Care and Feeding

Enough With the Cupcakes, Already

My child has a food allergy. Can’t we find ways to make kids’ birthday parties not just about treats and snacks?

A girl holds a cupcake in her hand and looks eagerly at it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve read a number of advice columns on school birthday celebrations that recommend bringing, say, cupcakes for the whole class. However, I feel that we as a culture are now more aware of the significant number of kids living with celiac disease (a serious autoimmune disorder in which consuming gluten may cause illness and damage to the small intestine) as well as those with life-threatening food allergies, and that the time for shared food is past. Even if the shopper in question takes the time to find a treat that is “free” of the major allergens, there may be a child excluded for other dietary reasons.

Can you help me help all of us into rethinking celebratory events so that they aren’t solely about foods? For example, how about allowing the kids to watch a funny YouTube video as a special treat as opposed to simply serving something “yummy” that may not work for everyone? What else?

—Thinking Outside the (Snack) Box

Dear TOSB,

While I do expect that some of our commenters will take issue with the premise that edible treats should be eliminated from school birthdays and other kiddie celebrations, I think you are onto something that we should consider for a number of reasons.

Not only do the class cupcakes pose a danger to the 1 in 100 children said to be living with celiac disease, they could also upset kids who are suffering from eating disorders and/or may be experiencing harassment from peers regarding their size (i.e., “I know you’re happy to get some chocolate, not that you need it,” “Hey Tia, maybe you should eat two since you’re so skinny.”). Anxiety around food is a fucked up, deeply personal experience that many children are silently suffering from, and it’s not something we take into consideration often enough.

One may consider working with their child’s teacher to establish just how long is typically allocated for birthday celebrations and if there is a non-edible “treat” that can be shared with the class. For smaller kids, this could be a round of sing-along songs, reading a special book aloud, or playing a fun game like Seven Up. Older children may be more keen on the YouTube idea. There are also small, inexpensive items that you can purchase and distribute in lieu of cupcakes or other foods—think the pencils and knickknacks that are often put in the goody bags that kids get at the close of a birthday party.

Parents who do choose to bring in food should plan on something that works for everyone, whether that means opting for a fruit tray over cupcakes or bringing a gluten-free cupcake for the one child who requires one.

Birthdays are inherently tricky because even at schools where most of the children come from privileged households, it isn’t often the case that every child will have at least one parent or loved one who can miss work in the middle of the day to come facilitate classroom merriment. Furthermore, there are kids for whom the in-class celebration is the only one that their parents can offer them, and the cupcake moment may be more significant than you have considered.

Unfortunately, not every parent has the time, money, or capacity to think about all that when their kid’s birthday comes up, and even those who do are quite capable of presenting a gluten-free, nut-free, vegan chocolate cupcake to a gluten-free, nut-free, vegan kid who simply hates chocolate. The world is wildly unfair and school celebrations are just but one of the occasions in which our children will come to experience that unfairness. Perhaps you’ve sparked the possibility of real change by asking this question out loud—I hope that you have! In the meantime, continue to educate parents and teachers around you about the difficulties and dangers associated with celiac disease and other conditions that make food dangerous for kids, and columnists like myself will (hopefully) do our best to be supportive.