Food-Free Birthdays Can Be Hard — Even for the ‘Manifesto’ Lady

Today is my son’s eleventh birthday and now that he’s a super-cool-rules-the-school fifth grader, I naively thought we’d moved beyond the desire to bring in classroom treats to celebrate the big day.

Well, no such luck. From the back seat of my car this weekend: “Mom, can we pretty-please-please-please-PLEASE bring donuts for my birthday?”

Gack! Donuts!

Of course, there was no way that I — the author of a widely-shared “manifesto” advocating for food-free classrooms — could give in to this request. I tried to gently reason with him and offered some non-food alternatives, but this need to bring in donuts ran deep, people! The topic came up several times over the weekend with ever-increasing intensity. It was getting harder to hold firm and, at one point, I actually started to soften and made a vague reference to the homemade, chocolate- covered strawberries we’d brought in for a birthday a few years ago.

My son immediately seized on this compromise, but then I had to mentally slap myself. As my own Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto makes clear, even food that’s not junk food can be problematic, from causing allergic reactions to overriding kids’ appetite cues to violating other parents’ food rules. No food means NO FOOD.

Finally, I got my son to come with me to the dollar store, “just to see what we might find.” And once we were there, all sorts of possibilities started to occur to him. There were squirt guns and bouncy balls, Slinkies, bubbles, Silly Putty and more. Eventually we rounded a corner and found some really nice Marvel Avengers figurines, the kind that usually sell for a few dollars more. We loaded up on the figurines (and the squirt guns, which were only 25 cents each), and my son left the store completely enthused.

But when we started to assemble the favor bags at home, the doubts set in. What if girls didn’t like Avenger stuff? What if some of the boys weren’t into it either?

Or, as my son so pithily put it: “The problem with this, Mom, is that everyone likes donuts!”

And that’s the crux of the food-in-the-classroom problem, really.

It takes a little more thought and creativity to come up with non-food treats and rewards and they might not always hit the mark with kids. Sometimes the cheap trinket or the special privilege gives a thrill — and sometimes it totally falls flat. But, as Michael Moss (Salt Sugar Fat), David Kessler (The End of Overeating) and others have explained so well, the powerful triumvirate of sugar, salt and fat almost always makes people happy.

I wanted to share this story to show you that even for someone who’s given this matter a lot of (public) thought, moving against the prevailing tide is hard. It takes backbone, it takes creativity and, in this case, it took substantially more money. (We spent about $40 $30 total on the favor bags, far more than donuts would have cost.)

So will the mighty Marvel Avengers be able to slay the sugary birthday treat? I’ll let you know on TLT’s Facebook page after my son returns home from school . . .

[As a former intellectual property lawyer for Marvel, I can’t sign off without explicitly stating that the characters depicted above are TM & copyright Marvel Entertainment, Inc. Please don’t sue me, former employer!  :-)  ]

[Editorial Update 5/28/13:  Yes, the Avengers were a hit with boys and girls alike!  Whew.  And next year, with both of my kids in middle school, the classroom birthday treat will thankfully no longer be an issue for us.]

[Editorial Update 5/28/13:  In response to a reader comment about cost, I took a minute to re-do my math and saw that I was off by 10 dollars: $1 per Marvel character and $0.25 for the squirt guns X 24 kids = $30, not $40. That’s just about double the cost of two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts.  Not for the first time have have I displayed on TLT my total lack of math ability!]

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  1. Chris says

    Everyone doesn’t like donuts- my daughter doesn’t. She doesn’t have a big sweet tooth. I was the kid turning down the corner slice of cake (with all of that frosting) so it doesn’t surprise me too much, hope she stays this way!!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Chris: I agree that my son was overstating the matter when he said “everyone” loves donuts, but enough people do love one form of junk food or another that it’s become the default option for class parties, teacher rewards, birthday treats and the rest. Meanwhile, it’s great that your daughter listens to her internal cues. I, too, would gladly pass up cake — but in my case, it would be in favor of something really fatty, crunchy and salty! LOL. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Stef says

    Not everyone loves donuts! Not the kids who can’t have them! Good for your son for being brave enough to include everyone. Good for you for staying strong and sharing your journey.

  3. Karen says

    A few years ago I got bubbles for all the kids in the class instead of treats. Not sure that will work with 11-year-olds, though. Sadly, we were back to doughnuts this year.

  4. Adina P says

    Since you brought up money and how much it cost to send all those kid toys to school…what could the parents of a lower income family do? I don’t agree with all your views on food and what kids should/should not eat, but I do agree with the idea of no food in the classroom. Since I teach people of all economic levels (as an RD), I sometimes worry about what to teach those of a lower income level. They can’t necessarily afford the special dye-free, no-HFCS, no-GMO, etc products that are discussed (though not by me). And I am pretty sure they would not be able to shell out $40 for toys for the classroom. I would love to see a suggestion in some of your blogs on how lower income people could replicate what you do to avoid XYZ ingredients or foods when you give an example of something you do/did/will do ‘instead of’.

    • Jane says

      I agree. What sort of precedent have you now set for the next kid/parent? $40 for classroom treats? Bit over the top?

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Jane and Adina: Not that this detracts from your point, but I just re-did the math and it was $30 total, not $40: ($1 per Marvel character and $0.25 for the squirt guns X 24 kids = $30). That’s just about double the cost of two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts.

        At any rate, I fully expected someone to bring up cost when I disclosed my expenditure and I agree with you. Money is yet one more reason why people object to food treats in the classroom — what about kids who can’t afford them? — and it certainly holds true for non-food treats as well. I realize that I perpetuated that aspect of the problem today.

        What do others think?

  5. says

    I applaud your honesty in admitting that it’s HARD for everyone to navigate this stuff. And yes, even the kids of the Manifesto lady (or the kids of the dietitian or the food activist, etc. etcl) sometimes want donuts at school on their birthday. This is an excellent example of why there should be clear policies in place about food in the classroom–it’s just too hard to juggle all the different needs and allergies and economics of it all. And then parents wouldn’t have to agonize about it either. Can’t wait to hear how the action figures went over! (Goes without saying, but my sons would’ve LOVED that!)

  6. says

    I sure hope the school doesn’t call you, and let you know THEY ARRESTED THE ENTIRE CLASS FOR PROHIBITED WEAPON POSSESSION (the squirt guns.)

    Alas, even non-food items can be a (metaphoric) minefield to navigate through…


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      And we haven’t even talked about what the working conditions and wages might be like for those making all the super-cheap stuff in the dollar store, or the potentially toxic materials used to make them. It’s very hard to navigate these issues.

  7. diane says

    Good solution…except for squirt “guns” – they would have been confiscated immediately in my home. We do not allow any form of guns in my home and we are not alone in that position…..if I might suggest, there are other things that pose as squirters such as rubber animals and such.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Yeah, after we got home I thought … uh, oh, guns! However, in my defense, they’re not “gun” shaped at all – they’re more like little Space Age rocket ships. I think even you would be OK with them, but I hear the concern.

      • Diane says

        Yeah – I absolutely would have been OK with that! We handed out the animal ones at my daughters (3 yr old) birthday party. Thanks for replying.

  8. adonna ebrahimi says

    wouldn’t it have been nice if there was school policy! You could have blamed the “big guys” and that would be that.

  9. sahnya says

    This year my kids’ elementary had a no birthday celebration, what a difference from the ongoing birthday junk food that had been allowed in prior years. Great reminder for me to let the administrators at the school know how much I appreciate their stance! Most teachers are not fans of the classroom bday celebrations, if more people spoke out I imagine the number of schools allowing this would greatly decrease!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Sally, adonna and sahnya: I agree — it would be so much easier for everyone if a clear policy were in place on these issues! And yes, sahnya, please do give your administrators a pat on the back and let them know that many of us wish our schools would follow their lead.

  10. Jane says

    I’m not saying I don’t do it (because I do) mostly out of kid/peer pressure, but I honestly struggle with the concept of taking cakes/giving gifts to the class because it’s your birthday? ? Struggle with the party bag thing as well!

  11. Jane says

    I hate it when the kid at the end of the party comes up to you for “their present”. Not the kid’s fault-I’m sure mine have done it too!
    I found it easier when I lived in UK (I’m in Australia now). You can buy books online for £1 each. I would give these at the end of the party with a piece of the party cake.
    As for taking something to school, the big supermarkets sell bags of mini chocolate bars ( not fitting into your non food criteria though sorry) 30+ mini bars for £4 – cheap as chips. Job done! 😉

  12. Chris says

    We are supposed to bring 2 liters of soda and two boxes of cookies as refreshments for my daughter’s play this weekend. I have purchased lemon mineral water and apple juice. I will get a box of organic cookies as well. I figured that was following the spirit of the request.

  13. Michelle says

    Our school’s policy is to allow nothing to be brought in for birthdays — no food and no gifts, not even coupons. The teacher decides how he/she will celebrate birthdays with the class. It eliminates food issues and ensures that there is no stigma for those who can’t afford (or don’t want to) buy tchotchkes .

    • says

      My son’s school has the same policy. It was all wonderful until, BAM, last week one mom violated the policy and brought in cake with BLUE frosting.

      And I know this child had already had a party because I’d gotten an invitation, though I skipped it. When I, um, kindly stated my objection, someone mentioned it was gluten free or something free and all I could think was . . . great artificial colors *and* processed ingredients.

      I’ve done all that I could to hold myself back because the child will be in a different classroom next year. But it still bothers me. I picked this school and it’s no media, no outside food, low-key celebrations for a reason.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Sylvie: I really hope your school can nip this in the bud, because once one parent crosses that line, the pressure can build for everyone to follow suit! You might just want to quietly let the administration know so they can send out the message again, loud and clear?

        • says

          Oh, dear – that’s worrisome. I’ll make sure to ask the teacher to send out a notice for next year in addition to the first parent meeting. Now that I think about it, I’ll make a note in my phone to bring it up myself. She just let me know a tentative schedule for family get togethers before the first day of school. I never thought about it expanding. Ugh.

          • Bettina Elias Siegel says

            I may be wrong, it’s just that sometimes it becomes, “So-and-so’s mom brought in cupcakes, so why can’t we?”

  14. stef says

    My daughter this year requested that I read a book to her class. Not donate a book, just read one. I took a late lunch from my full time job and read one book. Her teacher was supportive.

    A few kids asked me if I’d brought goody bags. I said, “No goody bags, I’m the treat.” and they seemed okay with that answer.

    After reading, one boy yelled “Read it again!”

    Cost – zero.
    Time commitment – did not need a shopping trip but did require I show up on a work day for 15 minutes.
    Daughter was pleased. I think I forgot to take a pic at school with her and the book, but that’s ok. We enjoyed the experience together.

  15. stef says

    forgot to specify in the above…the book reading was to celebrate her birthday at school. in case that was not clear.

  16. Natalie says

    Birthday parties, in general, can make me a little crazy. I tell my kids that when they are old enough to plan their own “birthday play day” they can have one. They can invite anyone they want, even their whole class. There are no structured activities. Sometimes they play dress up. Sometimes they play outside. I set out lemonade, pretzels and carrot sticks on a table and let kids help themselves. At the end, we sing happy birthday and have homemade cupcakes (with or without frosting). If the kids want frosting, I let them frost their own (which they seem to think is really fun). Although the food is not 100% healthy, I try to keep food to a minimum and focus on the kids playing together. That also keeps it quite inexpensive, even when the whole class comes!

    Our family is vegan, so I am used to having to call the families to see what they are having at birthday parties and trying to provide something similar for my kids. My favorite (not!) is when I call and they say – “Oh, we’re not doing much. We are having pizza, cake, ice cream, soda, and a few types of chips, and cookies and ….” on and on. And, of course, there is a bag of more stuff to take home.

    I tell my kids that a birthday party is a time to get together and celebrate. Their friends can bring a present if they want, but it is certainly not to be expected. And there is no need to send guests home from a “birthday play day” with a gift of their own.

    Rant over. :) Thanks for this post. I sure wish my school would adopt a no-food-in-class policy!

  17. Dana says

    I just saw this blog. I am currently trying to figure out something for my daughter’s 10th birthday. The problem is that I strongly refuse to bring goody bags to class or to hand them out to children. Our world does not need any more dollar store crap and don’t get me started on how harmful trinkets made in China are to the environment. So I am stuck. I suggested pencils. Pencils don’t compare to cupcakes. But I will keep trying. I really appreciate this blog and it’s good to know there are other mean moms out there!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Dana: Be sure to check out the reader comments on this post, which gave me a ton of fun, nonfood ideas, as well as this post, which tells readers what I chose. I hope these ideas help and so glad you found The Lunch Tray!


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