(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietySeptember 2, 2021

How to celebrate your birthday in lockdown like a pro

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Some New Zealanders are celebrating their birthday in lockdown for the second year in a row. For those with a birthday coming up (but especially their loved ones) here are some tips and tricks from the experts.

Auckland and Northland are remaining in alert level four lockdown while the rest of the country queues for fried chicken and flat whites. But none of us are going to any parties any time soon, so here’s how to get the most out of your special day, as safely as possible.

The slap-up meal

Nothing spells a slap-up, treat yo’self, king of the castle meal like kaimoana – and there are still places delivering in level four. Mahurangi oysters have you sorted; Solander Gourmet Seafood, Takitimu Seafoods and Sandford & Sons will deliver you a whole fish, a side of salmon, pāua or crayfish.

If a bucket of chicken from you-know-where is usually your family’s go-to celebration meal, you could try asking someone to courier you a bucket from level three, or you could recreate your own using this allegedly authentic KFC recipe leaked by the Chicago Tribune back in 2016. FYI the 12th spice is MSG.

Homemade pasta via Recipes From Italy; oysters from Mahurangi Oysters; “authentic” KFC via The Chicago Tribune.

Nothing tastes like the real thing, but oven-cooked hangī, steamed inside individual cabbage kono, will at least invoke the spirit of that most special celebration meal.

Homemade pasta is another meal where lots of love (if kneading pasta dough for 10 minutes isn’t love, we don’t know what is) and only four basic ingredients pays dividends. Sure, it’s an art form that takes Italian nonnas a lifetime to perfect, but a simple pasta dough rolled out thin and cut into wide pappardelle, served with a slow cooked ragu, is a million times better than any store bought pasta, fresh or dried. It’s a million times better than nearly every other food. We highly recommend doing this for yourself if you’re celebrating your birthday alone.

For the extra adventurous looking for restaurant quality, My Nourish Kitchen will send you all the ingredients to create signature dishes from two of Nourish Group’s Auckland restaurants (currently serving chicken parmigiana from Andiamo and Taupō sirloin steak from Jervois Steak House).

Sweet things

Cakes and desserts can present a bigger challenge for those not particularly gifted in the kitchen. Fear not! There are delicious no-bake desserts aplenty, like tiramisu, trifle, and frozen cheesecake, with all the ingredients easily sourced from your local supermarket. Soak dates overnight in coffee and spices and serve with yoghurt and chopped pistachios. Make a bespoke ice cream by softening a litre of classic vanilla and mixing in your own flavours (Dietary Requirements co-host Simon Day created a fabulous cardamom and carrot ice cream this way). A sundae bar with all the toppings is a fun dessert for kids (OK fine, and adults).

Chocolate-dipped strawberries ooze luxury but are fairly idiot-proof and look super special served up with a chilled bottle of champagne. For kids, dip them in white chocolate and cover with sprinkles while the chocolate is still wet.

The Cake

At the end of the day, cakes are a statement of love. Whether it’s a $150 architectural masterpiece, this little girl’s creepy death-of-Mufasa Lion King cake or a classic Edmonds, it’s less about achieving the perfect crumb and more about showing someone you cared enough to conjure up cake for them.

The internet has approximately a billion cake recipes on it so if you’re a competent baker, fill your boots (also homemade is a significantly cheaper option). For a couple of old fashioned classics, try our carrot cake with brown sugar vanilla frosting, or use up some of the abundant winter citrus with this gluten-free spiced orange cake.

If you need a little more help, cake kits from The Caker are easy to follow, and they come complete with decorations and a non-stick baking pan liner (they come in delicious vegan options too). You can also take your decorating game to the next level with edible decorations and cake toppers from Coast Cakes.

Coconut, kaffir lime and raspberry cake kit from The Caker. (Image: The Caker)

But if you truly can’t tell the difference between a springform pan and a spatula, there are deliveries available. Get plant-based and dairy free cheesecakes from Little Leaf Cakery; bright and bold masterpieces from Khaos Cakery; classic flavours like perky nana, jelly tip and pineapple lump from Sweet Bites or delectable treats from Cake in the Box, who deliver to a 30km radius from Kerikeri.

Drinky poos

A special box made up of all the ingredients for a cocktail makes for a great present. By the Bottle do a negroni and an espresso martini pack with all ingredients made by New Zealand producers. Cocktail Collective and Black Pineapple also have an impressive range.

Cocktail Collective’s Espresso Martini Box (Image: Cocktail Collective)

You shouldn’t have to miss out on special cocktails if you don’t drink alcohol. Limes are plentiful right now. Make a simple syrup, add lime juice, muddled mint leaves and top with soda water for a yum virgin mojito. For the kids, try this frozen rainbow unicorn mocktail (kinda like a frozen Cobb & Co traffic light).

Party fun times

What to do with your special day other than eating and drinking? We sourced some ideas from friends and colleagues.

The Spinoff’s’s graphic design power couple Lauren Stewart and Ezra Whittaker recently celebrated Lauren’s birthday with a scavenger hunt. “Ezra made a treasure hunt that took around 1.5 hours to complete,” Lauren says. “This is a great way to spend the day as it takes quite a bit of time and they can be as simple or extravagant as the creator can come up with. This year the hunt took me across the whole house and for multiple trips out into the garden, you can have gifts hidden throughout or a big stash at the end.”

Movie night is always a good time in lockdown, but getting other bubbles in on your movie night is even better. Teleparty (fka Netflix party) is a Chrome extension that lets you watch a movie on Netflix or Disney+ in real time with other users, with a chat bar next to the screen so you can trash talk while you watch. It makes a nice change from socialising on Zoom, and it’s another good one if you’re alone in your bubble as it’s best done on a laptop, ideally snuggled up in bed surrounded by a mountain of snacks.

The Spinoff’s Lauren Stewart on her special birthday scavenger hunt. (Images: supplied)

Likewise, JQBX is an app that lets you line up and play music in real time with other people. If you can actually DJ, a Twitch livestream is another cool way to put on a party for your loved one in another bubble.

Jackbox have a range of party games like quizzes and drawing challenges that you can buy for consoles or your desktop. Only one person needs to own the game – set up a Zoom and share the screen, and up to eight players can join in using their phone or tablet as a controller.

Reader Meredith writes that her friends held a “Zoom presentation party” for her. “All my friends gave PowerPoint presentations about things they are nerdy about. It was super silly and super fun, and we all learnt lots as well.”

The Spinoff’s senior editor Alex Casey celebrated a milestone birthday with a quiz. “Having had my last two birthdays in lockdown, I can vouch for the unifying power of a Zoom quiz with your nearest and dearest as the perfect birthday celebration,” she says. “Call upon your pals to host a round each, demand at least a handful of questions about yourself because its your birthday and everyone feels sorry for you, and then sit back and watch the chaos unfold in those tiny little grids.”

Kaitlyn Randal’s flatmates created challenges based on her favourite lockdown TV show. “I’ve spent much of lockdown watching Taskmaster. For my birthday my flatmates ran a little Taskmaster edition of our own – got everyone involved and had some silly fun times.”

The Spinoff’s Mad Chapman celebrated a birthday in her flat by transforming each bedroom into a different country with themed cocktails, and going on a world tour (please drink responsibly).

Or you can shower your loved one with a bit of pampering. The Guardian journalist Eva Corlett says: “My flatmate made me a spa pack and voucher for a ‘mani pedi’, and created a nail salon, complete with blaring reality TV, and did my nails while telling scandalous stories.”

Bath minerals, face mask and essential oil, all available from The Chemist Warehouse. (Images: Chemist Warehouse)

The Warehouse and Chemist Warehouse have face masks, bath salts, bubble bath and other pampering paraphernalia. Try blocking out some alone time for the birthday-haver (especially gratefully received by a tired parent), pour them a drink, draw them a bath and set them up their own home spa.

While plenty of adults have said they felt relieved they didn’t have to organsise an in-person birthday celebration (a dream come true for the anxious and poorly organised), it can be a lot harder to take for kids.

They can still be the centre of attention though. Ask neighbours to put birthday wishes in the window or on fences, then decorate the birthday kid’s bike with streamers and balloons and have them do a birthday victory lap around the neighbourhood.

The Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Scott recently celebrated his son’s sixth birthday. “Our neighbours drew decorations and birthday messages in chalk up and down our street as a surprise, so when we left the house for an afternoon walk there was a lot to get excited about. A kind of follow-the-messages maze type thing. Was definitely the best part of the day.”

Tent + Christmas lights = good times; Sam Scott’s six-year-old son basks in his birthday notoriety.

Tessa King says she set up a tent for her son’s third birthday. “We decorated the house and the outside with fairy lights (that are still up)!”

For an informal karaoke party, YouTube really is an embarrassment of riches. Just search for your favourites, grab a hairbrush and go for it (next level if you can handle hearing the songs for the 90 millionth time: themed Moana or Frozen karaoke party).

If you have a backyard, try organising your own 2021 Olympics (with classic Olympic sports like bobbing for apples and egg-and-spoon race) for your bubble to compete in, with prizes for each event. And don’t forget the best bit: the opening ceremony.


Presents can be the hardest thing to source in lockdown, and mostly people will have to make do with promises of great things to come. There are more non-essential items available in level three areas now, like toys and games, which can be safely delivered to level four regions. But there are plenty of homemade treats you can make in your bubble.

Try making a homemade piñata – a simple box decorated with bright paper or ribbon will still be fun to smash about (and let out some of that pent up energy), or you can opt for a more detailed papier mâché project to fill your time in the days leading up.

Ngaire Mason says she received the greatest gift of all – sleep. “My toddler and her father went out for a walk and let me have a sleep in… They came back with a little posy of roadside flowers that they popped in a vase, probably the nicest bouquet I’ve ever received.”

Homemade orange and rhubarb and thyme soda; deliciously smelly bouquet nicked from the neighbourhood; dried orange slices. (Images: Leonie Hayden)

Hand-picked flowers make a sweet gift, and New Zealand gardens are a riot of randy bees right now because spring is in the air. Rather than stealing your neighbours’ prize roses, try making a bouquet of things that smell good. Jasmine, honeysuckle, lavender and freesias are growing like weeds all over hedges and lawns. Rosemary is also flowering – a few big sticks look awesome in a homemade bouquet. But don’t forget – only nick stuff that’s abundant and growing in a public or semi-public space (ie heaps of it hanging over the footpath), ask permission where possible, and try and only take one or two things here and there.

You could commission a local illustrator to do a portrait of your loved one, which can be safely emailed. Illustrator Sam Orchard highlights a number of talented locals over on their Twitter feed, especially cool LGBTQI+ artists.

With so many experiencing hardship all over the world, there are plenty of donations and sponsorships you can make on someone’s behalf. Nina Smith says her friends adopted an orca for her! “Kiki is part of a pod local to waters around Canada and the US and I get a monthly newsletter about sightings.”

If you have crafting skills then you’re set, but if you’re more likely to poke out an eye with a knitting needle, here are some easier options:

Dried orange slices are a cool addition to any drink – especially a classic negroni or an aperol spritz – and look bloody charming stacked in a whimsical jar. Cut into half-centimetre slices, lay directly onto an oven rack and bake at 90ºC for about three hours (checking every hour and turning a couple of times).

Bottles of homemade soda are equally easy and cute. Combine fruit juice or fruit pulp with simple syrup and top up with soda water (add woody herbs for a more grown-up flavour).

Decorate cookies with your loved one’s name or in the shape of their favourite things, or just make up a box of all their favourite baked goods.


A lot of the people who contributed said their birthday in lockdown has been among their favourites ever, and that comes down to the extra care put in by loved ones in the absence of restaurants and expensive presents – at the end of the day, that’s all anyone wants for their birthday.

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