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Don't Let Them Eat Cake! A Call to Stop Celebrating with Sweets at School

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logoIMG_3294Julia Child once said a party without cake is just a meeting. While I’d be hard-pressed to argue with the philosophy of someone as famous in the food world as Child, some mothers are doing just that when it comes to their kids’ nutrition.

In light of Valentine’s Day, the notion of monitoring and limiting kids’ consumption of sweets at school parties has caused quite an uproar. As per usual, the argument has two camps: those people who are for sugary snacks at school events, and those who are against them. The argument is gaining even more traction for another health concern how these celebrations can put kids with food allergies at risk. A Huff Post Parents article addressed that topic, sparking conversation among parents and offending others.

School policy varies among U.S. educational institutions, with some under-performing schools eliminating school celebrations all together to other schools simply prohibiting homemade snacks at these types of get-togethers. But in general, many schools still have a few celebrations each year, and most of them include snacks. At my children’s school, for example, there’s often “cookie decorating” at such parties. Parents volunteer to bring in sprinkles, icing, and candy galore, and each child is allowed to decorate one giant sugar cookie with as many toppings as his or her heart desires. I’ve attended many of these cookie parties, and some of these kids’ concoctions are so over-the-top that even the most gung-ho sugar addicts would become nauseous. Naturally, most kids love sugar, but many kids don’t understand the concept of “less is more” as it relates to sweets.

At any rate, whether it is a special, non-religious holiday party, a celebration held at the end of the year, or the like, many fellow moms agree that these occasional parties are wonderful and worthwhile. The average school day leaves little room for anything beyond learning, so a break from the mundane is a great way to boost spirits and reward kids for their hard work. But for those of us parents who are health-conscious for ourselves and our kids, these parties raise questions when it comes to food.

For instance, what kind of snacks do we allow? What ingredients are acceptable? Should they be homemade or store-bought? Should teachers serve fruit juice or only water? Who’s responsible for monitoring the food to keep kids with food allergies safe? (Should those kids with allergies simply bring their own food?) And how about those kids with a gluten intolerance?

The list of questions seems endless in this world of diverse opinions with labels of “junk food” and “healthy food,” making the chance for coming to a clear, happy consensus difficult or near impossible. After all, one parent’s idea of a nourishing, wholesome snack is another parent’s toxic nightmare. And as evidenced by the Huff Post article, with a rising number of diagnosed cases of food allergies, these celebrations being centered on food can often lead to unnecessary feelings of exclusion and thoughtlessness.

It seems that this latest “mommy war” could easily be solved by schools banning celebratory snacks all together. Then no child or mother has to worry about scary food allergens and no child has to feel left out. Parents wouldn’t have to worry about this extra layer of unnecessary work, teachers wouldn’t have to worry about wrangling sugar-crazed children, and children could focus on learning, without their bodies having to fight against the natural highs and lows that come with increased sugar consumption. Children would still eat their regularly scheduled lunch and maybe even a snack at morning recess. But why not leave the cupcakes and iced cookies for home celebrations with family and friends?

Here’s an idea: Why not just change how we view these “parties” and “celebrations” at school, and look at them as an opportunity for enhanced learning experiences — or even better, a simple, lazy moment of fun?

If schools want to continue to celebrate birthdays, 100 Days of School, Valentine’s Day and Winter Break, let’s do so, but let’s do it in a way that takes the focus off of snacks and food. Celebrate with a used book swap, extra art time, an additional trip to the school library, or even an organized game of Simon Says. If parents want to be involved with these celebrations and are looking for ways to contribute, we could work together to organize the planting of a small classroom garden and see food creation in action. There’s really a number of ways we could celebrate successes and our children at school, and none of them have to be centered on food.

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