The Birthday Cupcake Moral Dilemma (and the solution!)

I usually never know what’s going to spark a lot of conversation on my Facebook page, and the fact that my recent “birthday cupcake dilemma” quickly spawned over 2,700 comments was honestly quite a surprise! I was truly at a loss though and since I always learn so much from our readers I often turn to you guys when I need advice.

This is what my Facebook post said:

“I am in a bit of a bind (which I totally recognize is a first world problem by the way), but I would love some advice. My daughter turns 8 next week and since all the kids in her class bring cupcakes (or cookies or donuts) for the whole class on their birthday she’d like to follow suit.

Here’s the problem: The school no longer allows us to bring in homemade baked goods for the class! It has to be from a commercial kitchen and because her class is nut-free it also has to be from a certified nut-free kitchen (no cross contamination). Believe me I’ve tried and I cannot find any wholesome bakeries around here that are also nut-free. And I refuse to overnight cupcakes from NYC for a bunch of 2nd graders…not an option! The school’s ‘approved’ cupcakes from their cafeteria are highly processed and full of chemicals and artificial ingredients. It’s totally against everything I believe in to support products like that.

BUT it’s important to my daughter to be able to celebrate like her friends have. Does anyone have a viable solution or should I just suck it up and serve her class something highly processed and artificial? Yikes!!!”

In summary, these were my constraints:The birthday cupcake dilemma by 100 Days of Real Food

  • My daughter specifically asked if she could share cupcakes with her class…and as her mommy I do like to do what I can to make my birthday girls happy! If it were up to me I would probably do something other than food to celebrate at school, but again cupcakes are what the other kids bring so that’s what my birthday girl requested as well.
  • There is a (new this year) no homemade food rule at her school. Everything that’s shared with the class must come from a commercial kitchen. (You can send homemade items for your individual child only).
  • My daughter happens to be in the one nut-free classroom for the 2nd grade. This means several children in her class do in fact have an allergy to peanuts and/or tree nuts therefore no food can be brought in (on any day…in her personal lunchbox or otherwise) that has been made in a facility that also processes nuts. So purchasing cupcakes that don’t contain nuts from a local bakery is not enough. I would have to find a bakery that does not make a single product (ever) that contains nuts! Not an easy feat here in Charlotte, NC.
  • The school cafeteria sells highly processed birthday cupcakes that are certified nut-free, but they are also full of chemicals, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. I’ve seen the boxed mix that they use (they are most definitely not made from scratch). I let my kids participate and eat these cupcakes (or cookies or donuts or whatever the parent decides to bring in) when it’s someone else’s birthday, BUT the truth is I don’t like how someone else is giving my kids junk food every.single.time it’s one of the 20+ kids’ birthdays in their class. Isn’t that what birthday parties (outside of school) are for? And here’s the kicker…since I’ve somewhat dedicated my life (through this blog) to trying to influence others to cut out processed food it’s kind of a moral dilemma for me to purchase and feed total crap to my kid and the rest of her class. I normally go out of my way to feed anyone and everyone I know the most wholesome food possible – to show how good real food can be! – so it’s only natural for me to feel highly uncomfortable about violating an important personal belief of mine.

All the Advice

So what’s one to do? Ask my Facebook crew for some advice. And man were there some heated responses that frankly were all over the board. Yes, people feel emotional about food decisions – me included. Some readers suggested good non-cupcake alternatives (like fruit kabobs, all fruit popsicles or non-food items like goodie bags, pencils, and books), some suggested alternatives that unfortunately wouldn’t truly be nut-free (Whole Foods or Earth Fare bakery, Edible Arrangements, etc.), some suggested things that just aren’t realistic (like trying to make the cupcakes myself in the certified nut-free commercial cafeteria at the school), some of course suggested that I just “suck it up” and buy the highly processed stuff (unfortunately a child’s own birthday is not the one and only day throughout the year they eat junk food…it’s never really “just one day”), and some also suggested things that are honestly a little unethical (like put my own homemade cupcakes in a grocery store cupcake box). As I mentioned above several kids in her class do in fact have a nut allergy and my house is far from being completely nut-free, so for many reasons faking out the school with my own homemade cupcakes is really not an option. And as I also already mentioned my daughter was dead-set on cupcakes so the fruit and other non-food alternatives unfortunately weren’t going to do the trick. I am normally a big fan of non-food rewards and parties at the school.

Taking a Stand

My daughter is also a child though, and it’s my responsibility to raise her and teach her what I think are important lessons along the way. Funny enough one reader (on Spoonfed’s Facebook page) said she didn’t understand why people were saying for me not to inflict my own beliefs on my kids. She said “Really? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we as parents are supposed to do? Especially in this case where her ‘beliefs’ are in place to make her kids healthy.” Yes, I want to be flexible and fun and make special memories for my children (which by the way DO NOT have to involve highly processed food), but I couldn’t believe how many readers went out of their way to email me and come write on my FB wall that I should not give in because it’s important to teach my children to stand up for what they believe in. Freaking amen to that. I explained to my daughter the constraints and then I truthfully asked her if she wanted to feed her friends cupcakes that contained chemicals. She of course said “no” (that’s my girl). You see, real food is no new topic around here plus – for the most part – kids want to do the right thing. And just for the record, if more wholesome, homemade cupcakes were an option we would be all over it. This dilemma is not about never having treats – I don’t think that’s any way to live. This is about not knowingly buying and serving chemically-filled, artificially made crap to our children.

So I gave my soon to be 8-year-old a long list of ideas (thanks to the reader comments) and asked her what – if any – would be an alternative to cupcakes that she would be excited about. After some deliberation she decided on ice cream…yay! I think it is MUCH easier to find somewhat wholesome store-bought ice cream that is also nut free. Plus I learned it is okay to bring in a big container to scoop out right there at the lunch table and also share some nut-free toppings to make a sort of “ice cream bar” for the kids. We eat ice cream at home occasionally and although we make it ourselves (yum) I think store bought, all-natural, organic ice cream is a totally acceptable treat to share at a time like this! She got so excited about the idea of offering an ice cream bar that she seriously didn’t say another word about the cupcakes. As I said she is a child after all, and I am honestly just relieved that we figured out a way for everyone to be happy…me included. :)

The Details

birthday (organic) ice cream bar by 100 Days of Real Food

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In addition to the nut allergies my daughter’s class also has three children with dairy allergies! So this is what we ended up bringing to school for her birthday celebration today:

  • Nut-free organic store-brand vanilla ice cream
  • Nut-free AND dairy-free organic coconut milk ice cream (for the 3 kids who can’t have dairy)
  • Enjoy Life chocolate chips that are both certified nut-free and dairy-free
  • Organic Florida strawberries

Some schools in our district have gone “treat-free” all together when it comes to celebrating birthdays, and I am only hoping that will happen in our school at some point. Trying to accommodate everyone’s needs today (including my own) was no small feat!

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345 thoughts on “The Birthday Cupcake Moral Dilemma (and the solution!)”

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  1. Hi. I am trying to have my “empty nest” eat healthier… step by step…. So, your website/blog intrigued me! I do have a question though. In this picture, it looks as though the strawberries are still in the original container. I am a stickler for washing all produce with all-natural Veggie Wash from whole foods… then rinsing well.. Do you wash strawberries and then the container as well? just wondering… thank you!!

  2. I really love your approach to keeping your kids healthy. It is balanced and thoughtful. And making your children part of the decision-making process is so important and really pays off in the long run. We don’t follow 100% of the 100 Days of Real Food guidelines but we have definitely been inspired by you to eat less processed food and it has really made a difference in our family’s health. Thank you for the work that you do!

  3. As a kindergarten teacher, I once suggested parents consider non-sweet foods for birthdays if they wanted to, and gave a few ideas. When I got home, my phone was ringing from an irate mother who thought that just because I “didn’t let MY kids eat sweets, I shouldn’t tell others what they should do!” I told her those were just suggestions and I assured her that my family loved cookies, etc, but I didn’t want parents to think they had to send cupcakes, etc. She calmed down, and I must say, we had some creative parents that year who sent a variety of treats.

  4. I love the ice cream bar idea! I also agree with everything you said here in this post. I cannot imagine how stressful these situations must be. I must be honest though… Didn’t you just bring in Krispy creme doughnuts for your older child’s birthday. I am not judging you for letting your daughter have a doughnut once a year, but the thing is if every parent had that attitude if would be a lot more often then once a year. Just want to understand the reasoning as to why the older daughter gets Krispy creme, but the younger can’t bring cupcakes?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Crystal. This post is 4 years old and sometimes Lisa does make exceptions to her rules. :)

  5. When did having parties at school start? We never had parties at school in the 50’s and I don’t see why they need to take time out of teaching to have ones now. Oh yeah, I forgot they don’t teach anything now anyway so what does it matter. I suggest everyone get active in the PTA and push for NO PARTIES. This solves the problem of food and saves you money, especially if you want to have a birthday party for your child outside of school and have to INVITE THE WHOLE class, if you do. Haven’t they heard of the rule on one guest per year of age?? I can’t imagine trying to watch 15 or 20 children you don’t know, especially if the parents just drop them off and don’t stay to watch them.

  6. I am a mother to a child with a tree nut allergy and I’m not sure if you are aware but most of the store bought ice creams are made on the same lines as other ice creams that contain nuts and for that reason I don’t feel comfortable with my child eating that. Yes they clean the lines in between but there is still a risk for cross contamination.

  7. I am so glad I read this! I usually end up taking ice cream as well. Good old fashioned vanilla. No fruit flavors…some kids are allergic to straw berries. It’s been 2 years since I had to deal with this, so I couldn’t think of anything.

  8. I am so glad I read this! I usually end up taking ice cream as well. Good old fashioned vanilla. No fruit flavors…some kids are allergic to straw berries.

  9. I hate the almost weekly birthday classroom celebrations. I would like to get to be the one who enjoys the occasional treat with my daughter – not have them given at school so often that I don’t feel great about giving more at home. My younger daughter isn’t in school yet – but her dairy, egg, soy & nut allergy pretty much garuntee that she will be left out of these celebrations every time. How is that fair to a 5 year old? I wish we would move away from the school birthday treats altogether… Sigh…

  10. My head feels like it is going to explode just from reading everything you had to go through to share a special day at school. Did any of the nut allergy people have a problem with the fact you brought coconut milk ice-cream? Coconut can trigger some nut allergies (though I don’t know if that includes its milk). I also find it ironic that the only thing allowed is the stuff that is the absolute worst for our bodies. How many of these kids would find drastic improvement in their allergy issues if they got off the processed crap and healed their gut?

    1. “I also find it ironic that the only thing allowed is the stuff that is the absolute worst for our bodies. How many of these kids would find drastic improvement in their allergy issues if they got off the processed crap and healed their gut?”

      Annie: I agree, the stuff that is allowed is not necessary always good for our bodies, though you must also understand that for the parent of a nut allergic child, I would rather something unhealthy, once in a while, than something that could KILL my child.

      Further, my breastfed child was diagnosed with a nut allergy at 6 month of age. Not sure how processed food could have caused?

      A bit more sympathy for children who could literately DIE from treats contaminated with nuts would be appreciated.

  11. This dilemma was a huge reason why we chose to send our girls to the Waldorf school in our area, Prairie Hill Waldorf School. Not only do they allow us to bring in homemade treats, they encourage us to practice whole foods eating with our families. For birthdays, in Kindergarten, we provide organic heavy cream and our child’s favorite fruit and the class whips up the cream and serves it with the prepared fruit. In the preschool the teacher makes a honey yogurt cake and tops it with the fruit you provide. They always take into account nut, gluten and other allergies as well. I really was happy to find such an amazing school that aligns with our family values.

  12. I love that you guys came up with a solution that made both of you happy! Birthdays are supposed to be fun, and I think that while food is supposed to be nourishing, it is also supposed to be enjoyed. Its great that y’all were able to find a fun way to enjoy a little something sweet for her special day with her classmates. And bravo for not taking the easy way out!

  13. Kinga Christianson

    My daughter just started preschool. She is only 3.5yo. This is her second week at school and today when I picked her up I found her eating birthday cupcake for lunch. I was not notified that somebody was going to bring them to school today and feed them to my child. Yes, I want her to be included in everything that her group is doing, I want her to have fun, but why, why, why does it have to mean feeding her bright food coloring and other crapy ingredients? I emailed the school and asked about their birthday sweets policy. What else can I do? Honestly, I wish they banned bringing junk food to celebrate birthdays for good. I dont want to be “that parent”, but I also dont want other parents to make decisions about what my child eats for lunch.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Kinga. I know how frustrating it can be, believe me. Some readers have said that their schools have switched to a once a month birthday celebration. This seems a good suggestion to share along with, perhaps, a list of healthier options. All that sugar hitting a preschooler’s blood stream cannot make a preschool teacher’s job any easier. :/ It may take some time but I bet you can find some allies among other parents, too. Best of luck. ~Amy

  14. It’s so sweet that you brought in a special coconut ice cream for the children who cannot have dairy. My daughter is allergic to nuts, and I really wish we had the same rules for parties at school. Everything has to be store bought but there’s no rule about a certified nut-free bakery. I keep Enjoy Life brand cookies in her treat box at school for when other kids a a birthday.

  15. This brought tears to my eyes. I am so proud of your little girl. Could you imaging how much stress you could have saved by just talking with her in the begining? We get so worried about getting them what they want because they ask for what they have seen. If we just take the time to talk to them they make the right choice afterall without hesitation. They are amazing little beings! You have a lot to be proud of!

  16. Wow! What a great idea!! The kids probably thought it was better than cupcakes! As a parent with a child with dairy, egg, and peanut allergy – thank you from the bottom of my heart for being sensitive to those kids!

  17. I remembered reading your article earlier in the year regarding your “Birthday treat dilemma.” My son’s birthday was yesterday and I brought in a chocolate fountain with strawberries, bananas, natural marshmallows and Trader Joe’s whole wheat pretzels. The children absolutely loved it. My son is also in kindergarten. Thanks for your inspiration!

  18. Hi there, I just found your site and really like it -I will be back.
    But at the risk of disappearing down a sideways rabbit hole – is your 8 year old daughter really wearing lipstick?

      1. Thanks – glad to hear it (for anyone else – regardless of the child sexualisation issues, just do a web search on lipstick and lead)

  19. One year we made chocolate dipped frozen bananas. The kids loved them. And I made a few of something else for those allergic to chocolate or bananas.

  20. My son’s school is treat free and he wanted to make volcanoes. I made 5 batches of air-dry clay and the kids worked together to make volcanoes. We filled them with baking soda, vinegar, and food coloring. The kids loved it. I even passes out a little plastic dinosaur for each kid to play with.

  21. Have you tried Java’s in Waxhaw? They are peanut free (although not tree nut free) and they have wonderful baked goods.

  22. My friend’s daughter was just recently diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (Type 1). Just a little history, food is not an area around which we tend to connect. When her daughter was diagnosed I tried to help out by doing some research and sharing information. I was really, really depressed by some of the diabetes diet information out there. Is it true that she has to rely on products that I would never in a million years dream of feeding to my family? The low carb yogurt is so highly processed with a list of very yucky ingredients and that is just for starters. It seems that real food and diabetes friendly food are at odds in the world. Do you have any thoughts/resources/suggestions?

    1. Claudia,
      My sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child (and now works as a nurse), so I have spent my life around this sort of “diet” if you could even call it that. Type 1 diabetics can have the same things that anyone else can have–they just have to eat sweets in moderation, and time them well. Type 1 diabetics are insulin dependent–it’s not about eating certain foods or not eating certain foods, it’s just about learning to balance them with the right dosage of insulin at the right time. Carbs go through the body faster than fat, so a diabetic eating a pasta dish would need more insulin at the time of the meal and less later on than a diabetic eating a steak, who will need less over the next few hours. Programmable insulin pumps have made this easier. If they want a sugary snack on occasion they could take some extra insulin to make up for it. It’s always easiest to balance the levels if a healthy diet is maintained (just as we all should!!) but special products are not necessary. Regular food at regular meals should be just fine!

      (disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and in no way want to substitute for medical advice)

    2. Almost all the “diabetes diet” info out there is for type 2 diabetics so you should just ignore it. Type 1s (juvenile) can eat basically eat anything they want as long as they dose for it appropriately with insulin per their doctor’s instructions.

  23. Coconut is a member of the palm family, which is not related to nuts or peanuts. Coconuts are large seeds adapted for water-born dispersal and remain viable after having floated in the sea for six months or more. If your child is allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, there is no reason for him to avoid coconut.

    It’s really a seed not a nut, and most allergists don’t tell you to avoid it with tree nut allergy. The few reactions to coconut are allergy just to it, unrelated to tree nut allergy. But the FDA confused everyone a couple of years back by adding coconut to the list of tree nut allergens…if you’re tree nut allergic, ask your doctor if coconut flour is ok for you. Most with tree nut allergy do have the green light to eat coconut.”

    The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) also weighed in “Discuss this with your doctor. Coconut, the seed of a drupaceous fruit, has typically not been restricted in the diets of people with tree nut allergy. However, in October of 2006, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) began identifying coconut as a tree nut. The available medical literature contains documentation of a small number of allergic reactions to coconut; most occurred in people who were not allergic to other tree nuts. Ask your doctor if you need to avoid coconut.”

  24. I teach kindergarten and at our school we don’t have food for birthdays. Children may donate a book to the class. We put their photo in the book with the date. That way we celebrate that child for years to come. When my son wanted to bring a treat for his birthday, I changed the labels on water bottles to say “Name is turning 6, Wat-er you doing?” Kind of corny, but no one else had done it!

  25. I love your meet-in-the-middle solution to the cupcake dilemma! I am really bummed at the number of times the healthy lunches I’ve spent hours planning, shopping for and preparing come home from pre-school barely touched b/c there was a giant birthday cupcake, a pajama day donut, a holiday party snack, or it’s Tuesday Reading Group so the teacher brought a giant box of Goldfish crackers to pass around. I’m becoming aware that this is really a hot-button issue for a lot of parents. (Who would have thought not wanting MY kids inundated with sugar and chemicals would be so offensive to so many people???) Just wondering if anyone has suggestions for how to broach the subject of reducing/eliminating the celebratory snacks-or at least substitute healthier options for some of them-in a diplomatic manner. I don’t want to offend anyone or seem judge-y and I’m not sure how to start that conversation with other parents and the teachers.