“My husband thinks food and treats are going to get some child killed someday,” says the wife of a school principal.
He thinks that lawsuits over birthday cupcakes are too big of a risk and cites liability as the most important reason to ban classroom celebration food in schools:
“A child with food allergies that is exposed because of birthday treats is a huge liability issue to the school. There is no way the school can be certain of the ingredients of any food brought in from the outside, healthy or not. His school is now food free…”
I’ve been appalled at the amount of sugar kids eat at school during school birthday treats for years, and I’ve tried multiple times to propose a policy at our school that would ban food like the wise principal above. We need birthday ideas for the classroom without food.
Our principals have told me they feel more at risk of parents bringing lawsuits against them if a box of cupcakes is thrown away because it’s against policy. <<I wish this was exaggeration! 🙁
But thankfully, our current elementary principal is open to slowly making positive changes, and he’s right — even if we can cut down birthday cupcakes (and other sugary monstrosities) by half, we’re making headway!
He asked me to send over some ideas for non food birthday treats that he could share with parents, and I gladly complied.
I know that for so many reasons, many parents have thoughts and feelings about classroom birthday treats. They wish their kids weren’t fed by other parents, that celebrations didn’t have to include junk food, and even that they don’t have to feel obligated to send in a food treat for every birthday! (Think of a pastor’s family with 6 kids — that’s a LOT of cupcakes to either purchase on a very tight budget or make on a very tight amount of time!)
We’ve already talked about WHY food celebrations should stop, now let’s get practical with non food birthday celebrations – with activities, giving back, non food gifts, starting new traditions and more.
Many parents want their child to have a “special day” on their birthday. So if food isn’t a great option, what can we bring to school to celebrate a birthday instead?
I’m so impressed and encouraged to hear of schools and districts already instituting healthy celebration policies. Check out the second category here in the Ritenour School District Handbook (Missouri) as one great example of a school where the administration is obviously prioritizing health and wellness!
In Minneapolis, the entire school district has the following in its “Food in Classrooms” regulations:
Food shall not be served as a reward, incentive or as part of a personal celebration whether prepared by the teacher or by a student’s family, unless the food served is part of a student’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) or IAP.
It doesn’t have to start with strict district-wide policies and regulations, however — WE can make the change, one parent, one decision, one good example at a time to make healthy school treats at birthdays.
I’m here to help make it easier for you with a few dozen practical ideas!
School Treats for Birthdays: Fun Activities
While it’s much easier if the leadership is on board and encourages (or requires) non food birthday treats, any parent in any school could use ideas from the next few categories!
- Bring in a favorite book for the teacher to read to the class For younger grades with picture books; be sure to get permission from the teacher first, although most teachers would probably rather spend 10 minutes reading than 15 minutes passing out napkins and cleaning up crumbs!
- A “special guest” reads a favorite book to the class Again, be sure to ask the teacher if this is ok.
- Pajama or hat day just for the birthday kid This one needs some teacher interaction and approval but is a nice easy one for everybody!
- Special party napkins or hats for the normal “snack time” in the classroom
- Decorate the child’s locker or cubby Get permission from the teacher first please.
- Bring in a special game everyone can play at the end of the day Teacher approval needed, but again, I would hope most teachers would rather do this than serve junk food?
- Birthday kid shares some special memories or toy with the class (public speaking practice!) Communicate with the teacher — which you should be doing anyway if you’re sending in 24 cupcakes or 24 cheese sticks for the class…
Birthday Celebration Idea: Give Back
One of my goals as a parent is to raise children who value service to others. In our family, our kids have never received gifts at “kid” birthday parties. Since my oldest was five years old, we’ve simple asked people to donate to Kids Food Basket, and then we go volunteer as a family.
When we started, the organization made over 2,000 sack suppers each day. Now they make well over 6,000 and have a satellite location for even more in a nearby community!
Little Gabe is finally old enough to serve, so the whole family got to go just this week for the first time all together. 🙂 THAT’S a birthday tradition worth writing home about, in my opinion. Check out how it went in the saved story “Food Pantry” on Instagram; click about halfway through for this week’s adventures.
We even did it with our Kids Cook Real Food neighbors, and they used their knife skills to slice oranges for the sack suppers:
Here is a short collection of ways to “give back” instead of making the birthday all about commercialism:
- Donate a book to the media center or classroom Write your child’s name and birthday in the front cover to make it special.
- Donate something to the classroom like dry erase markers, a new rainy day recess game, hand sanitizer, etc. Teachers could keep an ongoing list of needs in a Google doc to which everyone has access. Rather than giving a “gift” of junk food to all the kids, give a real gift to the entire classroom that lasts a lot longer!
- Donate to a favorite charity and tell the class about it In our community we support Kids Food Basket which provides sack suppers for thousands of children who are food insecure. Classrooms can decorate the bags used to send these life-saving meals home!
- Ask classmates to bring in a canned good or article of clothing to donate to a local community center or food bank.
Print the List! (+ bonus letter to administration)
We made it pretty (and practical!) for you — print a list by category of all these ideas, PLUS a sample letter to administration to request a slow shift in policy, gently, and a simple one-pager of these ideas to share with your school.
We can be part of the movement to shift birthday celebrations away from junk food, one child and one parent at a time!
Ideas for Kids Birthday Party: Fun Non Food Gifts
I’ve always sort of thought it was strange that the birthday child brought treats for everyone else, and I think the same about “goodie bags” at kids’ birthday parties, but if you want to give gifts to others on your birthday, that’s fine with me!
Instead of junk food though, what about a gift of 1-2 little toys or school supplies for each child?
Try a dollar store, Oriental Trading, or Amazon of course – you can get bouncy balls for as little as approximately 10c/ball or these neat glow-in-the-dark balls for around 24c/ball as of September 25, 2019) so it doesn’t have to be expensive.
More “Goodie Bag” Ideas:
- Mini flashlights (an actual USE for something kids also find fun! We got this set for birthday treats once and they’re fairly durable – seems like one in each set was falling apart, so don’t order the exact number you need 2 days before the event…)
- Light-up trinkets (not as useful, but finger lights, rings, bracelets and glasses are hilarious and kids reallllly like them, and this box of 60 pieces makes each one quite affordable! We used these one year for St. Nicholas gifts and had a ball doing dark-house dance parties all that month!)
- Seed Packets (yay, eco-friendly and encouraging outdoor time!)
- Temporary Tattoos (I always worry about the dyes on my kids’ skin, but I’m pretty sure they’re safer than a 2-inch frosting cupcake…)
- School supplies: fun pencils, bendy pencils, erasers (or these emoji erasers), bookmarks, gel pens, cute sticky notes, multi-color pens, etc. (for the practical — teacher really appreciate school items halfway through the year when all the kids have lost and used up what they started with!)
- Twisty straws
- Mini rubik cubes or these little puzzles (Make kids think for a birthday treat? Hooray!)
- Play-doh (Remember to consider allergies though, especially gluten — I make homemade playdough but only if no gluten issues.)
- Emoji keychains
- Slap bracelets
- Punching balloons
- Mini building block animals
- Superhero masks or animal masks (a mom actually got something like this for my kindergartener and he wouldn’t take it off for days! I loooove the idea! And, because he didn’t have a cupcake for the birthday celebration at school, he could have the ice cream treat with his brother at home…)
Homemade Gifts for School Birthday Celebrations
And hey, if your child is the crafty type and you love DIY, why not make a truly special tradition (or a one-time event) where you really get to connect as a parent with the birthday child while making gifts for the class?
- Homemade playdough (my fav recipe here, but please remember that this is a big allergy issue too so make sure there aren’t gluten allergies in your child’s class!)
- Homemade silly putty
- Homemade lotion (try tallow balm or DIY hard lotion but check for allergies here too!)
- What else? (can you tell I’m not very crafty/DIY?)
School Traditions to Make Every Child’s Birthday Special (Without FOOD!)
If you CAN get the leadership in your child’s school to make changes at a school-wide level, there are SUCH cool traditions that kids will look forward to every year (dare I guess even more than the cupcakes with 2-inch thick frosting???).
Here’s how it’s made one allergy mom’s life easier:
“I am so grateful that our principal noticed how sad some kids were when their classmates’ parents brought in a full party, and their own parents didn’t or couldn’t (for financial or other reasons). She declared that no birthday treats are allowed, but each student could come to the office for a non food prize.
Each classroom could come up with a way to recognize birthdays – extra outside time, pajama day, iPad games, or the birthday child might eat lunch with the teacher or “be the teacher,” etc.
This made it so much easier when my kids with food sensitivities came along. And it helps set the tone for careful food planning for parties.
Not everyone is accepting, but it sure helps to have the leadership on board. It may help to know that some teachers choose the way to “celebrate,” while others give the birthday kids a menu of ways to celebrate. The child, or all birthday children in a month, choose their way to celebrate.”
I think it would be amazing for schools to have traditions based on the grade level.
Do you remember the intense desire you felt to finally make it to 3rd grade just so you could sit past the halfway point on the bus?
Or how 2nd graders got to have a special “food groups” lunch with the teacher and 5th graders got to do Science Fair projects, so every kid anticipated those events when they finally got to that grade?
It makes growing up special, and isn’t that what birthday celebrations are all about?
Imagine if all the first graders knew they would have decorated lockers for their birthday. They’d be quivering with excitement as their birthday approached!
Or if all the fifth graders, kings of the school, knew they would have lunch with the principal during their birthday month.
If every grade got increasingly more attractive, more special, “growing up” would have its perks. 🙂
Here are some fabulous ideas for any and all:
- School-wide birthday traditions without food
- Individual classroom “menu” ideas
- Grade level traditions that kids could look forward to
Birthday Books for the School
I’ve seen this done in many schools around the country, and in our own area a number of schools have a birthday book as an option.
Our librarian would support this – we’ve already talked years ago and she told me about what it was like when our elementary school switched to a book exchange for Christmas instead of gifts. There were a few years of transition, but now no one questions it. A new normal.
A reader of mine donated a book to her school as a child; her children can still check out that book 20 years later. Building history instead of waistlines!!
The system is simple:
- Birthday child buys a “birthday book” for the media center in honor of the child with a nice sticker on the inside.
- The birthday book can be on display in the child’s classroom that week. (For younger grades, the teacher may read the book to the class if there is time.)
- For students whose parents would rather send in money than buy a book, the librarian can have a box of books from which to choose.
- Students who can’t or didn’t bring in money for the book could also still choose a book from that box, or bring a gently used book from home for the classroom
Birthday Autograph Books and Locker Decorations
Part of what kids loooooove about celebrating their birthday at our elementary school is that if they have extra treats, they get to choose a friend and walk around to share with the principal’s office and their teachers from former years. It’s a real treat for kids to visit old teachers!
But I can’t imagine it’s healthy for teachers or principals to eat all those treats (I know many quietly admit to throwing them away). There has to be a way to preserve the lovely tradition of connecting with people without making it be about sugar.
How about birthday autograph books that kids can take around to former teachers, specials teachers, and the principal, much like they do with cupcakes now? The child still gets the special feeling of leaving class, visiting treasured relationships…but the adults don’t get a bunch of sugar. Teachers could even have special stickers to put in the book that the children look forward to each year!
This could be paired with decorated lockers to make the child feel even more special. A team of parents might volunteer to decorate kids’ lockers on their birthdays, just moving the same decorations (magnets?) from place to place.
Logistically this could be one parent at a time “on duty” for a week, popping in each day right after school to do the switch, or different people each day of the week…with online “signup” forms, coordinating this is easier than ever.
Classroom Birthday Traditions That Rock
Do you think your child’s teachers would entertain these ideas?
Practically, any teacher could easily implement his/her own classroom tradition, choosing 1 or 2 from this list. Teachers could also offer a “menu” of options for the child to choose from.
OR if the whole school is on board, these are just the kinds of fun activities kids will look forward to if each grade level has its “special birthday celebration” without food!
I’ve ordered them loosely from what I think younger children would enjoy up to older kids…
- Special sticker, crown or badge to wear on the child’s special day (In the photo above, Gabe looks pretty happy with his crown, which he wore the rest of the week daily at home! On the right, his teacher is demonstrating how each child will make a page for Gabe’s birthday book, depicting something they would do together to have fun.)
- Have a parent or special friend join the child for an hour of the school day as a “birthday shadow”
- Have a parent or special friend come in as a mystery reader – the younger kids enjoy this so much during March is Reading Month at our schools!
- Parent or special friend join the child for lunch
- Bring in a favorite book for the teacher to read to the class
- Other children can bring gifts for the birthday child, but they have to be hand-crafted by the child or from nature (idea from a school in NY).
- Extra recess for the class where the birthday kid chooses a fun activity for everyone to play (a reader recently pointed out that a 15-minute recess is pretty much equal to the time it takes to pass out napkins and cupcakes, eat, and clean up…)
- Pajama day (for the birthday child only) Teachers could simplify by having all that month’s birthdays do PJs on one day…
- Extra outside time with another grade
- Get a special card/poster signed from each member of the class
- Extra iPad/computer time for the birthday child
- Birthday child could make a presentation about something they love to their class Some kids won’t look forward to this at all because of a fear of public speaking, so it’s one to be used judiciously, perhaps only on the “menu” system
- “Be the teacher” for a certain number of minutes
- Monthly birthday lunches with the teacher (or principal) Note: The kids don’t have to be served lunch (whether it’s pizza, PBJ, or granola and Brussels sprouts, it’s not worth the conversation about “what’s healthy” nor do schools need the expense. An adult’s presence and attention should be a gift in itself.)
Thanks to Sally at Real Mom Nutrition for contributing ideas for this list!
Healthy School Treats for Birthdays: It Happens in Real Life Already
Long ago when I was working to shift our own school policies, a longtime reader, Kassia, shared this on Facebook:
This thankfully has not been an issue (most of the time) in our area. You are not allowed to bring treats/food based items to our school for classroom celebrations (like birthdays) because of allergies, though they say they cannot stop parents from passing them out after class outside.
They encourage parents to send non food items like stickers, pencils, erasers, etc if they would like to send something, or to donate a book to the classroom or school library in their honor. They have a whole program where they put the child’s name and “in honor of their birthday” in the front of the book.
As for sports, my son is in baseball, and we do not do snacks as a team. Well, usually. Last year one mom brought pizza for the team one day, which they all gorged on and then wondered why they were dragging so bad. 😐 But that was very unusual. If someone wants their child to have a snack, they bring their own, though most of the boys don’t want to eat while they’re playing. Hopefully this means that the tide is turning.
I hope so too!!
Do you see ideas you could actually try for your child, or maybe even recommend for the whole school?
You know I’m on your team if you try, and I’d LOVE to hear how it goes!! Be sure to download the printable list and sample letter to school administrators to make it even easier to be part of the movement toward healthier school celebrations!
And if you’re not convinced that this is important…apply logic to all these reasons. 😉