Tess turned 10 last month. That means I’ve been hosting and attending kids’ birthday parties for a decade. What a wild ride that’s been. Cakes so electrifyingly bright they could make your hair curl. Drinks worthy of a WTF. Goodie bags that instead should be called sugar bags or gimme bags or keep-Oriental-Trading-in-business bags. And of course pizza, pizza, pizza!
But I’ve also seen parties with fresh fruit and veggies to balance the chips, wholesome and fantastically delicious cakes or cupcakes, and not a drop of soda or juice in sight. At a friend’s recent birthday sleepover, the girls made homemade gingerbread houses and ate homemade whole-wheat waffles for breakfast. To drink: water or milk. Sanity exists!
Sure, your kid’s party is only once a year. But so is my kid’s party, and my friends’ kids’ parties, and the party of every kid in class. And that’s on top of every other reason kids have to “celebrate” these days (i.e., all the time). As I say a lot around here, it’s never “just one” anything anymore.
More than that, though, I don’t buy the idea that special occasions or special treats = junk or substandard “kid food.” Even treats can (and should) have high-quality ingredients. Our parties have run the gamut — from small home celebrations to a “Little House”-themed bash in a log cabin— and so has the food. We’ve done veggie chili and grilled-cheese sandwiches at home, wraps and sandwiches at a play gym, popcorn and clementines for the cabin party, and homemade gingerbread cookies and hot cocoa when we rented a local ice rink. At last year’s sleepover, the girls made homemade whole-wheat pizzas.
This year, Tess had friends over for a sewing party. Her sewing teacher came to do a project (journals), and I was able to make a respectable (naturally dyed!) version of the horseback-rider cake Tess designed and requested:
But before all that, the girls ate lunch. Here’s what they had: raw veggies, grapes, lentil balls, mac-and-cheese muffins (a whole-grain and more seasoned version of this recipe), and PB&J roll-ups on whole-wheat wraps. (I also made gluten-free versions of the mac-and-cheese and PB&J roll-ups, using brown-rice pasta and wraps.)
I didn’t worry that something like lentil balls might get the stink-eye. I didn’t worry that my versions of old favorites were unconventional (i.e., whole grains, natural peanut butter), or that there wasn’t a pizza delivery or chips. And here’s the thing: It wasn’t hard or all that time-consuming. The cake took two days, but the lunch food my husband and I prepped in bits in-between.
A (well-meaning) adult visitor, viewing the spread, said, “Wow, this is so nice for a kids’ party!” The kids didn’t say a word. They just ate it up. Literally.Copyright protected by Digiprove © 2014 Christina Le Beau
Well done, mama. Well done. And the cake is amazing.
Thanks, Kristi! Big phew over here, I’ll tell you!
Beautiful cake, can you post the recipe?
Judy: Do you mean this exact cake? Because the design was totally on the fly! As in: Tess drew a picture. I eyeballed it and started frosting, LOL. But the cake is simply a basic chocolate cake and the frosting is buttercream (made with real butter, not shortening). I then tinted the frosting with India Tree natural dyes.
At Healthy Kids Company we spend a lot of time on “healthier” holidays and parties, and have found that kids respond best when there are colorful, pleasing choices—which can include fruits and vegetables.
We have had chocolate fountains with fresh fruit for dipping (using high quality dark chocolate), macaroni salads made with whole grain pasta, broccoli salad with colorful carrot shreds, and hearty chillies. We have “dyed” hummus with beat juice (pinkish-purple), served edamame hummus (green), roasted red pepper hummus (red), even pumpkin hummus (orange).
At the end of the day, kids leave happy if cake was served! And they eat their fruits and veggies to boot.
Jennifer A. Gardner, MD, FAAP, Founder, Healthy Kids Company
Yes I was interested in what the ingredients were for the cake and frosting besides butter? Thanks.
Amazing cake! Really impressive. I’ve experimented with the India Tree dyes a bit, plus making my own dyes, and been pretty successful except with blue (any tips appreciated). I agree with Jennifer above that most kids are thrilled with a piece of cake or a cupcake and being with their friends. It’s not really the food they’re focused on as much as having fun, playing the games, laughing with their buddies. So I don’t think parents need to fret about having “kid” food–chips, goodie bags of candy, etc.–to make kids happy anyway. Parties make them happy!
Thanks, Sally! It turned out a lot better than I’d feared when I started. I’ve made lots of birthday cakes over the years, but this was the first time I was working from a drawing. Talk about pressure! And I agree completely about what makes parties fun. I haven’t ever tried to get a bright blue, instead using more muted tones, but I imagine that could be an issue with the natural dyes. I’m fortunate to live with a color scientist (aka my husband), so he’s my mixmaster when I want a certain color. He stands there and says: “start with red,” “now add some yellow,” “oops now a little more red.” That sort of thing. Without that guidance, I’d end up with a lot of gray frosting, LOL.
Yes, cake and topping recipe please. Thank you!
Judy and Masia: Here’s the chocolate-cake recipe from 100 Days of Real Food. The frosting is a simple buttercream: butter, vanilla extract, powdered sugar and milk. The recipe depends on how much you need, but a starter is 1 cup softened butter, creamed, with 1 tsp. vanilla extract mixed in. Then beat in a cup of powdered sugar at a time (for a total of one 16-ounce bag). Then mix in a little milk at a time, beating at medium speed, until it’s light and fluffy. Some recipes also call for adding meringue powder or powdered egg whites, and I’ve used that in the past, but I didn’t this time and it turned out exactly the same!
Judy and Masia: A note about the chocolate-cake recipe: I used all whole-wheat pastry flour (rather than the mix of ww and white). I also used maple sugar instead of white sugar. Maple sugar is my go-to when I need a granulated sugar. Otherwise I use real maple syrup or raw honey as a sweetener. All three of those are minimally refined and retain some minerals/nutrients. The only time I use refined sugar is when I make buttercream frosting, since I haven’t had luck finding a good alternative to powdered sugar. But I don’t sweat that for the rare occasions I use it. (As you can see from my conversation with Kim below!)
Just saw the posting on fb. Sigh. thought it wouldn’t have processed sugar additive. With all the kids birthdays going on, it seems like there’s no such thing as moderation anymore. It’s sugar and and mac and cheese at every party. But good for you for offering other healthy things at the party as well. It’s a great start. Keep up the good work.
Kim: I have no issue with processed sugar for birthday cakes. It’s the sugar in everything else that’s a problem. There’s also nothing wrong with mac and cheese as a food. It’s all about the ingredients.
Don’t get me wrong. I commend you for your efforts but I’m not clear on your point. My point is that the sugary additives and the mac and cheese (ala kids fare) IS at every celebration, of which there are many. So the “everything else” becomes the every day and is no longer once in awhile type of thing. By all accounts processed sugar (even organic) is not a high quality ingredient, and we can’t pretend otherwise.
Kim: See, now, your calling mac and cheese “kid fare” is interesting. Why is mac and cheese (homemade with good ingredients) the domain of children? Just because Kraft co-opted the idea of blue-box macaroni as “kid food” doesn’t mean we have to avoid the dish altogether, no matter the ingredients. (And, as an aside: I’ve never been to a kid celebration that served mac and cheese, blue box or homemade or otherwise!) On the sugar, I think we’ll need to agree to disagree. If you’ve followed my blog, you know I am all about the ingredients. But I am also not extreme. And saying that even birthday-cake frosting should never use refined sugar is, in my opinion, extreme.
I don’t have an issue with sugared cake and mac and cheese either. I guess I just don’t see what you served as much different than any other kids party I’ve been to. I just started reading your blog and thought it was more about how to deal with this very issue — at every celebration, food just like this.
Kim: Perhaps your experience has been different, but the norm is typically delivery pizza, juice or colored drinks, and cakes made with a ton of artificial ingredients. A far cry from “food just like this.” What food do you serve at your birthday parties?
We have a big summer bbq (with cake) for our summer babies, and I’m not claiming that we have an extreme diet (at all!).Maybe we’re coming from different places. I thought this blog was more about transcending the typical stuff, but maybe we have different definitions. I’m still not sure why you are deeming the sugar in your cake OK, but the sugar in other things not. In any case, my kids are younger so I’ve now seeing how kids are served sugary things at every celebration, so there is no moderation any more. I’m always looking for healthier alternatives for this very reason.
Kim: I feel like we’re going around in circles here. These examples do transcend the typical stuff, so I’m not really sure what else you’re looking for. And, again, about the sugar: I think sugar in any birthday cake — not just mine — is OK. The problem is when there’s sugar in other food, all food, every day. If people and their kids eat an otherwise wholesome diet, then sugar in birthday cakes is not a big deal. The problem isn’t that kids eat sugary things at true celebrations (i.e., a birthday party). It’s all the other ways in which kids are fed sugar on a regular basis.
That’s exactly my point — “all the other ways kids are fed sugar on a regular basis.” It’s at all parties, all the time. I’m trying to figure out alternatives to the regular ol’ kids experience. Not sure I’m going to find my answer here 🙂
Kim: That’s a separate issue, and I’ve written plenty about that, too. Spend some time on my blog and see what I mean.
Yep, I’m looking for alternatives to the standard bday fare. Will keep looking 🙂
Kim: So lentil balls aren’t alternative enough for you? Then you’re right — I can’t help!
No need to get defensive:) Like I said, I commend your efforts for offering other healthy choices. Great job! I’ll reiterate – I’m hoping to find alternatives to regular kids party fare (the sugar, the mac & cheese). since it’s offered at every single party, and I think we need to educate our kids about that. Thanks for the lentil recipe!
Kim: It’s more incredulity than defensiveness. See my previous comments about mac and cheese, and sugar. And, like I said, spend some time on my blog…
Thanks for being so open to a discussion. I asked around to check myself and sugary cakes and mac and cheese? Yep, pretty typical kids fare for parties. I’m looking for alternatives. Love the lentil ball idea! Great job at providing healthy alternatives!
Kim: I’m sort of done with this line of discussion, since it’s no longer productive and there seems to be some agenda here that I can’t put my finger on. But when you have some time, check out the rest of my blog. You’ll find a ton of info and thought-provoking posts on combating food insanity and raising food-literate children. Happy reading!
Nope, no agenda… just looking around for some healthy bday ideas. Thanks!
Interesting thing about that, Kim: Your IP address says you’re also the person who left comments on this post as “Judy” and “Masia.” So it’s all a little too weird for me. I’m going to move on now.
There are about 30+ folks who use this network, so maybe that’s why? I do know Judy, but not Masia. Anyway, clearly that’s not relevant to this at all and this is becoming a time sink to both of us 🙂 Looked through your blog, not finding recipes but great content. I think ultimately may come down to the fact that I’ve never been to a bday party with neon drinks and cake, so we may have different baselines. Anyway… thanks for all your helpful responses.
Thanks for this post. I get a little anxious around birthday time. My oldest daughter’s 8th is coming up and we are doing a science theme. My philosphy is similar to yours although I am probably more lax about what she eats at other kid’s parties and at school. This year the school banned homemade treats and gave us a list of what they deem acceptable, only based on food allergy concerns. Nothing on the list is something I would ever buy but that is another story.
For some reason I just posted that without finishing my thought! Sorry.
For my daughter’s 4th bday party I decided to never again serve pizza. I bought quality turkey and ham cold cuts, carrots and celery, hummus tortilla chips and other finger foods. I find that the kids really enjoy picking what they want to eat (my daughter doesn’t like hummus but I was happy to see several other kids eating it) instead of always having everything served to them. I also bought the mini cupcakes from whole foods – 1 choc, 1 van. Smaller portions all around to minimize waste and let kids focus on the reason they are celebrating – not food so much but being together and having fun.
Last year we had enough kids with gluten concerns that we did the party at a local ice cream shop (we’re lucky to have 2 local chains here in Cleveland – Jeni’s and Mitchell’s). Again, I brought finger food and the kids all got to pick which ice cream they wanted.
Now the idea of ordering pizza and picking up some monstrous cake from the local grocery store sounds like too much effort. 😉
And my two cents: each parent has to find their own comfort level when it comes to what their children ingest. I have talked to my oldest extensively about food choices. She is free to choose what she eats at parties and school, even if that means that she eats something with artificial ingredients. There’s no way I can be there at every decision. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well she chooses a lot of the time. When it comes time to celebrate her birthday in her classroom, she will be bringing something not food related to share with her mates.
Jessica: Sounds like you’ve got a good thing going. And I have to say: We went to Jeni’s in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, while visiting family, and holy cow that ice cream is amazing!
I never understood parties with ‘just’ chips and pizza. Pizza is what we have when I am sick of being in the kitchen or am behind on grocery shopping, certainly not a ‘special’ food for me.
Probably because I grew up with a mom who spent HOURS in the kitchen for any event. I was always disappointed at the snacky/not-home-cooked foods of regular birthday parties.
I LOVE the mac & cheese muffin idea!