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Why Treats at School Should Have Been Banned Decades Ago

Artificially dyed cupcakes, school birthday treats

We live in a frighteningly litigious society, don’t you think? I’m looking at you, burglars who sue homeowners because they got injured during a B&E…and so many more!

I’m curious if you can imagine a situation where you would want to sue your child’s elementary school or preschool.

As you turn over possible scenarios in your mind, they’re probably all terrifying and traumatic to your child, the kind of thing you hope never will happen in real life and especially in your family.

But what about the birthday cupcake?

Would you call your lawyer if you had brought some lovely cupcakes with one-inch-thick blue frosting as your third-grader’s ninth birthday treat, and because of school policy, the ladies in the office tossed the whole box in the trash?

>>Katie’s head explodes considering that…<<

I know how I feel about that scenario, but apparently, it’s a real threat.

I’ve been saying for a number of years that I could never go back to teaching full time in the classroom because it’s not the kind of place where I can be passionate about teaching children without worrying about too many things.

A few years ago, I proposed a birthday celebration policy change at my kids’ elementary school. I wanted to request that food treats be banned to make life easier for everyone, especially kids with allergies. My proposal was flatly denied by the principal and in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to present my ideas to the parent group.

You can read about my sugary math and how far beyond the American Heart Association recommendations a simple cupcake for every child’s birthday takes our kids here and see the principal’s response in this old Facebook post, but today, I really want to roadmap the logic.

Let’s dig into research and statistics, and by golly, if it’s not too crazy, common sense to lay out the argument that school birthday treats should have been banned decades ago and replaced with healthy birthday treats that aren’t food.

RELATED: 45 Non-Food Birthday Celebration Ideas for School

Why Should We Do Away with Birthday Treats at School?

Food matters – from exclusion to obesity and food addiction, from food allergies to learning disruption, and finally, because quite simply, we need to build healthier habits in our kids or we’re going to lose the entire generation to obesity, diabetes, depression and more.

Our current principal is more flexible and open to the idea of non-food birthday treats in our elementary school, but he explains that it needs to be taken slowly and carefully. Too many parents don’t like change, and unfortunately, too many parents were raised in a society that equates celebrations with food. And not only food, but sweet, sugary, carb-loaded junk food.

It’s very hard to change these habits once we’re adults.

Ahem: case in point, litigious society, see above. 

It’s why we need to start our kids off right with the best habits we can both at home and at school.

Birthday Treats Can Leave Kids Out

Whether expectation is reality or not, when a tradition is laid down and when a bar is set, kids feel like they need to live up to that expectation. If most kids bring cupcakes or cookies or donuts, or some sweet treat (usually purchased at the store), all children will feel like they are supposed to, even if the school explains that they don’t have to.

What does this mean for kids with a low socioeconomic status? We do a lot in our schools to teach kids not to bully. We do a lot in our preschools to try to keep learning and experiences equitable for all kids.

We have special-education inclusion classrooms.

We are careful not to discriminate by race or gender.

We do so much to level the playing field, and yet when it comes to birthday treats, too many teachers, administrators, and parents can’t see beyond the “need” for celebration to the kids who feel left out because their family doesn’t have enough money to buy a treat or enough time to make something that will make their birthday celebration as special as all the other kids’.

There are plenty of ways that we can make sure all kids, from those whose parents have high-powered high paying jobs to those who are getting free or reduced lunch, can equally enjoy and appreciate their very own birthday celebration in the classroom.

Birthdays Don’t Need to Equal Sugar

The statistics on health in our children are dismal. I will keep shouting from the rooftops until people begin to listen that as each graph increases at an alarming rate, we really will see the prediction come true that this generation will be the first not to outlive their parents, and it’s going to be because of chronic disease and too many prescriptions too early.

rising trend graph
  • an estimated 18.5% of all U.S. children and adolescents are obese (and more are overweight!) (source)
  • there has been a 30.5% overall increase in type 2 diabetes in youth ages 10-19 (source)
  • the percentage of US children 4-17 years of age with an ADHD diagnosis by a health care provider, as reported by parents, continues to increase each year. Rates of ADHD diagnosis were between 2001 and 2010 increased 24%. (source)

Not only do all these diseases increase because our kids are eating too much sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables, but we are also beginning to see an epidemic of food addiction. We know that sugar is addictive, perhaps as addictive as cigarettes, and yet we build every celebration – and when it comes down to it, every normal event like a soccer game or getting a good grade on a test – around sugary treats.

I will be sharing an interview with an expert on food addiction for the Healthy Parenting Connector in 2020, so we have a lot more to say about this, but suffice it to say that kids aren’t eating well and their habits are not being formed well in childhood when it comes to the lens through which to see sugary treats and junk food.

For more on habits, see the interview skim notes for Dina Rose, PhD on Building Healthy Eating Habits for Kids and dietitian Heidi Schauster on A Healthy Relationship with Food.

Birthday Treats and Rising Food Allergies

There’s no denying that food allergies have increased both in our children and in adults.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that between 1997-1999 and 2009- 2011, food allergy prevalence among children increased by 50 percent. (source)

Statistics aside, ask any parent or any teacher and they will say, usually with a look of stupefied wonder on their face, that they can’t believe how many kids have food allergies now. Almost everyone follows this exclamation with the sentiment, “I don’t remember kids in my elementary school having food allergies at all…what is going on?”

Today is not the time to talk about the root cause of the increasing food allergies and sensitivities we see, although it’s something that I definitely want to dig into and help solve for our American children.

The fact is that there are plenty of kids for whom birthday treats simply are not safe.

And now we come back to kids feeling excluded. When that cupcake with one-inch high blue frosting comes in, all our kids with gluten sensitivities, dairy allergies, or nut allergies most likely can’t participate. Those who are sensitive to food coloring are left out.

Sad girl

And even though certainly they may bring their own treat, is this really fair and equitable? Is it really worth allowing one child to have exactly what their parents want them to have for their birthday celebration at the expense of other children’s joy and contentment for their school day?

As a parent of a child who now has a food sensitivity (to dairy), I know what her face looks like on days when birthday treats are served. Even if it’s something that she wouldn’t normally want to eat, she’s absolutely crushed.

It impacts her entire day, socially and academically, and there’s really absolutely nothing I can do about it at home.

Leveling the playing field is the only thing I can think of to help kids with food allergies and sensitivities feel included in the classroom.

Leveling the playing field means to get rid of food at birthday celebrations.

School Is Not the Time for Sugary Treats

sugar laden candy and ice cream, school birthday treat

Honestly, I feel like the exclusion of socioeconomics and food allergies and the impact sugar has on our kids’ health should be enough.

However, I think the case should also be made that we are disrupting learning time when teachers need to pass out napkins and provide a special time of 10 to 15 minutes for kids to eat these treats and clean up after themselves.

Yes, a birthday child is worth 15 minutes of class time, but does it really need to be focused all around sugar?

It’s totally possible – and here are a few dozen non-food birthday treat ideas for the classroom to help you brainstorm – to create incredible and fun birthday celebrations that not only don’t include sugar but can actually help the students move toward their benchmark goals and continue learning.

Amazingly, learning can be fun too, even without a sugary treat to reward a child.

Building Healthy Habits with Celebrations

My interviews in the Healthy Parenting Connector are always fascinating, and Dr. Dina Rose, a sociologist and food expert and author of It’s Not About the Broccoli, really opened my mind about the psychology of food and how it’s not only about what we eat, but about when and how we eat it.

When we always connect sugar to a celebration, we teach kids in their brains that a celebration should require sugar.

We also teach kids’ brains that sugar is exciting, while broccoli, for example, is not.

Imagine if children brought in roasted broccoli, or sweet potatoes mashed with butter, or a nice fresh garden salad to celebrate their birthday. It would be too much of a paradigm shift; everyone would assume that that was not even a fun celebration, that someone was being a party pooper even though just the act of eating food together, talking with your friends should be celebratory.

When we create these habits as a society, we set our kids up for always looking for junk food in every celebration, and it’s a very dangerous habit. It definitely plays into the obesity epidemic, and these are the habits that are incredibly hard to break as adults.

See above, parents who consider calling their lawyers over cupcakes…LE SIGH. Or consider how YOU feel about a celebration – does it require food? Is the food nourishing? 

Does Having Food at Special Occasions Increase Anxiety in Children? Parents?

stressed out woman

One of the more alarming statistics I see is that one in three of our high schoolers are experiencing either depression or anxiety.source

When I interviewed our school counselors and teachers from K-8th grade in 2018 for some posts on depression and anxiety, all of them without question said that they see anxiety increasing in children and they see anxiety in children at younger ages.

Even one of our kindergarten teachers identifies serious anxiety in five-year-olds. Five-year-olds, people!

We really need to do everything we can to decrease opportunities for anxiety in our kids, and, unfortunately, what should be a fun celebration creates an opportunity to increase anxiety in these children.

When we think about exclusion, are kids worrying about their food allergies or about being left out because of socioeconomics?

Are kids worrying about keeping up with the Joneses and bringing something that everyone will like?

And for us parents, quite honestly, I feel like anytime we need to bring something, some food treat to school, it increases our stress and anxiety unnecessarily. I hear so many parents say that they have too much to do and would do anything to have more taken off their plate.

So why not food treats for birthdays?

I know at this point that not everyone is on board with what I’m saying. I know some of these arguments are weaker than others, and that’s okay. They’re all valid, and if you want to choose to fixate on one of the weak arguments and say that my entire proposal is null and void, that’s fine.

But for those of you who are still willing to employ your logic and common sense, let’s consider some of the common objections that parents are sure to say in a situation like this.

If you’re ready to be a food advocate with me and take these ideas to your own elementary school or even preschool, you’re definitely going to want rebuttals to each of these common objections.

Parent Objection: Just Feed Your Own Child

When it comes to community treats, when one person speaks up and says they’re not happy with the situation, immediately someone else jumps in and says, “Oh, that’s fine. You can just feed your own child.” …which is true…

A family can definitely send in their own treat for a child at a birthday or require that their child skip those birthday junk-food treats. However, to tell a family to just feed their own child when everyone else around them has blue frosting smeared on their faces and cupcake crumbs on their fingertips, that’s asking a lot of a child!

When we think about exclusion and leveling the playing field, just saying “feed your own child” is the opposite of what we’re going for as a generally tolerant society, now isn’t it?

Boy in party hat, school birthday treats

Parent Objection: Kids Deserve to Celebrate/Feel Special

I’ll never get into an argument with a parent and tell them that their child doesn’t deserve to have a birthday celebration. Of course all of our children deserve to be special and have a little bit of a special day when it’s their birthday.

My point is: do we need to create these habits that all celebrations and all special occasions need to have sugary junk food?

Can we figure out how to celebrate and make our kids feel special in healthier, more wholesome ways?

That’s the bottom line.

  • Yes to celebrations.
  • Yes to feeling special.
  • No to connecting it all back to sugar.

Parent Objection: Let Kids Make Their Own Choices

When I originally proposed a non-food birthday celebration policy to our former principal, she used this objection. She explained that she wants to help us raise independent children who are capable of making their own healthy choices.

I fully agree with this! However, I don’t think it’s possible to expect a 5-, 6-, 7-, or even 8-year-old, who is in a room without their parents, to have a cupcake with one-inch blue frosting set in front of them, and without any conversation or direction from the loving adults around them, to make the best choice (even part of the time).

I think we’re just asking for trouble when we say we’ll teach kids to make good choices by throwing them into very tough situations at very young ages. This is where I’ll be the one saying, “Let’s have parents teach their kids to make good choices in situations where they have a little bit more control. Perhaps the school should be responsible for teaching logic and grade thinking skills without creating situations with extreme temptation and social peer pressure.”

This is one that gets me pretty riled up, so I always hope I don’t have to answer it face-to-face so that I don’t make evil faces.

Parent Objection: “Everything in Moderation”

greasy burger and fries at a restaurant

My favorite: “Everything in moderation.”

Unfortunately, as any logical adult can see by looking around our society, we’ve lost perspective on what moderation exactly is.

“Everything in moderation” doesn’t mean everything full of sugar all the time for every child’s birthday all throughout the year, and parties and reading rewards, and other rewards, and more rewards, and library classes, and Sunday school classes, and soccer games, and basketball games…!

It’s exhausting just to think about how “moderate” the kids’ opportunities for sugar have become.

They are NOT moderate. They are excessive.

They are beyond what our kids’ physiology can handle. They are beyond what our kids’ psychologies can handle.

The “everything in moderation” excuse is outdated and just. plain. wrong.

How Non-Food Birthday Celebrations Can be Truly Special

boy in birthday crown at school

Rather than focus on what we can’t have, focus on what we can do:

  1. make the birthday child feel special
  2. share a moment with their former teachers and principal

Check out over 45 fun ideas for birthdays without food here!

Print the List! (+ bonus letter to administration)

free download of non-food birthday treat list

We made it pretty (and practical!) for you — print a list of non-food birthday treats, PLUS a sample letter to administration to request a slow shift in policy, gently, and a simple one-pager of the 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!

Get The Guide

A “No Food” Birthday Policy is Easier for Everyone

For the record, my gentle response to the parents who say, “It’s a parent’s responsibility to decide what’s best for their own child,” is that they are absolutely 100% correct, dead-on right.

The problem isn’t that we all need to agree on what kids should eat, and I have no desire to tell other parents what to do with their own kids – but when we’re feeding each other’s children, in a very real way the one bringing the food is forcing that decision upon the child.

For a child with a food allergy or sensitivity, they’re put in an awfully tough spot. They have to bow out of all the fun and celebration, and it’s not like it’s their choice to have a food allergy.

For children (like mine) whose parents simply prefer fewer sweets, they’re also in a tough spot, and so am I.

When other parents are deciding what my child eats when he’s out of my home, it either simply makes the decision for me (is that fair?) OR singles my kid out as the one who can’t participate, which applies to both parent and child. I’d like to take my kids to get ice cream on a sunny summer Friday evening just as much as anyone, but if they’ve had cupcakes and doughnuts at school already that day, I feel like the choice is stripped from me.

So…the real answer to “each parent taking responsibility for their own child” is to stop feeding each other’s children altogether.

If the policy simply included no food, it makes life easier for those who have food restrictions and those who make different lifestyle choices than the mainstream, and I don’t believe it makes life any more difficult for those who wished they could bring cupcakes.

In fact, they get to skip a trip to the store, and they can still do whatever they wish at home at their child’s family birthday celebration or kids’ birthday party.

Are you ready for the social norms about birthday treats to change?

Why birthday treats should be banned from schools, treats for birthdays at school

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

23 thoughts on “Why Treats at School Should Have Been Banned Decades Ago”

  1. Sherry Straus

    No foods need to be given at school. Kids can bring games from home, go outside for a game or two or once a month have 1 day for all birthdays during that month and have a special hour of fun. No reason food or sweets need to become part of every celebration, we have enough of that in homes. Maybe take a vote on what the birthday kids would like to do and go with that.

  2. The school division I work in and send my kids to has a no foods shared/brought in policy. It’s been like this for 5 years and I completely agree! I’m not super healthfully minded like I should be, but with food allergies etc, it’s a real hassle. I used to sub teach in another division and I was shocked at these parents that would bring in chips, koolaid jammers, and cupcakes for kids parties. Our teachers have to get parental permission for EVERYTHING in elementary school at parties. They will list the exact items being used and parents can opt out and send in for their own whatever sub works well. Some teachers will even provide the substitute! There are times when parents can provide snacks for the entire class for certain things (typically after SOL testing) but all is pre packaged and notes are sent home for parents to sign off on and designate what can or cannot be had.

  3. Judith Martinez

    When did bringing treats to class on your child’s birthday become a social norm? No one ever did that when I was in school. I finished high school in 1990. Any other 80’s kids experience this? Was it just done in the ‘burbs back then?

  4. I was one of those anxious and depressed 5yos, and birthdays always felt specifically calculated to humiliate me, no matter how loving and generous the people around me were. I would have loved it if my school just didn’t do birthdays!

    Today, I homeschool my kids, but I keep an eye on issues around the school system. In my family, we have religious dietary restrictions (Kashrut) that schools simply don’t accommodate, and I would never demand that other families that I don’t know do things “my way.” My kids simply would not be able to participate in food treats at school or school lunches, which gets me thinking about families with other dietary restrictions. The vegan kid can’t have cake with eggs in it. Jewish and Muslim kids can’t eat candy or yoghurt that contain gelatin (gummy bears, for instance). And what about the Catholic kid whose family has committed to no sweets for Lent?

    I really wish schools wouldn’t do treats or family-provided snacks, and the schools would be much more comfortable for a lot more families if the lunch room went vegan.

    1. Rachel, I’m so sorry school wsa that anxious place for you! 🙁 🙁 🙁

      I totally agree that food shouldn’t be served en masse to kids who haven’t opted in. My only note on your vegan lunch idea is that some kids don’t do well with grains (or the family chooses to eat Paleo), so that’s not a good solution either. School lunches, at least, are optional. So they need to figure out the best variety and balance of healthy options. It’s when we start to try to agree on what IS healthy for all kids that it gets messy, so much easier to just not feed each other’s kids, right?

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation and sharing your difficult experience, Katie

  5. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

    Katie, this is a great article overall, but it’s really not fair to slam that McDonald’s coffee lady: SHE WAS SEVERELY INJURED AND ALMOST DIED!! It’s not like that lawsuit was about some kind of petty “inconvenience”–and it didn’t have anything to do with sugar, junk food, schools, or children, so I’m not sure why you brought it up.

    I agree that sugary treats in school need to be reduced drastically in frequency and quantity, and I’d have no objection to a total ban. Even when I was in elementary school and the policy for birthdays was that we could give ONE PIECE of candy to each student, it was a problem for those with diabetes, dairy or chocolate allergy, or food coloring-related hyperactivity. (The last was very common in my school.)

    My kids’ K-8 school had a very sensible treat policy for several years, but it vanished somehow–probably related to who’s on the PTO. My daughter is in kindergarten now, and there is a list of healthy foods allowed for the daily afternoon snacks (each student has a week to bring snacks), but Halloween and birthdays so far have brought piles of junk! On Halloween she BROUGHT HOME almost 300 calories of snack food, beyond what she ate at school! Some of it was Pirate Booty and Goldfish, not just sweets, but still….

  6. Hi Katie!

    Our kids’ school tends to vary by building, with Wylie (gr3-4) completely banning birthday sweets and others discouraging them. Here’s what I’ve seen in Dexter so far for birthday celebrations, all of which I like better than a sweet for each birthday:

    1. Extra recess (no sugar, more exercise, no cleanup- really, the class time you would spend passing out that treat and eating it? easily an extra recess.)

    2. Happy Birthdays announced on the P.A. and a trip to the office to pick a non-food item like a pencil or sticker.

    3. One celebration per month with a dessert, with birthday kids for the month providing a few items. (Only one teacher has done this, and it’s the most sugar I’ve seen given out in our district.)

    I have definitely appreciated this effort from the school!

    Thanks for promoting our kids’ health!

  7. Not allowing food to be brought in for birthdays is one thing I REALLY appreciate about our school (they also don’t allow certain items in lunches, including chips, candy, cakes or anything with chocolate – even in granola bars. I’ve come to appreciate this too).

    Parents are allowed to bring in a piñata instead filled with non food items like erasers or other things from the dollar store. There needs to be one for each child and we’re encouraged to have a variety. In kindergarten they use the contents for math, they make visual graphs and count the items and sort them into categories.

  8. I took a brand new pencil for each student in the class for my son’s birthday when he was in elementary school. I tied a wrapped piece of hard candy to each pencil for a treat, which was nominal sugar when compared to a cupcake. The teacher loved me because his birthday was in March, and now each student had a new pencil when their school supplies were running thin. The children actually didn’t seem disappointed at all and were glad to get a new pencil. In today’s world of allergies, etc. it would be better for just a new pencil with no candy involved.

  9. My kids’ elementary school (a public school) has a ban on sweets throughout the year (except on Valentine’s Day), and definitely no birthday celebrations (probably no time — their school days are already packed). Instead, we are encouraged to give out things like pencils or donate a book to the school library in their name. I don’t know if it’s a district-wide ban, or how it started, but it’s one less thing to worry about.

  10. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this article! You laid out so many good points that I hadn’t even thought of. When my kids were in elementary school I tried to just get the school to follow their own policy of not bringing sweet treats to school for birthday celebrations. It was actually their existing policy but it seemed that not one single parent in my kids’ classrooms followed it and the principles and teachers just shook their heads saying that they can’t do anything about what parents bring. I think it should be illegal for anyone to feed my elementary-aged kids without my permission! Your point about “moderation” is so on point. It is insane how they are called “treats” when they happen every day, in school and then at every after-school activity too. One other point I would add to your discussion that fits here is that, one feels like they can’t even have a birthday cake at home with family because of all the sugar the kids have already had elsewhere that day/week! Which then makes it an issue of competeing with society at large – which is another whole issue. This is something that also irks me when it comes to holidays. When schools host “Thanksgiving” dinner and other holiday events that contain special foods, it takes away from the specialness of those events at home. Just stop feeding my kids people! This article is a great resource for parents to print and give to their children’s schools and other organizations in the movement to have treats banned at school.

    1. “Just stop feeding my kids people!” Amen to that!!! I’m dismayed (but not terribly surprised) that the policy WAS there and totally ignored. What a shame! Hopefully the existing policy will inspire someone, someday, to make it stick. We’ll keep trying to make the movement!! Friday’s post will include printable idea lists and a sample letter to administration for folks to use. 🙂 Katie

  11. Nell Covington

    When I was in elementary school, the teacher would have the class sing happy birthday to the child. Period. That was it. It was enough. Really.

    My son had terrible food allergies (just like his mom), sadly. Thankfully, he was great at saying, “No thanks, I’m allergic.” He was also sensitive to sugar, which made him hyper and he was also great at turning that down. When I took him somewhere, I always carried snacks. If I knew there might be sugar or allergy foods served,I took him a special treat of his own. But at school, I didn’t always know when there would be a party, so I had to trust my son to make the right choice, and he usually did. We rarely ate sugary foods at home so he didn’t really seem to mind these situations. I was a very lucky mom.

    Sadly, we have become a nation focused on rewarding our kids for every little thing, rather than allowing them to simply take pride in a job well done. Birthday celebrations have been added to that focus. Maybe it’s time to go back to just singing Happy Birthday. It would simplify things for everyone.

    We finally started homeschooling our son in 4th grade. It solved a LOT of problems.

  12. Funnest class bday treat was a ‘disco’ party. The teacher had a fun rainbow light we turned on with the classroom lights off and then she projected a youtube song playlist I made of 4-5 songs.

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