One of my friend’s recently asked for advice in navigating the birthday cupcake craze at her child’s preschool. Sure, one cupcake here and there is fine. But when your child is given 20-30 throughout the year (often at 10:00 am), it can be a tad frustrating.

Here are 3 strategies for dealing with birthday treats at school.

3 ways to get a grip on birthday treats at school

Talk to Your Kids About Desserts

As a society, our long-term goal should be to change our environment so that kids (and adults) aren’t surrounded by an abundance of added sugar. As we continue to tackle that problem, we also need to teach kids how to handle sweets in a healthy, positive way. 

1. Remember that kids don’t have the same cognitive skills about food and nutrition as we do. Think about it from a young child’s perspective. “If I think a food tastes good and you tell me that I can’t have it, does that mean I’m not good?”

2. All sweets shouldn’t be banned from a child’s diet, but kids need to learn the concept of moderation and proportion. You can check out some of my lunches to see how I teach my kids this concept without saying a word at all (notice how the dessert is very small in proportion to the fruits and vegetables).

3.  Make the behavior connection for your kids. When my kids fill up on sweets (it’s been known to happen!), they usually get pretty cranky and are frustrated because they don’t know why they are feeling so upset. I gently point out the connection to them: “Ah, you may be feeling this way because you ate that big cupcake. Sometimes when we eat too much dessert our body gets unhappy. Next time, try eating just half the cupcake and see if your body feels better.”

4. Offer your child healthier food choices throughout the day and talk about it in a non-judgmental, matter-of-fact way. For example: “You enjoyed a cupcake at school today to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. Now we’re going to balance it out for your body by enjoying these super crunchy carrots.”

Change the School’s Policy

I mentioned earlier that changing our children’s environment is an uphill battle worth fighting for. That’s why I’m super appreciative of these handouts by School Bites. They make it easier for you to create a healthier classroom, beginning with food-free birthday celebrations.


Take a Grassroots Approach

Depending on your school’s community, grassroots efforts (e.g. setting the trend, then talking to other parents about it at pick-up/drop-off), can work pretty well at minimizing the amount of cupcakes people bring. Here are some ideas for non-food ways to celebrate birthdays.

1. This tip sheet by Ohio Action for Healthy Kids has 13 ideas for non-food birthday ideas. My favorite, which I hope some teachers (especially preschool teachers) will indulge in: “Ask the teacher for extra recess in honor of your kid’s birthday. If they are willing to take the time to eat a snack, they may be willing to use that time to let the kids play.”

2. Sally from Real Mom Nutrition put together a list of 10 reader-submitted ideas. My favorite: Bring in special party napkins (or party hats) to use with the usual school snack.

3. My kids’ school does two non-food celebrations that I like. The first: read the child’s favorite book, then donate it to the classroom. The second: each child makes (and presents) a poster answering questions about what they like and what makes them special/unique.

What other advice or tips do you have for dealing with desserts in the classroom?

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