Vegan birthday parties: be prepared!

December 9, 2009

This week we’re digging deep into the great responses from our Council of Vegan Parents to figure out the best way to deal with birthday parties – either your child’s own, or more importantly, someone else’s. A celebration with food that might not be appropriate for your child can be a big hurdle, so here’s what Doh had to say about it:

“Over the years, our response to birthday parties has varied.  For my son’s birthdays, I now plan the party for in between mealtimes so that we’re not obligated to feed all the attendees.  I’ve done full-spread parties, with everything from mock chikkin salad and sweet potato fries to carrot cake and Italian sodas. Too much work!  Not all kids (or their parents) appreciate non-SAD food, and it’s disheartening to have a lot of plates come back with uneaten food.  

“One miracle I made for my son’s 3rd birthday was a watermelon “cake.”  It’s just large slices of watermelon stacked in tiers, then garnished with fruit attached by toothpicks.  In the Florida summer, it was a big hit.

“For non-vegan kids’ parties, I don’t technically let my son make his own decisions about eating non-vegan food, but I also don’t think we’ve ever talked about that as an option, and he’s never asked if he could eat the non-vegan food.  Some parties, I’ve stayed for the whole time, and some are the drop-off kids of parties, so maybe he’s tried it when I wasn’t there.

“I do plan ahead and talk with the parents.  We’ve attended some parties where the parents were kind enough and savvy enough to make all the food vegan just because my son was attending, or they made sure there were vegan substitutions for him.  Mostly, though, I find out what’s being served, and bring the food to replace it, right down to the treat bag that goes home with each kid.  For parents that I don’t know well, I try to keep in mind that they are probably completely clueless about veganism, so I phrase my offer to provide the vegan food in terms of relieving their stress or worry, emphasizing that I don’t want them to go out of their way or to have to read tiny ingredient lists, and that it’s a way for me to help take some of the party-planning burden off their backs.  I also tell them that my son is so picky, anyway, it’d be unfair to ask them to find something he will eat.  There is truth that. 

“When he was younger, I figured my son would want whatever looked the same, so if they were having chocolate cake, I’d make chocolate cake.  Now that he’s older and has stronger preferences, I ask him what he wants me to bring for him.  Sometimes, he decides he doesn’t need anything, or we’ll arrange something a little special for when he gets home from the party, like baking together or going to the store for his favorite cupcakes (yes, we are lucky).  Parties are usually so chaotic that no one notices if he’s not having cake, or that his pizza is different from theirs.

“The hardest kind of party to deal with are the unannounced parties at daycare and school.  You don’t get advance notice for those.  From pre-school to about 3rd grade, I kept cupcakes in the teachers’ freezers – they were clearly labelled “vegan” so that other people wouldn’t eat them!  Teachers could pull one out for the party, and my son would often be fine with eating them cold.

“Even when there’s not a party, teachers will sometimes give kids cookies or other treats, which is another topic, and one time my son’s vegan “option” was potato chips.  Yeah, thanks.  So it’s a good strategy to provide your child’s teacher with treats for any occasion that may arise.  Here’s a tip for freezing/transporting cupcakes: if you have the space, freeze the frosted cupcakes first, in the baking pan.  Then, use those plastic containers that are meant to be somewhat disposable, big enough for a cupcake.  Put the cupcake on the lid, and put the bottom of the container over the cupcake, so that the container is upside down but the cupcake is right-side up.  This makes transporting and storing them much easier since they have a wider base.

“I haven’t had any disasters, but I have done some **crazy** driving to get food to the party on time, while still hot (or cold, as needed).  When he was 4, I left work during my 30 minute break, drove with balloons and cake in the car to his daycare, stopped at a gas station for a lighter to light the candles, got to the daycare and threw an impromptu party, stayed for all of 8 minutes, then ran back to work.  I once took my son to school in the morning, raced home, baked cupcakes, pulled them out of the oven and put a Tofutti pizza in, baked that, then carried them – still hot – to the car, frosted the cupcakes at red lights along the way, and arrived back at school in time for his lunchtime birthday party.  Recently I dropped my son off at 2pm at a location almost 20 minutes away, raced home, baked a Tofutti pizza (again), and raced back in time for the food to be served at 3pm.  It’s kind of insane, and each time I swear I won’t do that to myself – or the environment, with all that driving – again.

Thanks so much Doh! Here are some key takeaways from her story:

Know your audience. Doh used to make full on vegan meals, but they came back uneaten. I don’t think this was a statement about her cooking; you might just have a community who isn’t willing to change their diet, even for a meal. Pay attention to the feedback (both verbal and evidence like unfinished plates) and adjust accordingly. Doh now plans parties in between meals so it’s less work, less waste, and overall less of an issue.

Similarly, some creativity can help to bridge objections. On a hot Florida day, a watermelon “cake” magically transforms from “weird hippie food, why can’t they bake something” to “wow, I really like watermelon!”

Substitute without subverting. Like Julie, Doh asks ahead of time what’s being served and brings vegan versions that match closely (including the goodie bag, which is a great idea!) The trick here is to be clear that you’re trying to help, not to reject the host’s efforts. I think in the age of peanut allergies and whatnot this has become less of an issue, but re-read Doh’s suggestions to make sure you’re making friends while you make meals.

It’s OK not to eat. This is up to your child, certainly, and might work better at as kids get older, but simply not having any cake can be an option. As Doh noted, these parties can be pretty chaotic, so it’s possible that nobody will even notice.

Cupcake stashes! Doh brought up the problem of school and daycare parties, which you might not find out about until afterwards. In addition to making sure the teacher or supervisor knows the situation, stashing some cupcakes in the freezer at the site can be a great plan (though if I was a teacher, I’d have a hard time ignoring a freezer full of vegan cupcakes!) Her tips on how to pack them are work bookmarking.

Doh finished off with some crazy stories about mad dashes across town to make a party work, and I’m so selling the movie rights 🙂 What about you? What’s the wildest race you ever ran to pull off a vegan party miracle? Let us know in the comments!

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