Kids' party food - go healthy or sugar-laden free-for-all?

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This post has absolutely nothing to do with sports nutrition, as my nutrition focus has switched to kids party fare with my son's recent birthday.  If you have ever known a 5 year old, then you probably understand that when you are 5, birthdays are a big deal.  We had two small parties and co-ordination of catering was required for both.  My biggest dilemma when it came to planning was whether to go super healthy or stick with traditional.  As a dietitian I feel a responsibility to a degree to provide some nourishment, but then I don't want my kids to feel like their parties aren't quite as exciting and just full of everyday foods either. 

One party option was the local pub, a child-friendly venue with a fantastic playground and low-maintenance for the host parents, BUT as you would imagine, there were no date & chia balls or frozen fruit pops on the pub catering menu!  So my dilemma was this - have a party at home with the risk of inclement weather and 12 kinder kids and toddler siblings squashed into a space designed to really only cater well for 5 or 6......or head to the pub.  Home party means healthier menu, pub means typical party fare from packets and either fried or mostly pastry.

I was torn...the pub menu wasn't really negotiable, other than the additional fruit platter I could order.  I love a  party at home, but last year's proved to be challenging when it poured rain all day and we were stuck indoors.  However a home party allowed total control of the menu, and the preparation of at least a few healthy options.  I swung to and fro and deliberated on my decision, but in the end the low maintenance pub won out.

I know there may be some of you reading this who are horrified to think I would expose my children to such toxic food.  I also know there are many parents, and party venues, who go the whole distance when it comes to healthy parties - organic, raw, no sugar, no nuts*, no dairy.   That's great if you can make it exciting.  I am not sure that kids get quite as excited about high-fibre bran muffins as they would blue cupcakes with sprinkles!  Or maybe I'm not being creative enough??  I know for myself that many of the special memories of parties were related to the food.  If the food at a party is the same as what a child gets in their lunch box every day then it wouldn't be a party would it?   I believe in the fun of parties and enjoying special foods, especially when it comes to birthdays. 

*When catering for children you do need to be careful when it comes to nuts and other allergies.  There were two children out of 15 with nut allergies on the day, and avoiding nuts in party foods is pretty standard these days. 

So, the pub party food it was, although I couldn't help myself and ordered a fruit platter to go with it!  I didn't think the kids would touch the fruit, but to my surprise they actually had a good go at it.  And do you know what?  Even with all the high fat, processed foods available, most kids didn't actually eat that much of it.  Children seem to be so much better than adults at regulating intake, and have a great sense of hunger and appetite.  At a birthday party there are usually lots more exciting things to do than sit around eating all day.  So maybe that's the big tip for kids parties, make sure there are some activities on the go and they may not eat that much sugar anyway.  Oh, and you probably don't need to serve soft drink or juice.  Water is perfect, there is probably going to be enough sugar in everything else.  No soft drink also means no artificial colours too.

When it comes to parties, I do have a concern about the amount of artificial additives consumed by kids, so my effort to make the party fare healthier was to use natural food colourings and use lollies in the lolly bags without added flavours/colourings.  The lollies were easy, but the natural food colourings were a new experience, especially with my history of regular cake making and use of super-concentrated food colourings.  My Octonauts Amazon Adventure cake, as requested by my son about 6 months prior to his party, required both blue and green food colouring.  One word to describe natural food colourings - pale.  Unless you use almost the whole bottle at $10 a pop.  In the end, I kept on adding and managed to get a reasonable colour, see below (minus the Octonauts who were yet to be added).

Now for the second party, the family gathering, which was straight after the pub.  I love home parties and planning the menus, and my philosophy for home is to incorporate traditional party foods, with a few healthier options on offer (a sushi/rice paper roll platter and fruit salad).  I don't try to mess with delicious traditions in an attempt to make them healthier, by substituting with spelt flour or coconut oil, I let everyone enjoy party foods as they are meant to be (other than the colours).  At least if you some of the options are home-made it will help with reducing the level of processing and intake of additives.  As a dietitian I sometimes feel a bit of pressure, or feel like I am being judged by what I provide at children's parties, or in their lunchboxes for that matter......but in the end it comes down to enjoying a range of food and avoiding 'good' or 'bad' food labels with youngsters who are developing their relationship with food. 

So in summary I think parties are great!   Traditional party foods are fun, watch the artificial stuff though and maybe throw in a few healthier options as the kids may actually enjoy them.  Or they may be so busy they don't eat much at all.  Occasional party foods are totally fine, HOWEVER, the big issue is that young children can end up going to A LOT of parties.  If you are going to a party nearly every weekend, all those party food add up, and that's where I can see the value in providing healthier party foods.  But how do you know how many parties your guests are going to that weekend?  My strategy this year to help the parents out was to only put a small number of lollies in the lolly bags so that what is eaten at the party is done at the party, and the sugar intake doesn't continue on for weeks after via lolly bags bursting at the seams.  My boys have about 4 lolly bags in the cupboard that they are gradually trying eat their way through, one lolly at a time! 

The important thing is for everyone to enjoy the party, from planning, to preparation, to playing!  Your decision to provide more or less healthy options will depend on a range of factors individual to you and your guests.  Make choices that create the least amount of stress and maximum amount of fun!