wow! On the Go Water Reveal Pads (about $30 for a pack of six at the time of publication)
The Water Wow! On the Go Water Reveal Pads are reusable coloring books that reveal vibrant illustrations when “colored” with a water-filled, brush-tipped pen. And they are a godsend when your kids need something to help pass the time on an airplane or in a waiting room. But my kids also become completely absorbed in brushing water onto dolphins, bulldozers, or giraffes while sitting at our dining table on a quiet Sunday afternoon. (The manufacturer’s recommended age for these is 3 to 6 years old; we think the sweet spot is the younger side of that range.) With just a little water, kids can engage in low-stakes, mess-free coloring, and parents can have a break.
Sargent Art Colored Pencils (about $7 for a set of 24 at the time of publication)
If you’d prefer to give kids a full set of something (rather than individual pieces), you could opt for the Sargent Art Colored Pencils, a reasonably priced box of half-size pencils (each one is 3½ inches long). Although these colored pencils aren’t artist-grade, like the top-pick ones in our guide to the best colored pencils, the colors are still satisfyingly saturated. And these pint-size pencils are great for traveling or tucking into a purse, backpack, or pocket.
Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set ($20 at the time of publication)
Play-Doh is always a crowd-pleaser, and getting a standard 12-pack and handing them out is a tried-and-true approach. Done and done! But for a little extra pizzazz, this Play-Doh Fun Factory Deluxe Set comes with six full-size tubs in various colors, plus a whole range of tools and cutters for kids to shape their Doh. Place a few tools with a tub of Play-Doh in each gift bag, and you’ll send those kids to tactile-play nirvana. The kit comes with one extra-large press, which you can either reserve for the birthday kid or use as a prize for a game during the party.
SmartSweets Sourmelon Bites (about $35 for a pack of 12 at the time of publication)
SmartSweets Peach Rings (about $30 for a pack of 12 at the time of publication)
Who has gummy fiends in the house? [Raises hand.] Who loves watching said fiends bouncing off the walls in the throes of a sugar rush after eating said gummies? [Lowers hand.] Yeah, I’ve got you. Unlike gummy bears and the other candies you’ll find lining the aisles at the drugstore, SmartSweets gummies are sweetened with allulose and monkfruit extract—alternative, plant-based sugars. So each serving has just 3 grams of sugar and 100 calories. Wirecutter editor Ingela Ratledge Amundson, who eats a bag (with or without her kids) almost nightly, appreciates how SmartSweets don’t have that funky artificial aftertaste that often plagues “healthy” candy. The SmartSweets Sourmelon Bites are a particular standout, offering just the right amount of mouth-watering tartness; the tamer SmartSweets Peach Rings are probably a better bet for young kids with less-daring palettes. (The only flavor that hasn’t passed muster so far is the brand’s Cola Gummies, which have an unpleasant chemical tang—kinda like swallowing hairspray—and should probably go the way of New Coke.)
Ice Breakers Duo Sugar-Free Mints (about $20 for a pack of eight at the time of publication)
We’re not unveiling some top-secret artisanal find here, but Ice Breakers Duo Sugar-Free Mints are an undeniable crowd-pleaser. The circular dispenser has separate labeled openings—for when you want just “one” mint or when you’re hankering for “many.” It’s precisely the kind of container that kids love fiddling with, and it will make them feel cool and in control. Ice Breakers are sugar-free and breath-freshening, and they come in a range of appealing flavors like watermelon, cherry limeade, and a trio of puckering sours.
YumEarth Organic Pops (about $10 for 50 lollipops at the time of publication)
My family doesn’t buy these YumEarth Organic Pops simply because they’re organic. We also buy them because the fruity flavors—like pomegranate, mango, and watermelon—are truly delicious. And these pops are small enough that one serving (with 8 grams of added sugar) is unlikely to set off a major sugar spike in your kids (or you!).
Extra Sweet Watermelon Sugarfree Gum (about $4 for three packs at the time of publication)
Trident Tropical Twist Sugar Free Gum ($12 for six packs at the time of publication)
Okay, can we discuss the fact that kids love gum? And I’m not talking about your Bubblicious, Dubble Bubble varieties—although my kids are into those, too. My little ones go nuts for fruity-flavored sugarless chewing gums like Extra Sweet Watermelon Sugarfree Gum and Trident Tropical Twist Sugar Free Gum (which the old commercials claimed four out of five dentists recommended). We bring packs of them on airplanes and car trips, and other kids are always delighted when we share.
National Geographic Break Open 10 Premium Geodes ($30 for a set of 10 at the time of publication)
Let me preface this suggestion by saying that the National Geographic Break Open 10 Premium Geodes set does involve some commitment. But for a group of budding geologists (or any kids who think it would be cool to see the inside of a rock), the payoff is worth it. You’ll need some safety goggles and a good hammer; we used this Estwing Rock Pick, for a little extra stability and precision, but any solid hammer should be fine. Compared with some of the generic geode sets out there—like this one we tested, which offered 20 stones—the Nat Geo set comes with only 10 rocks. But those 10 rocks were sizable, and the crystals revealed within boasted a far more dazzling array of colors, shapes, and sizes than the snowy white crystals we found over and over again in the generic set. (If you’re hosting a larger crew, there’s also a National Geographic Break Open set with 15 geodes; it’s featured in our guide to the best gifts for 7-year-olds.) Depending on the ages—and proclivities—of your party guests, they may prefer to watch you smash open the rocks, or they may want to try it themselves. In our family, even our 4-year-old asked to take some hits. (Just be sure to insist on the protective goggles.) After all that hammering, you can send each kid home with a sparkly rock specimen—a pretty badass way to end a birthday party, if you ask me.
Tulip Party 18-Color Tie-Dye Kit (about $35 at the time of publication)
Hanes Boys’ Tagless T-Shirts 5 Pack ($10 at the time of publication)
If pounding rocks feels a tad too intense, why not invite your guests to chaotically squirt a bunch of color-fast dye all around your personal property? Kidding: Tie-dying doesn’t have to be chaotic. Promise: Our guide to the best tie-dye kits, which recommends the Tulip One-Step Tie-Dye Kit and Hanes Boys’ Tagless T-Shirts, will walk you through the process. (This Tulip kit has enough supplies for a party of six, but other kits are available in various sizes.) And in the end, each kid will have a unique, colorful shirt as a memento. Just don’t forget to stock up on zip-top plastic bags, which you’ll place the freshly made shirts in while the dye is still setting. Setting time varies by kit, but Tulip suggests six to eight hours—so that other parents’ car interiors are not inadvertently tie-dyed on the ride home.
Ice cream shop gift card (denomination of your choice)
Movie theater gift card (denomination of your choice)
Bookstore gift card (denomination of your choice)
If time is running short and you don’t have any party favors planned, let me first say this: The celebration itself is more than enough, so don’t sweat it! But if you insist, here’s an easy last-minute option (and one that can also help out a local business): Pick up some gift cards from your favorite ice cream shop, neighborhood bookstore, or movie theater. When your guests eventually use the cards, you’ll have given them yet another fun experience.
This article was edited by Ingela Ratledge Amundson and Kalee Thompson.
Marilyn Ong
Marilyn Ong is a supervising editor for Wirecutter’s kitchen team, covering everything from ice cream makers and Instant Pots to toasters and trash cans. Prior to this, she was an arts and then restaurants editor in Beijing, and she also took time away from blinking cursors to be a caretaker for her three young kids. Cooking for her family gave her a healthy obsession with finding the best affordable tools for the kitchen—but when she’s cooking for herself, all she needs is instant ramen and an egg.
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