06 November 2013

Classroom birthday treats that include students with dietary restrictions? Talk amongst yourselves.

Cupcake photo credit: Frederic Bisson via Flickr/Creative CommonsTuri's thoughtful question speaks to a larger issue of classroom treats in the age of food allergies and dietary restrictions: 

I have a 3rd grader with a birthday coming up, and am planning on sending some homemade cupcakes along to school with her. However, there's one child in her class that keeps kosher and always feels left out on the birthday treats.

Reno (where we live) does not have a very large Jewish population, and I have very little clue about the dietary laws, etc. I'm sure MY kitchen isn't kosher, at the very least.

So, is there anything I can send along specifically for that child? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Most of us with school-aged kids have faced this dilemma in one form or another. Classroom birthdays, school holiday parties...when food is involved, things get complicated. You know what prompted Turi to write in? Her 3rd grade daughter came home worried that this student would feel left out.

What to do? Frankly, I don't see a simple solution. Parents are in a bind when the classroom has a tradition of birthday celebrations with treats. Not only do health issues and religious and/or ethical choices come up, everyone struggles with worries about inclusion and being singled out.

Even when kids don't have food issues, I don't hear parents lobbying for more sugar at school. (It still surprises me that many of my kids' teachers regularly reward their students with candy.)

What about non-food treats? Well, that fixes one problem but creates another: clutter. Buying a classroom 30 of anything that's not a throwaway is pretty expensive.

On the other hand, diversity is one of the best ways for our kids to learn empathy. How wonderful that Turi's daughter had an opportunity to learn not only about another culture, but about another kid's feelings.

Here's what I would say to Turi: the thing about keeping Kosher is that technically the food needs to be cooked in a Kosher kitchen. But some people observe that rule a little less stringently, so I think the best thing is to give this kid's parents a call. Surely they've dealt with this before? They should either have a) a store-bought solution or b) clarification on what would work.

Which brings me to what I think is the silver lining in all this: Choosing classroom treats gives you an opportunity to get to know other parents. It's not easy to pick up the phone and call someone you don't know, but it's the best way to break down the anonymity some of us feel in the school community.

Good things happen when the parents of classmates know each other. Social gatherings are easier. Play dates are more likely. Problems are less awkward to solve. As important: you'll feel less isolated. Your adult sounding board will be larger than just the teacher. You'll have more context for your kid's school day.

What do you say, Parenthackers? How do you handle classroom birthday celebrations? Or treats in the classroom?

Cupcake photo credit: Frederic Bisson via Flickr/Creative Commons

Your comments

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I am so grateful that our school doesn't allow anything to be brought in for birthdays. No treats, no trinkets. They sing to the birthday boy/girl, they make a special crown for them to wear, and they get to be class leader for the day.

I was out of town and knew I couldn't handle sending in treats, so I sent in playing cards with a sticker that said 'thanks for celebrating my birthday'. My mom was a teacher and said she liked it when parent sent in funny glasses, fancy pens or other non food dollar store type things they could work into crafts. But nothing at all is OK too!

I have two kids with food allergies, and both are used to occasionally not being able to eat a birthday treat (which we seem to have quite often!). This does not bum them out. While we remember and appreciate those families thoughtful enough to ask about the safety of snacks for our kids,I do usually provide an bag of non perishable alternate snacks for my children, and I understand that sometimes, the birthday child's favorite treat contains things that my kids are allergic to.

I think the best thing is to give the other parents a heads up and start that dialogue as you mentioned, Asha. I've appreciated the most this year with my daughter (who has food allergies) when parents let me know about a week in advance about a birthday. Sometimes I can make a replica recipe to match what they serve the other kids and other times I can give them ideas for things that are safe for everyone in the class. One mom did strawberries for example and the kids loved it. The teacher has the kids each color a page and make it into a birthday book for the birthday child and they adore that. Communication is key! This past weekend at the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference one thing that came up with advocacy was how hard it is to be advocating changes in the routines and lifestyle of *others* to keep our children safe. Just the presence of allergens in the classroom can inhibit learning and parents that are focused on celebrating their child's birthday can lose sight of that. Other kids tend to be the most supportive so parent expectations should be managed with the support of a caring educator.

As a parent of a child with food issues, all we ask for is a heads up that treats will be given out in class so that we can bring something for our child. We try to provide something similar to the treat so that he doesn't feel left out. Most of the parents in our class know about our food issues, but there are always new parents each year so we ask the teacher to send a notice to let parents know about the prior notice request. There are about five kids now in his class that have some food issue.

I have to admit that I look forward to the age where we're not providing cupcakes for birthdays and using candy for rewards in classrooms. It's an ongoing battle. We have a bucket of yummy earth lollipops in class for my son so that he has the opportunity to earn like the other kids, but it's not as bad as Smarties.

I emailed Homa for tips on what to take when my son's class had numerous, life-threatening food allergies.

When I was growing up only one kid in my class had specialized dietary needs, and he had Juvenile Diabetes. His mom always brought his treats for every birthday and holiday. I look back at their family with admiration, but I now wish I'd done more to include him.

Our kids are more aware of these issues than I was as a child, and I hope they'll better learn the value of full inclusion- even if it means forgoing a treat altogether.

My child's school is very food conscious (Waldorf inspired) and doesn't allow us to send sugary foods/snacks even in their lunches. There are also numerous food allergies in our class (including our child's potato and egg intolerances) and even a severe dairy allergy, so all the families are very mindful and what they send daily (the children eat together in the classroom). For birthdays the teacher makes and serves a special treat (brown rice with honey and cinnamon) once a month for all the children celebrating in that month. I really appreciate that the school and teacher are so thoughtful about this. It is inclusive to all, healthful and intentional as part of the class/school culture.

I would *love* to be able to contact other parents (about this sort of thing and/or other things) but our school makes it difficult to say the least. No phone directory, teachers have no idea (and can't send home notes to other parents on your behalf), office won't give out information, etc. :( The only way to find a parent is if they pick up their child after school at the same door as you - assuming that you can catch/recognize anyone in that mob.

I was going to say the same thing you brought up, Mari. While I appreciate the comment about getting to know other parents and children through situations like this one, getting in touch with parents at all has proved to be difficult for me. My kids are free of eating restrictions, but I would like to get in touch with their classmates' parents for a variety of reasons, from playdates to party invitations. I would love any ideas for how to get in touch with parents when the school doesn't provide those tools.

In our school, it's the PTA that does the directory - a form is sent home to gather directory information the first week of school (with the ability to opt out), and a month or two later, the directories are delivered to each (PTA)family by kid-mail. It might be too late for this year, but you could start a class directory at your school for next year.

Our children attend a Japanese school (we are stationed oversees) and it has been an absolute delight that sweets are not allowed into the classrooms. I have one with Celiac, and just thinking of the birthday party issues in Stateside classrooms gives me a headache. Our Montessori based school has one party per month at which the kids have a small assembly in the hall, each birthday child gets to speak in front of the school about their favorite things, and all of the kids are given a huge treat: fruit juice. Yes, they are ecstatic as the only beverages served at school is water in their thermos and hot tea at lunch, plus milk once a week on sandwich days. And while we restrict juice consumption at home, I'm only more that happy to see that treat offered once a month at school!

My son has allergies and I just make sure that I try to get with all the parents and ask them to just let me know and I can bring a substitute. It doesn't always work out and my son understands, but, especially when they have class parties and such, most of the parents are aware and make sure they let me know what they're bringing in so I can bring something. Luckily, it's a small class and most of us are really good friends anyway as we've been together since preschool! There are a few ppl who are new and they sometimes miss me, but again, if you know who those kids are, you can just maybe give them a heads up and see how they want to handle it.

I'm 40, and growing up, I was the only kid with food allergies. I pretty much missed out on everybody's birthday treats, but I was OK as long as nobody made a big deal about it (some teachers lectured me for being "picky" and one girl refused to ever play with me ever again because I couldn't eat the cupcakes she had baked herself.)

However, one time somebody made an accomodation for my allergy, and to this day I remember it. Alan Ashby was the catcher for the Astros, and had a child in my grade. If we had perfect behavior, we got to go to a party with him & were served treats. He asked the teachers why I wasn't eating any treats, and when they told him that I was allergic to all the treats he left the party, went to the teachers lounge, and bought me treats I could eat. I'm tearing up right now remembering it.

My suggestion? By a sealed, pre-packaged kosher treat for the kid who can only eat kosher. They will remember that someone was kind to them forever.

I'm wondering if any of you are in Colorado? I started on a mission this year to promote healthier snacks, or better yet, no snacks. Our birthday parties and holiday parties are out of control, and some of our teachers are giving out candy daily as rewards. I didn't realize that anyone would actually object to cutting out the "extra" food, but I have a huge battle on my hands. I am now working from a district level to review/enforce an extremely vague wellness policy. If any of you have had success implementing these changes, I would love to hear from you. I am diabetic and worry that my kids will someday deal with type 2 diabetes, I would like them to grow up learning how to have a healthy relationship with food. I feel like feeding them when they are not hungry as a reward or holiday really sends them down the wrong path.

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