We always included '$15 max gift value' on the invitations... just so people really understood that we weren't trading a magician, a bouncy castle, a meal and $30 goody bags for a present of significant value.
We did mid-afternoon parties, with as many guests as the kid's new age (5 invitees for a 5yo), 90 minute time limit, homemade cake and ice cream, juice for the kids, cake and ice cream and coffee/tea for the parents (invites also said 'please bring a parent'), did some kind of craft for as people were arriving --and to take home in their goody bag, took a polaroid of each kid at the party (to take home) and gave pencils or stickers (no candy, ever) as well. Goody bag investment for the whole party: $20.
We'd play a few non-competitive games, decorate with streamers and balloons, have cake, presents and say goodbye. Time for free play as the table was cleared or being set, and everyone went home in a good mood.
at 11:51 AM on Jan. 18, 2011