Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Birthday Party Quandary

When my son's birthday approached, I knew I didn't want a big party. I had been to a few that handed out plastic trinkets whose environmental footprint -- not to mention choking hazard quotient -- turned my stomach. I also knew my own limits for comfort when it came to putting on a show for kids who won't really remember it. The web site Birthdays Without Pressure advocates simplicity and low stress for child, parents and guests. "Well, if other people are bucking the carnivalesque party train, so can I!" I thought.

Having grown up without a whole lot of friends around -- my own or any my parents had -- I've been committed to maintaining and modeling good relationships for my son. I don't want him to be lonely unless he does a 180 from his current temperament and turns out to be an introvert. These days, he's clearly excited to be around people, asking for his friends -- and their mamas -- by name, and often. I figured the best way to celebrate a gregarious child's special day is just to have all of his friends over.

So I wanted to get together all his little buddies in one place. For his first birthday, I invited all the moms and babies I'd met from various groups and classes. Our tiny living room was packed, and that was before most of the babies were mobile, This year, since my two-year-old now knows who's who and since there are so many people we know and see often (and they all walk!), I decided not to invite other more distant mom-friends of mine just because I wanted to see them. Instead, though I felt a little exclusionary, I just included just the large-enough group of people that matter to my son.

With respect to food, it was important to me not to throw my nutritional beliefs out the door for a birthday, but I also wanted my son to feel special on the day and be able to look back on the day and see something that looked like the typical birthday festivities. I wavered between making sweet potato fries and kale chips for the group on one hand, and, on the other, offering mainstream snacks that would be familiar to the kiddos, and just sticking a candle in a bowl of fresh fruit. In the end, I decided not to offer anything I wouldn't let my son eat -- so that meant nothing with gluten or dairy (except for ghee and a little cultured butter). But I also decided it might be fun to experiment to make a healthy version of a cake that tasted good and seemed like a cake, rather than the hockey pucks I'd previously produced on some muffin-making attempts.

I bought two mixes from Namaste: one cake mix with sugar and one muffin mix with no added sugars. I combined those mixes to get a lightly sweetened mix, and then I divided that mix and added a lot of hazelnut flour to one half so that I could have one high-protein cake for those comfortable feeding their kids nuts. In the batter for the nut cake, I added grated zucchini and carrot. In both batters, I added cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

The other question was how cutesy to get. I struggled between wanting to keep it simple and just having some fun with the whole process. Since EJ had shown such a fascination with trains, I attempted to make one -- the regular white cake was the train (modeled after a train piggy bank my nephew painted for my son for Christmas), and the caboose was the nut train.

My fantasies of making different colored frostings with carrot, greens, and beets didn't exactly pan out. I ended up just using some cultured butter, coconut oil and powdered sugar for the "white" frosting and adding some carob powder for the brown accents and wheels. For the caboose frosting, I attempted to use juice from boiled beets, but it was late at night, and in my rush, I added too much liquid and got a big gloppy mess that looked ugly when inconsistently smeared on the cake. I skimmed it off, but it left a bit of a rust color on the darker brown cake.

Lots of folks stopped by for our Friday morning playgroup, and no one could believe the cake was gluten-free. We all enjoyed eating it, and though there was a little sugar, I felt like I'd struck a healthy balance of indulgence in special treats and not going overboard to saturation.

A few friends brought small gifts, which we opened later (I'd requested no gifts). When I wrote out the thank you notes and had EJ sign them, it imprinted on him who gave him what. Whenever he plays with his wooden car, he always says "Susan-Sawyer gave this to you" (merging the names of the mom and her son).

I hope our birthday playgroup set some decent precedents for balanced and gracious living. Now if I can just keep that up!

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