Monday, June 22, 2009

Cupcake Gestapo

Be warned: the Health Food Police are on patrol and their aiming their alfalfa sprouts at school birthday parties.

I'm not kidding, kids. There are people who want to zap the fun right out of kiddie parties. My sister was confronting this problem last week when I found her angsting over what to bring to my nephew's first grade birthday bash. Ever sagacious, Auntie A suggested a big box of crowd-pleasing cupcakes. A shrug and an eye roll later, I learned that while cupcakes aren't officially forbidden from my nephew's health-conscious elementary school, they are frowned upon. So she was debating between fruit kabobs and something called ants on a log. This scrumptious sounding delicacy is actually celery sticks smeared with cream cheese ( preferably non-fat) and dotted with raisins. Hey, that sounds pretty tasty for a lunch box or after-school snack. But I doubt the crunchy confection would make the hearts of most seven year olds sing during a festive celebration. Not to mention my nephew's a finicky eater, a self described " meat and chocolate man" who will occasionally dip into the other food groups of pizza and ice cream.

The next day, to my amused amazement the pop culture pundits on The View were tackling this very issue. It seems "the cupcake wars" had hit the papers. No, my sister hadn't stormed the school brandishing bottles of whipped cream and hot fudge, demanding to hold the school hostage until every little mouth was filled with cupcake crumbs ( though that would have made for a much more dramatic story; and I do encourage friends and family to act as outrageously as possible whenever possible all in an effort to make my literary life a lot easier). It turns out, my clever, resourceful sister handled things just fine, settling on mini-bags of freshly popped popcorn which delighted both my nephew and his classmates.

A nutritional vigilante mom named MeMe Roth had apparently wreaked havoc upon her own kids' NYC school, urging them ( in a most annoying and brash way )to ban cupcakes and all junk food. MeMe-- a sort of Ann Coulter for the anti-fat, anti-food movement-- is so relentless and abrasive in her attempt to shame people into healthier eating, when she lived in Milburn, New Jersey, the PTA president sent her an e-mail that simply read, " Please consider moving." She uses strong-armed tactics, busting into schools, YMCAs, McDonalds, The Hershey Store, etc. She rails against her own mother for being obese; she blasts Angelina Jolie for letting her kids snack on Cheetos. And I'm pretty sure she spends her non-lunch hour sticking pins in her Paula Deen voodoo doll. MeMe may come off as a rabid bull in a candy shop, but she's got some pretty powerful ammo. After all, there are all sorts of studies out there: some have 1 in 5 kids as overweight or obese; some 1 in 3. Either way, kids are in big fat trouble. We all are.

But the occasional classroom cupcake is not the culprit. Blame our sedentary, super-sized lifestyles for making everyone, kid and adult alike, fatter and fatter over the last decade. Fast food meals are bigger than when we were kids (and if you read Fast Food Nation, you'll never want to go anywhere near a Big Mac again anyway). And kids spend many more hours a week in front of computers, TVs and video games than we did. They rarely spontaneously " play outside." I remember spending hours up the street riding bikes, playing tag, softball, whatever with whoever came out-- and running around for hours, often until it was getting dark and time for dinner. Nowadays, play dates have to be strategically arranged, often booked weeks, months in advance. And as anyone who watches Nancy Grace can tell you, since there's a bogeyman behind every other bush even in the safest neighborhoods, kids have to be schlepped to and fro. So there goes another opportunity or two to burn up extra junk food calories.

Of course, we all know proper nutrition and exercise should be encouraged at home and re-enforced at school. But as Whoopi Goldberg suggested, use a little common sense. "If I want my kid to have a cupcake, she can have a cupcake." And if you don't want your kid to eat a cupcake, tell her to pass. The truth is: deprivation diets don't work. I've been on my share. And I can start out like gangbusters, but within a week or two, or stuck on a pesky plateau, and the next thing I know I'm curled up with a big bag of M&Ms, with sixteen licorice Twizzlers hanging out of my mouth. Better to teach and model moderation. While no foods are deemed bad, go heavy on the veggies, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, dairy. Allow small treats and bigger ones on special occasions. And portion size is a biggie. The big thing is they should be smaller.

But let's not forever ban the venerable birthday cupcake. It's almost a national treasure. But it's a treasure with a secret. As a colorful, shimmering symbol of childhood, often topped with festive sprinkles or decorative candies, it's special. But as a treat, it's not so hot. At least the cupcakes from my childhood memories weren't that tasty; mostly dry little things with waxy frosting. So most kids eat one or two bites, then toss the rest in the trash. So really far more cupcake calories wind up in the garbage than in the kiddies' ever-expanding tummies.

Maybe the cupcake needs to hire a press agent. It worked for prunes. A PR firm re-fashioned the much-maligned old-fogey fruit and re-named them dried plums( which, of course, is what they are). Now that sounds like a happy, healthy treat that would be welcome at any celebration.

Rename the cupcake Harvard Admission. Rename sprinkles Full Scholarship. And before you can say " screaming MeMe" every nutritional vigilante mom will be back on board.

Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.


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