Let’s Talk: Should You Allow Your Kids to Eat Junk at Birthday Parties?

Here’s the scenario: Your young son or daughter has been invited to a friend’s birthday party. You know this family to some degree and are aware that their eating standards aren’t the same as your family’s.

The party will likely include white-sugar and food-dye cake, chips, pop and candy in the goodie bag, all foods which are standard no-no’s in your own home.

What do you do in this situation?

  1. Remember that birthday parties like this happen only occasionally, you eat well at home 90% of the time, and allow your child to eat freely at the party.
  2. Try to fill your child up on good, whole foods at home, prior to taking them. Remind them on the drive that the foods that will be served aren’t ones that will keep their body healthy, and that while it is ok to accept a piece of cake when offered, they should try to avoid other junk foods if possible, and look for better options (fruit or veggies, crackers and cheese, etc.). (And if you’re with them at the party, this becomes easier to enforce).
  3. Stay at the party with your child and bring along your own snacks. Inform the hosts prior to your coming that your child won’t be partaking of the food offerings, and that you will be bringing them food from home instead. Tell your child that the foods at the party are yucky, and feel free to get into a discussion with the other parents at the party about why your child won’t be eating along with everyone else.

Last week I was reading a book I picked up on sale while on summer vacation, but haven’t gotten around to reading yet. It’s called The Great Physician’s Rx for Children’s Health by Jordan Rubin. I have previously read and enjoyed The Maker’s Diet (it was quite influential for me in my real food journey, actually). I knew that he would have solid information and suggestions, geared towards children’s health in particular.

I was surprised to be so immediately turned off within the first chapters of the book, however, by the “holier than thou” attitude that I perceived in Dr. Rubin’s and his wife’s approach to shielding their young son from the dangers of processed foods. When their 3 year old son was invited to a birthday party, they came prepared with all of their own snacks from home.

He even proudly states at one point that their son has never eaten anything in his entire life that they do not consider to be “real food” (nothing processed or refined, no pasteurized or homogenized dairy products, no commercially raised grain-fed meat, no white sugar or table salt).

I’m not quite sure what world they live in, where they are able to have such complete and utter control over every single thing that ever enters his mouth- has he never been to a relative’s home with different eating habits or to another family’s home for dinner? Have they never been on the road or on vacation and needed to simply eat the best they could with the restaurants and choices that were available?

But I digress… back to the birthday party.

I know this is a hard area to deal with. I don’t like allowing my children to eat processed, refined, toxic foods in the slightest. It makes me cringe, and as their mom, it’s my job and responsibility to steward their health and train them in their eating habits.

Yet, as I’ve said many times before, people matter more than food.

Personally, I would opt for something along the lines of option #2 in the birthday party scenario, sending them with a full tummy and some words of wisdom, yet allowing them to graciously accept something celebratory like a piece of cake to enjoy with their friends. When I accompany them to parties, I encourage them towards the better options that are available, and allow them very limited amounts of the not-so-great options. But that’s just me.

(And I’ll even confess that although I’m usually the mom that makes the “weird” homemade spelt carrot cake with cream cheese icing colored pink with raspberry juice, this year I came down with an awful flu and was completely debilitated the day before my daughter’s 7th birthday. We bought a store cake, for the first time ever. Sometimes, life happens, and my husband and I both felt that it was a priority for our daughter’s party to continue as planned, whether mama was up for baking healthy cakes or not.)

I’m curious (and yes, I know this might spark a heated debate, so let’s just use our big-girl words and keep it polite)…

What would you (or do you) do in this kind of scenario? How do you balance celebrations with others, while still guarding your child’s health and nutrition?

Image by andy_carter

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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  1. Jessica says:

    I usually go with more of number 1 option with one major exception. My oldest son is very allergic to nut and peanuts. If I can’t guarantee that the food is allergy friendly he doesn’t eat it. I usually call and inquire ahead of time and bring something with that we know he can eat.

  2. Speaking as a kid who wasn’t “allowed” to eat things like cake at birthday parties (and who actually followed the rules set by my parents), I must say it made birthday parties into embarrassing, isolating events. On the occasions that I did partake in that confectionery delight, I was quickly reminded why we try to eat healthy most of the time as I fought the inevitable sugar crash and upset tummy. So when I didn’t eat cake I was lonely and embarrassed, but when I did eat cake, I learned to pay attention to how differently it made me feel physically and decide for myself if I really did want to make that dietary choice. I quickly developed a happy medium: accept that slice of cake, but scrape off the icing to give to a new friend (who could rarely finish a double helping of icing, but who was always delighted with the offering).

    • Hannah – thanks so much for presenting the point of view of the child. I just returned an hour ago from a birthday party where I think I made my son feel isolated and embarrassed. We keep to the Feingold Program, which eliminates artificial dyes, sweeteners and preservatives. He is usually very agreeable about it, but today was an exception. For some reason, he was really sad that he couldn’t have the Veggie Tale Fruit Snacks that were offered – he knows they have food coloring and it just annoyed me that he was even bringing it up. I went ahead and let him have them, but warned him that there would be consequences if his behavior was affected as a result. Perhaps I need to lighten up and think more of how he feels in the given situation.

  3. What a great post Stephanie…God makes it very clear that people are more important than food. Food is not a god…it is a tool. The fact that this topic sparks so much debate is because it really has become a worship issue for many. There is freedom in this area…and it is wise to exercise moderation in this, as in all things. It is not what goes IN the body that defiles us, according to God…but what comes spilling OUT of our hearts. This is God’s beautiful, balanced approach, and I appreciate your bringing it up! Hope you’re having a baby today! : )

  4. I really think you have to know your child(ren). When we were kids, my sister’s health was so fragile that any processed food would send her into a sneezing asthma attack along with stomach cramps that affected her the rest of the day… If you’ve got a kid like that, it just might not be worth it! I have several friends with kids with ADD who are SUPER sensitive to red dye and refined sugars, to the point that their kids will be dancing in the street (literally) if they have them, totally out of control. I think those moms probably also would say it wasn’t worth it for their kid to be disruptive and getting into trouble just to have the icing on the cupcake. I personally have gluten & soy allergies, and it is out of the question for me to indulge. But if your kids do ok with less-than-perfect diets every now and then, that’s kind of different…

    My approach is usually to offer to bring something, and then to bring something that I know my child can eat & encourage her to have as much of that as she wants, to let her pick one treat to eat, and definitely not to talk about the other food being “junk” etc in front of anyone at the party. But it really could be different for each kid. You alone know the consequences down the road!

    • YOu bring up a good point, about people’s whose health is truly that fragile. My SIL is also like that, with sugar and multiple other things. It makes her feel just awful for days and she can hardly function. In those situations, because there are definitely kids with very sensitive health as well, I think it’s possible to just approach the issue really gently and be willing to talk to a host on the side, explaining the issue tactfully. I think that care just needs to be taken not to approach it from a “your food is bad” point of view, but more from a “my child is very sensitive and requires a special diet and I really want to make sure that they feel and function well so that everyone can enjoy this birthday celebration”. (Which I know you’re not saying, Christina, I’m sort of just adding to what you’ve already said and agreeing with you, really).

      • As the mother of a child who is very sensitive to all food chemicals (it took me so long to figure this out too) I have to say that it really isn’t worth it to “indulge”. The offending chemical continues to cause behavioral problems for days and it weakens our mother-son relationship. So there’s the other end of the spectrum of people being more important than food. My son-and our relationship/his self esteem/etc are negatively impacted by food chemicals, so it’s important for us to simply avoid them.

        It does present a huge challenge though. The allure of it is usually more than he can resist on his own, so if I’m not there to be the “mean mom” in that instant, I end up being the mean mom for days, having to counter his out of control behavior.

  5. We do a modified version of #3. My son is on a restricted diet, so by necessity most processed foods are out. I let the parents know in advance and if there are things he can eat, then he can have them. I dont tell him that the other food is yucky and he understands that he cant really eat the same as others. Thankfully most parents are not only very understanding, but often provide items that he can have, so he isnt so isolated.

  6. Colleen Boehm says:

    Thanks for this post…it is something I have been thinking about lately as we go further and further into an eating style that involves no processed food, and healthy things like raw milk and healthy fats. I have started to ask my daughter (age 6) how she feels after she eats certain things (like when I let her have hot lunch last week and it was AWEFUL!). Because once you start to eat well, I think our bodies react to the junk and they noticeably don’t feel as good. She is having times where she is putting it together…eat lots of junk = feel yucky. But her learning thru experiencing it is better than me telling her if she is to have any hope of carrying on these eating habits. I like the idea of giving her lunch before a party (even if you know lunch will be served). Haven’t done that yet but I will. I am more concerned now about what to do when we go to someone’s house for the weekend, when we know that family doesn’t eat like we do. It isn’t like going out to eat is the solution. We can bring some of our own food but I am worried that all of us are gonna have tummy issues or worse. Not what you want on a road trip or when you are a house guest. Have to pray about that one!

  7. I truly feel good when I feel my family real food, and I am dedicated to making sure that we have truly wholesome and real food in our home. It takes time and energy and money but I would give that all to make sure we are eating the right stuff. That being said-I have learned that when I go overboard I can cause problems. My kids know that though they would never find a speck of candy in our home, that they are going to find it at grandmas and they are going to see it at parties. And they know that treats are okay. If I am so excessive and so restrictive that I cause my children to lie to me, or hide ‘illegal’ food, than anything I teach them is in vain. Besides, the junk is so incredbly rich that I have seen them put down and avoid finishing or even eating half of whatever treat they got. The point is that when we feel restricted, we tend to want to rebel. I want to teach my kids to make good choices because they feel good doing so and not because mom will yank it out of their hands/mouth.
    Besides, if the food issue is so important- it would be better to stay home and not even mention the party to your kids- than to go and to make a fuss and draw attention and make the host feel lousy for the ‘poision’ they are serving. :)

  8. Just a reminder to all out there, as I know very well this is a touchy subject & usually sparks a heated debate, that when we talk about food we are talking about personal convictions. Period. Biblical “food law” is strictly Old Testament, under the OLD covenant. Wonderful guidelines, certainly, and God definitely knew what He was doing when He put them into place, but WE are not bound to it! We now live in New Testament times and, praise Jesus, we are no longer held to the Law but live by the new covenant –the GRACE of God.
    So what do we do? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I HAVE BECOME ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN, THAT I MIGHT BY ALL MEANS SAVE SOME. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” Never ever EVER should food be a stumbling block that we put in the path of others. We must remember that we are all in different places in life & our walk with the Lord, and convictions come by the Holy Spirit. If a person does not share our “food convictions”, we should NOT press them, but allow the Spirit to work in His timing instead. It is perfectly okay to share what you know in a loving & tactful manner, but most of my experience is that this is rare (because convictions can be such a passionate subject) & it is better to just keep your mouth shut. Remember that our purpose is to spread the love of Jesus –the Gospel– and not to win everyone to “your side”.
    Options 1 & 2 (and, of course, I lean toward option 2) above are the very best way to handle situations like the birthday party. Don’t let food become an issue that gets in the way of Jesus, please! “Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:2-4

    • I respectfully disagree that “Biblical ‘food law’ is strictly Old Testament under the OLD covenant”. The “food law” is just as applicable as “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. … Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. … Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:11-15) It’s just as applicable as “…Do not practice divination or sorcery…Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute…Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God.” (Leviticus 19:26b-32) The instruction, “Do not eat meat with the blood still in it” is nestled between all these in verse 26.

      I believe Paul’s words have been twisted to say something that he is not really saying as Peter warned would happen in 2 Peter 3:15-16: “And consider that the long suffering of the LORD is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you; As also in all his epistles, he spoke concerning these things, in which there are certain things so hard to be understood that those who are ignorant and unstable pervert their meaning, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.”

      Paul obeyed the will of the Father (aka the law of God), and he taught others to do the same; the instructions given in the Old Testament still applied at the time of his letters. It is the Old Testament from which he taught.

      The grace of God was demonstrated at Passover, when by faith we put the blood of the lamb over our doorpost, stay in the house, consume the lamb and we are passed over by death. (This was for both the Israelite and the Egyptian who joined themselves with the Israelite.) That is the grace of God and Jesus is our Passover Lamb. But then, we were taken out of the bondage of sin and death (as pictured through the Israelites coming out of Egypt), and commanded to walk according to the Spirit (as pictured through the Israelites time in the wilderness, being led by the pillar of cloud/fire, and instructed to obey a set of instructions. These “instructions” are not meant to enslave us as we think of shackles against our will, they are to teach us how to live so we will be blessed. They teach us how to worship our God, how to relate to one another, and how to care for our bodies…they demonstrate how we are to love God and love one another as ourselves, which is precisely what Jesus was referring to when asked what the greatest commandments were. He was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5. If he kept on quoting, he would have said, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. (referring to what Moses had said to the children of Israel as they were getting ready to enter the promised land) Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (verses 6-7) Those instructions we are to impress on our children include what we are able to eat and what we may not (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).

      Unfortunately, we have inherited false doctrine over the years that paints the will of the Father as some kind of bondage (as in shackles and chains), and that it is optional or perfectly fine to disregard. Boy, if someone came along and started telling my kids that they didn’t have to obey my instructions anymore, that they were good ideas, but my kids were “free” and didn’t have to listen to me anymore, I’d give that person an earful. lol

      The fact is Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the instructions of His Father, and that these instructions would not disappear until heaven and earth disappeared. (Matthew 5:17-18) He said his family were those who did the will of his Father. (Matthew 12:50)

      I don’t believe Paul is telling the Corinthians to live like the heathen to save the heathen. We don’t behave as the world to save the world. We don’t disobey the instructions of God in order save those who don’t obey (for whatever reason). We still obey his instructions, but we put ourselves in their shoes figuratively so we can minister to them. (At least that’s what I perceive it to mean.)

      I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “If a person does not share our ‘food convictions’, we should NOT press them, but allow the Spirit to work in His timing instead.”

      I am sorry if this comment feels like I am trying to press you or anyone to have the same convictions toward food as I do. That is not my intent. My intention was to share a different perspective on what is commonly taught regarding grace doing away with the law and what the New Testament is really saying concerning the Old Testament.


  9. I am more of an option #1. We don’t go to parties very often so when we do my kiddo is too busy jumping on the trampoline, jumpy house, or running around. At the end when the goody bag comes out my 5 year-old smiles at me as if she pulle done over on me. I learned to not make a fuss because then she really wants that sugar. I think ‘”Dr.” Rubin has some good points and I have learned a lot from one of his books but just be aware of his credentials (not that I think one needs a lot when it comes to real food):

    His “NMD” (naturopathic medical doctor) is from the Peoples University of the Americas School of Natural Medicine, a nonaccredited school with no campus.
    His “PhD” is from the Academy of Natural Therapies, a nonaccredited correspondence school that the State of Hawaii ordered to close in 2003.
    His “CNC” (Certified Nutritional Consultant) comes from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, whose only requirement for “professional member” status has been payment of a $50 or $60 fee.

    Also, his first book made over 40 million so I think that helps in controlling his kiddos snack. I can understand though- if he fears Crohn’s. My mother believes that if raised too healthy, when they become junk food eating teenagers, one’s body goes into shock.