Are you thinking of making your little one a birthday cake this year but not sure where to begin? Here are my top tips, money-saving tricks, and cheats for those who want to save time.
From a rich chocolate cake to a good old Victoria sponge, from a fancy pinata cake to a tower of carefully stacked cupcakes, I have made my fair share of celebration cakes over the years. But my favourite bakes have been the ones I’ve made for my kids.
If you’re an avid baker you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say that a birthday is the perfect excuse to dust off that stand mixer, book a child-free slot in the kitchen, and get creative. You can be bold, and brave and you can really experiment with colour, textures, and fancy cake-decorating equipment you would otherwise avoid.
For those of you who have been challenged with the task of making your little one's birthday cake this year and are stumped for kid's birthday cake ideas, I thought I would share the top tips that have seen me through the years. It’s all about planning, having the right equipment on hand, being prepared for the worst, and having a backup plan - because it happens to all of us…
1. Keep your design simple
If you’re short on time, don’t want to spend a fortune and you’re not thinking of entering the Bake Off this year then don’t overcomplicate it. Keep it simple with easy cake decorating ideas. Fancy designs with hand-piped roses and fondant sculptures that take hours to create and set are really not worth the time - especially when it comes to a birthday cake for kids.
I love drawing out my designs. This is a fun thing to do with the kids too. Ask them what kind of birthday cake they would like, and get doodling. I mean, sometimes my kids take it way too far with four-tiered wedding cake drawings, but I take a few ideas from their sketches, and lots of ideas from mine, put them together and you’ve got your masterpiece.
2. Cheat and use readymade cake
If you’re not a strong baker and you don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen, cheat and opt for a shop-bought or readymade cake so you can spend your time and effort on decorating. I would recommend sampling the cake beforehand if you can so you’re happy with the taste, otherwise you’ll have a cake that looks the part but is too dry or doesn't taste great - and no one wants that.
If you do decide to make your cake fully from scratch, a practice run is always a good shout for making sure your chosen recipe is spot on (and fits your cake tin properly too!) Some of my go-to recipes include a classic Victoria sponge recipe (Mary Berry's is a great base), or something a bit sweeter like my Nutella chocolate cake or chocolate fingers cake - both with chocolate sponge.
3. Shop around for ingredients
Don't just opt for your usual supermarket. I know it might be a faff going here, there, and everywhere but if you've got the time, price up the ingredients online with a few supermarkets and see who is cheaper. Be savvy when it comes to buying your ingredients too and don’t just think that everything you need to decorate a cake is down the baking or cake decorating aisle.
Chocolate is my main example of this. I love using chocolate in cakes and melted on cakes but it can cost a fortune to buy a bar, especially bars of baking chocolate or general chocolate located in the baking aisle. It’s always worth checking the confectionary aisle just in case they have any supermarket-branded chocolate instead - it's usually so much cheaper or the bars are bigger, meaning better value for money. Aldi is my go-to for cheap chocolate - it tastes good, melts well, and looks good on a cake. Aldi's chocolate bar is only 45p per 100g. Nice.
4. Use your kid's toys to decorate
If you don’t want to spend hours crafting Lightening McQueen out of red fondant, just use the toy version instead. Does your little one want a racing track cake? Then head to the Hot Wheels box and choose your favourites. An Elsa cake? Grab that doll, wrap her legs in clingfilm, and make her a cake dress. A dinosaur cake? Time to find those figurines and wash them before adding to your cake scene. It really is that simple. And sometimes, looking at what toys they have and how you could use them on a cake can inspire your design ideas to begin with.
Sometimes I buy new toys or figurines to add to cakes if I don’t have them in the house - I just say it's part of their birthday present fund and they get to keep the new cars or dolls or whatever after. However, I did buy plastic plants for the dinosaur cake I made one year, and the plants were actually for fish tanks, so didn’t feel like saying ‘Here’s your fish tank foliage’ once I’d cleared them off the leftover cake. We all make exceptions…
5. Buttercream is best
Buttercream icing is best and most forgiving, even if it does curdle. This has happened to me before and meant Elsa spent the night in the fridge holding onto her dress for dear life. I am not a fan of fondant or modelling figures or people out of fondant. For starters, I don’t like the taste of fondant and find it ridiculously sweet, plus it's just such a faff and really hard to get right if you’re not a pro (or you’re a perfectionist and can see every dent or groove that shouldn’t be).
Save yourself the stress and buy a nice set of piping bags (I have a good piping bag set from Lakeland which I love using), and a couple of nozzles so you can experiment with different patterns and effects and embrace the buttercream. And make more than you think you’ll need - leftovers are better than piping half a cake and then realising you’ve got to get the whisk out again to make more. You can even cheat and buy readymade tubs of buttercream to save the time (and curdling) of making your own.
6. Use chocolate as ‘glue’
If something breaks or falls off the cake - be it chocolate fingers stuck on with buttercream or one of your toy figurines - just melt some chocolate and ‘glue’ it back into place. Hold it in place for a few seconds and get that cake in the fridge so the thing that fell off has a chance of setting back on again. Make sure you heat the chocolate slowly and at a low temperature. If you're wondering how to melt chocolate, I melt mine in the microwave 10-second burst at a time and stir to avoid any burning.
7. Make your own cake toppers
I’ve spent a stupid amount over the years on buying those rubbish little cake toppers with character faces - you know the cardboard ones on cocktail sticks that end up getting thrown away as soon as the cake has been eaten? Save yourself some money and print your own on paper and laminate them. If you don’t have sticky back plastic, use large-width sellotape and wrap it around the printout. Cut them and secure them to cocktail sticks and ta-dah, you’ve made your own cardboard cake toppers.
8. Pile it on
If all else fails and the fancy buttercream flowers you’ve been lovingly piping on top of your cake look rubbish, then pile on the extras to hide the flaws. Chocolate fingers around the edge of the cake, marshmallows piled high on top, or various chocolate bars, doughnuts chopped in half, mini meringues, Smarties, chocolate buttons… the list goes on.
9. Make sure you've got the right equipment
Finally, make sure you've got the right equipment - from an electric whisk to a wooden spoon, from microwave microwave-safe bowl to a large mixing bowl. Knowing that you've got everything you need before you get baking and decorating will certainly pay off in the long run, and save you phoning around the family to borrow a spatula or a panic trip to Hobbycraft to get a cake board.
Check what you've got in the cupboard already, write a list of anything else you might need before you start your masterpiece, and get organised.
My favourite go-to baking and cake-decorating equipment
Tala Stainless Steel Palette Knife - View at Amazon
I believe the best way to get that smooth buttercream finish is by using a palette knife or spatula. It's a useful tool for gliding around the curve of a cake or evening out the top so it has a perfectly flat finish. Be it buttercream or melted chocolate, it's easy to use and simple to clean.
VonShef 5 Speed Hand Mixer - View at Wayfair
I love having both a stand mixer and an electric hand whisk - stand mixers are great for making bigger cakes, whereas an electric hand whisk is better for those smaller jobs - mixing buttercream, whipping double cream, and combining cupcake ingredients to name a few.
Lakeland Silicone Piping Bag with Built-in Coupler and 8 Nozzles - View at Amazon
Bag yourself a good set of piping bags before you start decorating that birthday cake - especially if you want to give piping buttercream a go. This piping bag set from Lakeland is great for beginners, plus having a silicone piping bag is less wasteful than disposable bags.
Mason Cash Cane Collection Mixing Bowl 29cm - View at Dunelm
I love my Mason Cash mixing bowl and have had it for years now. It's sturdy, easy to clean, and still looks as good as new even though I've used it countless amount of times. This one in particular from Dunelm is dishwasher, microwave, fridge, and freezer safe so certainly ticks a lot of boxes for me when baking.
Silver Round Cake Drum 12 Inches - View at Hobbycraft
I always buy my cake boards from Hobbycraft. They're cheap and sturdy and if you're clever and clean them well after use, you can actually use them again. Always buy a cake board bigger than your cake so make sure you measure or have a rough idea of your cake size before buying your board. Hobbycraft has square cake boards too.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer Design Series 4.7L Blossom - Artisan - View at KitchenAid
Ok, so this may be a bit too fancy (and expensive!) for some, however, this 'wow' factor stand mixer by none other than KitchenAid takes pride of place on my kitchen side and literally mixes cake batter, buttercream, double cream, you name it, in seconds. A stand mixer is a great choice for avid bakers so you can really get your money's worth.
Once you've got your little one's birthday cake sorted, it's time to think about kid's party food ideas and what you plan on making for the special day.
Our roundup of the best Frozen birthday cake ideas or Bluey birthday cake ideas are great for inspiring your birthday cake designs. One of these tried and tested rainbow cakes could make a great base for your design too.
We've also got plenty of first birthday party ideas for those of you thinking of celebrating your little ones' big day, not to mention kids' party games everyone will love, as well as 13th birthday party ideas for your pre-teen.
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Jessica Dady is Food Editor at GoodtoKnow and has over 11 years of experience as a digital editor, specialising in all things food, recipes, and SEO. From the must-buy seasonal food hampers and advent calendars for Christmas to the family-friendly air fryers that’ll make dinner time a breeze, Jessica loves trying and testing various food products to find the best of the best for the busy parents among us. Over the years of working with GoodtoKnow, Jessica has had the privilege of working alongside Future’s Test Kitchen to create exclusive videos - as well as writing, testing, and shooting her own recipes. When she’s not embracing the great outdoors with her family at the weekends, Jessica enjoys baking up a storm in the kitchen with her favourite bakes being chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, and a tray of gooey chocolate brownies.
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