School birthdays that safely skirt the baking ban

James Michels, 7, his sister Lauren, 5, and

James Michels, 7, his sister Lauren, 5, and his mom Christine blow out the candles on his birthday cake made from fruit. (Credit: Michael E. Ach)

So what if some Long Island school districts have expelled the cupcake? There's more to classroom birthday and holiday parties than a treat topped with icing and decorated with Gummi Bears. Parents and teachers have gotten creative in replacing it with more healthful - and fun - alternatives.

"You just need to start it with the kindergarten parents," says Diane Anderson, assistant principal at Northside Elementary School in Farmingdale. Her district hasn't officially banned the cupcake, as have Huntington, Valley Stream District 13 and, last month, West Babylon, but it still encourages parents to eschew it and has found they are receptive. "They want their kids to be healthy," Anderson says.

Here are four ideas you can borrow when it's your turn to host, from a birthday "cake" made out of watermelon slices to a little sprinkle of magic.

1. HAVE FUN WITH FRUIT

Christine Michels says she wanted to make something herself to share with her son's class at Northside for his sixth birthday. So she Googled "watermelon cake" and was thrilled when she waded through the sites and found a recipe made from watermelon slices that looked like an actual birthday cake.

It had 25 pieces of watermelon triangles arranged in circular layers, so that each child could take a piece. It was topped with cantaloupe, raspberries and kiwi, and Michels ringed the bottom with blueberries and strawberries. She stuck a birthday candle in the top.

"It got rave reviews," Michels says, especially from her son, James, who helped her make it and requested it again for his seventh birthday.

Stephanie Hall also put fruit to good use for her son Lucas Battista's sixth birthday at the school. She cut up strawberries, kiwis, grapes, watermelon and cantaloupe and made colorful fruit cups in individual disposable plastic tumblers. Then she stuck a flag in each - a piece of paper with her son's picture and "Happy Birthday" on it.

Other food alternatives: Use cookie cutters to make shapes from brown bread - snowmen or turkeys at Thanksgiving, for instance - and spread butter or cream cheese on them. Or use cookie cutters to cut shapes from trays of Jell-O.

2. A CROWN IS SPECIAL

Schools have come up with ways to make birthdays all about the kids throughout the day. At Howell Road Elementary School in Valley Stream District 13, the birthday child can choose a group activity. Many choose to have the class play "Dance, Dance Revolution," a video-dance game the school owns that gets them exercising instead of ingesting sugar, says school principal Frank Huplosky.

Vivian Knudsen, a Northside kindergarten teacher, has had birthday children bring in a new donated book. The child wears a crown (with pictures of cupcakes on it, incidentally), and Knudsen takes the child's picture wearing the crown and holding the book. Then, she prints the picture out and tapes it in the front of the book, and marks the book with a "Happy Birthday" sticker with the child's name and date. She reads the story to the class, then it joins the other "birthday books" in a special basket in the classroom for rereading.

3. MINE YOUR TALENTS

Abracadabra! At Northside, Joe Cordi, a magician, volunteered to teach his daughter Gabriella's fourth-grade class a magic trick at their recent Halloween party - how to make a dime disappear from a clear cup and appear in your pocket. As a refreshment, Cordi's wife, Victoria, led the class in making pumpkin smoothies.

Another dad, a musician, came to his son's pre-K class in the Middle Country School District in Centereach and played guitar and sang with the kids to mark his son's birthday.

"We're working very hard to build memories, not through food," says Debbie Wolfe, administrator of Middle Country's Universal pre-K program. "We don't bring in food. We bring in families."

4. EMBRACE ARTS, CRAFTS AND TRINKETS

"This is the third year since the 'cupcake uprising,'" says Michelle Marino, principal of Southdown Elementary School in the Huntington School District. Some parents at first upset by the district's ban have since embraced coming into the class to lead crafts projects instead. Many use catalogs, such as Oriental Trading Co., to find fun projects, she says.

Danielle Cocossa has five children, ages 4 to 16, in Middle Country schools. For her kids' birthdays, she's made goody bags with stickers, pencils and other small items. "They're better off being more excited with the little toys and trinkets," she says. She and other parents also have brought in balloons that they shape into animals.

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