A Happy Ending to the Classroom Birthday Treat Dilemma

Last week I told you I was facing a difficult test of my principles.  On this blog (and elsewhere) I’ve come out strongly against sugary  birthday treats in the classroom, but my fifth-grade daughter really wanted to bring cupcakes or donuts to school for her birthday tomorrow.

I sent out an SOS to Lunch Tray readers for suggestions for alternative treats, and last night I read out aloud to my family every one of your creative ideas — everything from “cupcakes” made from fresh fruit (thank you, Mile Hi Mama) to buying trees for planting by the class (ditto, Corrie) to origami flying squirrels (Michele Hays)!

At first my daughter was leaning toward healthier food treats, like homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries (suggested by an anonymous reader via email) or possibly gift certificates for Ben & Jerry’s cones, which would at least require some parental approval before the treats could be eaten (thank you, Tari).

But then I explained to my daughter how I, too, had once thought healthier treats were a fine substitute for sugary ones until parents of food-allergic kids woke me up to the fact that even those foods can exclude and/or endanger their children.  I did, say, however, that I’d be happy to go the chocolate strawberry route (as a compromise) if she really wanted to bring something edible.

My daughter mulled it over for a while and then announced that she wants to celebrate her birthday in school in two ways.   First, she’s going to bring in a plain white t-shirt to class to be signed by her classmates with fabric markers (thank you, Visitor from FAS!) and second, she wants to make a birthday donation to the charity of her choice in the name of her entire fifth grade class (excellent idea, We3Beans!).  (My daughter chose Star of Hope, which aids homeless families in Houston.)

I have to say, I’d been dreading this conversation with my daughter, fearing that she’d feel I was being too rigid by putting my principles ahead of her understandable desire to do what everyone else is doing. But instead my whole family wound up having a thought-provoking discussion about obesity, food allergies, the rights of parents to keep other parents from feeding their kids, the ways in which economically disadvantaged students might feel left out by the whole “birthday treat” custom, and more.

A reader named “another fas visitor” had advised: “What sort of education and message do you want your child and her classmates to have with whatever you send in?  Figure that out and send in something that relates to that message.”

And that’s just what we did.

Thank you again to everyone who took the time to write in, share links and provide encouragement.  And I have to say, one comment in particular kept me on the straight and narrow throughout these deliberations.  From reader Jamie, an early (and beloved) Lunch Tray adopter:

You best stick to your guns Missy…You and you alone changed MY whole view on Cupcakes At School. If you cave I’m gonna sic my kid on YOU when he realizes he’s not getting CAS on his birthday.

Good luck and Happy Birthday to your daughter!

[Ed Update:  Be sure to check out the original post on this issue  – in the reader comments section you’ll find many other wonderful ideas that you might use with your own kids.]



  1. Stephanie says

    I love that you posed this question to your readers, everyone really had some spectacular ideas. Having a second grader myself, I will be incorporating some of them!! And the outcome, well who could ask for anything better than a great conversation with your kids about something that is so dear to your heart.
    Thanks for sharing, Bettina! And the happiest of birthdays to your lovely daughter!

  2. Karen says

    Thanks for getting ahead on this – the big day for us is tomorrow, too. Now I can talk it over with MY birthday girl!

  3. says

    Wow! Your daughter has incredible maturity and I’m impressed by her decision to donate to a charity for her birthday present. She must have some amazing parents! :)

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I highly recommend parenting by poll! You get all sorts of great ideas you’d never think of on your own!

  4. Suzanne says

    Great post. Very well said. Thank you. People in our community started the Smart Food Initiative because of this very topic (check us out on Facebook and become a fan). The cupcakes, among other treats, are out of control at our school and it’s not just the parents bringing the junk. Teachers serve it up for good behavior and so does the bus driver and don’t forget the specialists at school too. Oh wait, and then there’s sports after school where my kids get full sized candy bars after a game of baseball. That’s called “snack” and it’s served right before dinner. Most days my children are offered these treats which are usually the kind that I don’t serve.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Suzanne – Thanks for coming by and for the kind words. I will definitely check out your Facebook page!

  5. Julie says

    I came across your blog by chance looking for a way to start challenging my son’s school to end the birthday treats. I’m thinking of starting a petition. Can you tell me if you have challenged your school in anyway and where I should start?
    Thanks for any help,

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Julie – one first step is to find out if your district has a Wellness Policy (as it should) and to see what it says about in-class treats. (Try googling the name of your district with “wellness policy” or also “SHAC” or “school (or student) health advisory council.”) If snacks of this sort are expressly banned, then it’s much easier to go to your principal to discuss it. It’s also always good to try to find like-minded parents if possible and then either start a petition, as you suggest, or possibly raise it with your PTO/PTA to see if you can garner support that way. Here in Houston, I admit I’ve felt cowed by the fact that the cupcake tradition is specifically protected by state legislation (!). However, it’s my goal this year to discuss with our principal whether we might, as many readers have suggested, consolidate birthday celebrations to one day a month, and parents can coordinate the snacks so it’s not overwhelming. I’ll report back here, and please let me know what success you have on your end as well. And thanks for coming by TLT – hope you’ll become part of our community!

  6. Janice Grek says

    I love the many great ideas! Birthdays are to celebrate the child. Why do they need to revolve around food at all? If you want to send something in, how about balloons, some little toys (the kind that would go into treat bags) or a quick, not-too-messy craft project?

  7. Sherri says

    How about a butterfly release?

    Purchase enough caterpillars for each child and watch them grow and hopefully time it to release on the child’s birthday.

    My daughter did that last year. It was at the beginning of our eliminate treats journey at school. It was just coincidental that the butterflies were ready. This year she was disappointed that we didn’t do it again. She is 9 this year and in third grade. I wish I had thought of it sooner!

  8. says

    hi bettina, i was reading the latest food news where i came across your name
    i always send my kids to school (same age as yours!) with cupcakes – but i always make them myself, and they are far from any store-bought cupcake in content – they are always made with fruit or vegetable (grated boiled beetroot, grated zucchini or carrot, mashed banana, apples), and they are always made with extra virgin olive oil; i never cook with butter – i live in a part of the world whose olive oil production is 80% extra virgin olive oil
    i also try to make muffin/cupcake style cakes, because these is perfect for portion control – one cupcake can be smaller than a regular piece sliced from a whole cake, but it still looks like a portion
    i’m very happy to have come across your blog today – i’m also glad that pink slime does not exist where i live, therefore we cannot eat it


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