Challenging the culture of birthday treats

It’s an embarrassing moment from childhood that I’ve tried to forget: In fourth grade, I took a tin of homemade candy cane cookies to school to share with classmates on my birthday. 

As I handed them out, I discovered I’d miscounted and didn’t have a cookie for each person—I was two or three short, and I was mortified. 

I don’t remember how I resolved the dilemma. I only remember the burning sensation as my cheeks turned pinker than the limited-edition cookies.

By the time my three kids came through elementary school, rules about treats had changed. Homemade cookies? Not permitted. Store-packaged birthday treats? Usually permitted, depending upon the teacher. Healthful options? Certainly, but avoid anything with nuts.

Now that my youngest child has moved on to sixth grade, freeing me from elementary snack dilemmas, I’ve noticed that the sharing of birthday treats in many schools is becoming a thing of the past—a direct result, no doubt, of a federal law requiring districts participating in the national school meals program to have a local wellness policy. Our district’s policy, for example, states: Classroom snacks and celebrations should reinforce the importance of healthy choices and portion control.

Some parents may question whether we want to live in a society that forbids the occasional high-fat, loaded-with-sugar birthday treat. I can understand the emotional reaction, but I also think it’s crazy to hope that our kids will learn moderation while they’re constantly bombarded by unhealthful food choices and messages. 

The website of Let’s Move!, the anti-obesity initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama, notes that kids 30 years ago ate just one snack per day; now they eat an average of three snacks totaling 200 extra calories, with one in five kids eating up to six snacks a day. Portion size also has expanded from the 1970s; the average sugar-sweetened drink then was 13.6 ounces compared to today’s average of 20 ounces.

If that’s not enough to give you pause, consider these additional statistics from Let’s Move!: 

• Americans eat 31 percent more calories than 40 years ago, including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners.

• An average American now eats 15 more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

Promoting good nutrition

Schools alone can’t solve the problem of unhealthful eating habits and rising obesity rates, but they can play an important role in promoting good nutrition, which is linked to better academic performance. According to Action for Healthy Kids Minnesota, meals and snacks at school “can provide one-third to one-half of a child’s daily nutritional needs.” 

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that many schools in Minnesota are finding creative ways to promote healthier eating habits—schools like Fair Oaks Elementary in Brooklyn Park, which has a diverse population and a high number of kids who are eligible for free or a reduced-price lunch.

When Fair Oaks implemented a nutritious snack initiative two years ago, it eliminated the practice of students bringing treats to school in honor of their birthdays. Ana Markowski, the school’s volunteer coordinator, says this was a difficult change for parents and students—particularly because celebrating birthdays is an important part of the culture for many of the ethnic groups represented in the school.  

“I had a Hmong father come in with a cake, a birthday hat, and napkins. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Hmong,” Markowski says. “He kept saying, ‘Why, why?’ It took me a long time to explain [the policy] to him. I thought, why not have a day when we celebrate all the birthdays?” 

School employees organized a “Celebrate Your Birthday with Dr. Seuss” evening, where cake and punch was served, and it was so popular, they organized it again last spring, this time expanding it to include literacy activities. “We opened the whole school—the media center, the lunchroom, the gym. It was like an open house, with cake and drinks. It was outstanding. We had over 300 people,” Markowski says.

The popularity of the event demonstrated a Dr. Seuss-like message that my 10-year-old self would have benefited from hearing three decades ago, as I recovered from my cookie embarrassment: birthday celebrations aren’t about the treats, they’re about the people. They’re about building family and community. What could be more healthful than that?