A parent’s battle plan for surviving birthdays

It's four days into the start of term and already I have five invitations pinned to the fridge and two waiting for responses online.

what’s served tends to be party food. Not surprisingly, fruit and vegetables are in short supply and they’re never going to win over a beautifully iced cupcake anyway. Getty Images
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It’s four days into the start of term and already my family’s weekend schedule is punctuated with birthday parties. I have five invitations pinned to my fridge and two waiting for a response online. The day before my two girls, ages 5 and 3, met their new teachers for the first time, we’d been at a party at the Emirates Palace, enjoying 11am popcorn and chicken strips ’n’ chips for lunch, not to mention generous slabs of cake and the obligatory sweet-scattering piñata. It’s all good fun of course and I’m determined not to reach saturation point, but to survive party season, you need a plan.

Like many children, my daughters don’t tend to sit down and polish off a decent lunch or supper during a party. They’re usually too interested in what’s going on around them (balloon poodle, anyone?) to eat more than a handful of chips or a slice of pizza. And what’s served tends to be party food. Not surprisingly, fruit and vegetables are in short supply and they’re never going to win over a beautifully iced cupcake anyway.

Trying to eat a balanced diet at a birthday party is not a battle that a parent is ever going to win, but I do secure a few victories: I’ll make sure that water, not fruit juice, is in the paper cups; I surreptitiously remove most of the icing from the cake; and I pop the odd forkful of food in an open mouth when I get the chance. The treasure hoard from the piñata is also quietly vetted under the pretence of making sure the spoils are shared equally. Eating a few sweets is fine, but I’d rather my girls ate confectionery brands that I recognise and trust.

The enormous roaring and squealing, tsunami-like surge of energy that happens when 20 or so 5-year-olds get together is often blamed on a sugar rush, but research says otherwise. In 1995, a meta-analysis of more than 20 reliable studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “sugar does not affect the behaviour or cognitive performance of children”. What you see writhing around you is the result of an abundance of BFF buzz.

Children do need a lot of energy to keep going. However, as David Benton, a professor of psychology at Wales’ Swansea University, explained at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June in the United Kingdom: “ ... children are different from adults in that their brain is a larger percentage of their body, so it takes a larger percentage of energy.

“Also, the brain tissue uses twice as much energy, so you need a continual supply of energy. That’s not to say it should be supplied by sugar[y] drinks, but a child does need, on a regular basis, to be consuming food.

“When it is released slowly, the child is in a better mood and performs better at school,” he said.

And that’s where a carefully considered breakfast comes in on the morning of P-Day. I go easy on the bananas (usually a school snack staple) because of all the sugar that will inevitably be on offer later and we’ll sit down to buttered granary toast, scrambled eggs and low-sugar baked beans or full-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and blackberries. A glass of full-fat milk is also a winner. Then nothing else remains but to grab a snack – usually soaked raw almonds, seeded Ryvita and carrot sticks – and today’s choice of sparkly shoes and tiara, and head for the door.

Clare Dight is the editor of The National’s Review section.