Every year (sometimes at multiple times each year), parents of young kids are blessed with the opportunity to plan a birthday party. Whether it is the biggest party of the year, or an intimate family gathering around the kitchen table, there is one common denominator at every birthday party–an item that, if missing, would raise eyebrows and be a cause for concern. The presents? No–you can give an IOU or say a present is on backorder. The thing I am talking about can’t be belated.

The cake.

You can’t have a birthday party without a cake, right?

The tradition of the birthday cake in most families dates back to the first birthday. Parents look forward to that special day when their child turns 1 year old. This milestone of the first year of life is usually commemorated by a party (with cake of course), and the guest of honor is often given the privilege of having their first piece of birthday cake. I don’t think I know of any parent who doesn’t have a picture of this blessed, messy moment.

There is a lot of symbolism in that first piece of cake. For many parents, this first piece of cake represents the beginnings of toddlerhood and emerging independence. However, children at this age aren’t capable of reflecting as deeply as their parents. They are making simple associations, and learning each day via observation. So, for the child, the cake simply means this: the way to celebrate is by eating something really, really delicious. 

This poses a problem. We are teaching kids at a very early age to mark special occasions with food. This may be sending them down the road of using food as a reward or as a way to celebrate their accomplishments. That is not the message that we want kids to have regarding food. Food is fuel for survival, not something that they should use to satisfy their emotions and reward their accomplishments.  

One the other hand, one might argue that it is alright to indulge on your birthday because it is a “special occasion,” only coming once each year. That might be true, but the birthday child isn’t the only one indulging at these events.  And aside from eating cake, normally there are other foods, like sugar-filled drinks (fruit juices), ice cream, potato chips, etc. found at such celebrations. When you start to tally up all of the birthday celebrations for family and friends, this surmounts to quite a few “special occasions.” Add in the excess junk food that kids already get at school parties and other events, in addition to the junk food that they might be allowed to have in moderation at home, and they are eating much, much more than an occasional treat. And this isn’t something that just affects children. We even see aspects of this birthday-cake-conundrum emerging later in life, as well. Think about all of the milestones and types of parties you may attend (or even host): bridal showers, baby showers, graduation parties, job promotion celebrations, retirement parties, etc. They often center on some celebratory food.

This puts parents in a really tough position. On the one hand, you want your child to have a healthy relationship with food; but on the other, you want to take part in a tradition. What can we do about it?

We might reconsider the role that certain foods play in our day-to-day lives. If sugary drinks and desserts are commonplace in our diets, the rationalization that certain foods are okay at special occasions begins to lose its meaning. If, however, daily consumption of unhealthy foods is reduced, this rationalization may be more convincing.

However, this brings us back to the notion that our food choices for special occasions may form associations with certain emotions, like happiness. While food is certainly a part of our social lives, there are several ways to de-emphasize the role of certain foods (e.g., a birthday cake) at special occasions. Perhaps you can offer a healthy alternative that kids will still love, maybe something that involves their participation in creating. This might create a memory, along with a treat. Or, perhaps instead of singing “Happy Birthday” around a cake with candles, it can be done as the guest of honor is about the open a special gift. Whatever modifications are made, the most important thing is that the association is made between the person being honored and the reason that everyone has gathered, and there are countless ways to do that without food.

The bottom line is that we subconsciously pair food with happiness all of the time. It is a textbook example of the psychological learning principle of classical conditioning. If you recall, Pavlov’s dog salivated when it heard a bell because it signified that a piece of meat was on the way. Are we eager to dig into that piece of cake because, based on our prior experiences, cake equals happy times? If so, it is no wonder why some people use food to soothe themselves or make themselves happy. We have been training ourselves to do it since year 1 (literally).

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Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 50 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and a book, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.


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