I was born outside the US and before I moved here a few years ago with my husband and daughter, I was not very familiar with the birthday party traditions. Like a typical 3-year-old, my daughter managed to make more friends over a summer than I probably did in all my life and we got invited to at least a dozen birthday parties that year.  I remember very well the first party we attended together. It was a simple and warm celebration for a small group of friends. When it was time for a treat, a delivery man brought 3 big boxes of steaming plain pizza (just cheese and tomato sauce) and everyone happily helped themselves washing it all down with apple juice. The dessert was a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. Simple, unpretentious and still tasting pretty good. The next birthday party was just around the corner and I was a little surprised to see the same menu for the little guests: plain pizza and vanilla cake. This time I also noticed that different food for adults was placed on a side table. The third, fourth and fifth party followed and, as you probably already guessed, the food for kids always remained the same, whether the party took place at 10 am or 4 pm at somebody’s house, in a gym or park. Needless to say, by the end of the year, I was not very enthusiastic about the simple unadulterated taste of plain pizza and vanilla cake although this was exactly what my kids were craving at parties.

 So why and how should we break free from this “pizza+apple juice+plain cake” birthday trap?

I do not think that eating pizza or vanilla cake once a week is going to wreck havoc in your or your kids’ health. And I am all for enjoying treats on appropriate occasions like birthday parties.

Here are the things that worry me:

1. Positive associations that are formed between a particular food such as pizza and a special and fun occasion. Because the food served at parties is always the same, kids begin thinking: “Pizza=fun” or “Pizza=hanging out with friends”. By the time our kids are in college pizza will be probably available in vending machines and I doubt that they will be waiting for their friend’s birthday to indulge.

2.   Lack of variety. Variety is crucial for good eating habits. Most likely, as our kids grow up, they will not turn miraculously into healthy eaters unless we do our food parenting job properly when they are small. Jenny Craig’s menu (a weight loss system for adults delivering prepared meals) in the US features kids’ favorites like mac and cheese and burgers while French dieters indulge in beef bourguignon and filler de merlu. Isn’t it another argument that pint-size picky eaters with limited palates grow into adults who are also picky eaters with limited palates? Interestingly, looking at different ethnic communities around the world it is obvious that kids can be as adventurous in their eating habits as adults if we do not try to dumb down their taste buds by bland “kids friendly” foods.

3. Expectations that kids will not like “adult” party food. That is why the cheese platter a raw veggie+dip trays tend to remain in the “adult” zone and outside on the kids’ reach.

4. Although fruit occasionally makes an appearance on the kids’ table, veggies are a rare guest. And while only 8% of American kids eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, a celebration can become another opportunity for kids to see what a balanced meal looks like. Many may try an unfamiliar or less liked food if they see their friends happily munching away.

What can be done:

1. Expand the menu beyond pizza. Think of other foods that your child likes and plan party menu around them. Serve a variety of foods. Sandwiches of all sorts, cheese, smoothies, fruits, and veggies with dips are just a few examples of what you can prepare or order for a party. Here is a sample party menu that works great for my kids’ parties.

Of course, some kids are so used to getting pizza at a party that they may refuse trying everything else. But since this is a typical behavior in children it should not concern parents.  The basic rule to go by is: parents provide and children choose how much and whether to eat. Read more on the division of responsibility in feeding. Besides, it might give kids more time to get hungry for some real food at their next meal. And maybe your example will inspire another parent or two to revamp the menu at their party.

2. Stick to a meal schedule. A party around lunch or dinner time is a great opportunity to treat your guests to some hearty food but if the party is scheduled in between meals, a cake, a drink and maybe some fruit may suffice. As kids focus less on the food they tend to actually enjoy each other’s company more and have more time for interaction. Parties are more about fun than food.

3. Incorporate fruits and veggies into the party menu. Here are some more examples of simple recipes with a fun presentation that both kid and adults will enjoy.

Fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate

Frozen kiwis dipped in chocolate

Watermelon “balls”

Rainbow salad Nicoise

Veggie “face”

Veggie dip fun

4. Serve the same food for children and adults. This sets right expectations for children and increases their exposure to the foods you would like them to start eating eventually. It is actually an easier and cheaper way to entertain since you do not have to think of two separate menus.

Happy celebration!