How to handle birthday cakes for kids – Should you make a healthy cake?

  • Should babies have a healthy first birthday cake?

Have you debated whether to serve healthy cake or real cake at birthdays for your young ones? Do you want to balance a fun party with a healthy party? Do you just want permission to have real cake? (In that case, read no further, you have it! Birthdays are certainly a special occasion, and a perfect time for fun foods like cake and ice cream.)

I generally have a no-foods-are-off-limits view. I have no problem eating cake. But… when it comes to my kids, who are still really young, I struggle. Do they really NEED a super sweet cake to enjoy the day?

Most of our treats right now are of the nutrient-dense(ish) variety – black bean brownies, oatmeal or chickpea cookies, things sweetened with mostly fruit or minimal added sugar, honey or maple syrup. The kids enjoy them just fine. My oldest has had some actual sweets of course (Halloween, Christmas, recently Valentine’s Day and a few other random events), but he doesn’t expect “real” cake because he hasn’t been to other birthday parties.

We recently celebrated two birthdays around here. The boys are now 3 and 1! Happy birthday little buddies! With two birthdays a week apart, and a visit from Grandma, we definitely had more treats around than usual. So I put some thought into how to handle our cakes, and put together this list of considerations. You may find it helpful when deciding whether to serve a healthy cake for your child’s birthday, whether you have babies, toddlers or older children.

Questions for your healthy cake vs real cake debate:

Does your kid WANT real cake? Pretty sure my one-year-old isn’t dreaming of the fluffy, moist, sweet goodness of real cake, but older kids have more of an opinion. If they want real cake but get the healthy version instead, you could be sending the message that real cake is a bad food and off limits. Restrictive messages like these can lead down a negative path, spurring either fears or excessive cravings.

Do you have the time to make your own healthy version (and research whether it will taste good and be smashable?) When my first son turned one, we had a banana cake. No added sugars, just fruit. Frosted with cream cheese, or maybe cream cheese and applesauce. It was much heavier than I expected, which made for a hilarious smash session.

Smashing a healthy cake
This was part smash session, part weightlifting session. That cake was DENSE.

I remember liking it, but in talking to my husband recently he commented “Yeah, I remember that cake being not that good.” Oh.

Which brings me to my next question.

Who will be eating the cake? If you can’t shake the concern that your baby is not ready for the sugar-palooza of normal cake, you can make a low sugar cake for his smash cake but serve regular cake to the older kids and adults.

What other foods are you having at the party? Is there balance? Have some fruits, vegetables, or other nutrient dense choices, so partygoers can choose what appeals to them. Bonus points if you keep the fun spirit with these choices. I love fruit/veggie trays arranged to make fun scenes. But we’re not running on and endless free time schedule here, so that kind of arrangement doesn’t actually happen for me. Sometimes I manage to put things in a nice bowl.

Are there social considerations? Keep your guests in mind. In our case, we didn’t have “parties,” (no guests, just family) just a festive meal and presents. While you may not want to base all your food decisions on the opinions of others, you also may not want your child to have to deal with the stigma of being “that kid” who isn’t allowed to have cake.

Do YOU want real cake? Let your child see you enjoy fun foods without guilt! Modeling a relaxed approach to sweets is so important.

Really, what are your fears regarding real cake? Be honest with yourself. Are you just worried your baby might eat so much of it that he gets sick and ruins his birthday? Or maybe you worry that once he gets exposed to real sweets, he won’t go back to happily eating vegetables? For older kids, are you worried about your child’s weight, and afraid that providing sweets will make things worse? Or maybe your kids’ friends are the “healthy” crowd and you worry they’ll judge you for serving sugar? Once you are clear on your fears, you can decide whether they are rational. One day of sweet-eating will not doom your child to a lifetime of obesity. Fear-based eating, on the other hand, can lead to all sorts of trouble.

So, what did I do?

I don’t want to treat cake like a forbidden food. If the kids wanted a normal cake, that’s what we’d have. For now, since they are young, my approach is to focus on the “fun” aspect of birthday treats rather than the sweet aspect. And I don’t talk about the cake in terms of healthy or unhealthy. I just say “here is your cake!”

This year’s cake was the closest to real that my oldest has had – a lemon cake made with white flour and sugar. Still on the mild side as far as sweetness. Frosted with a cream cheese and yogurt blend. He liked it (though I think blowing out the candles was the biggest draw.) I felt completely comfortable with him having a piece at lunch, and again with supper. (I’ve been working on just letting him eat without pressure.)

His last words at bedtime were “want cake at breakfast.” I was ok with that too. As it turns out he had forgotten all about it by the next day. He didn’t ask for more until two days later when he saw someone else snacking on a piece. And then he had a small piece of cake at most meals for a few days. More often than what we’d usually have, but soon we’ll be back to normal.

I’ll admit, some part of me worries he’ll want just sweets and nothing else… but then I remind myself not to catastrophize. To trust my child to regulate his eating. So I sit back and watch, and find I love the way he eats that cake. He doesn’t wolf it down. Sometimes he eats it at the start of the meal, sometimes the end. He takes his time, plays with it just like he does with all his foods. At one point he was balancing peas on top of it. Silliness.

What about the smash cake?

For the baby, I did go with the “healthy” smash cake option, like his brother had at that age. But this time, it was really because I had sooo much fun watching older brother tackle that dense cake, and wanted to make it a tradition. The rest of us can suffer through eating a piece of not-so-cakey-cake, particularly since we’ve had leftover lemon cake and other grandma-provided treats to munch on all week.

Baby with healthy smash cake, uncertain expression
Is the real cake under here?

As it turns out, this time it was was more of a miss than a hit. He ate the blueberries then poked at the cake a bit, picked up the pieces after I helped him loosen the layers, and he had a few licks of the frosting.

baby digging into smash cake
Seriously, what IS this?

Mostly, he seemed confused and wondered why we were all staring at him. I find myself wishing I would have made something fluffier, if not necessarily sweeter, but we all still had fun.
What are your opinions on healthy birthday cake?

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Author: Lisa

Hi, I'm Lisa. Dietitian, runner at heart, and most importantly mom of two amazing little boys. I want to raise a family that nourishes itself well - through food, movement, and continuous learning, and I want to help you do the same!

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