One of the most common questions in our Feeding Littles Group on Facebook has to do with a baby's first birthday cake:
"What kind of healthy smash cake should I make for my baby? Do I need to do a low sugar cake?"
I always love reading the wide array of responses and seeing the smash cake photos that are inevitably posted. (True story: photos of babies eating are my favorite thing ever.)
What do Judy and I think about a baby's first smash cake? In honor of my daughter's second birthday this week, I wanted to share our thoughts. In short:
Do whatever causes you the least amount of stress. Seriously.
Not a baker? Buy something, don't make it. Super anxious about added sugar? Don't offer it (but make sure to read our thoughts on it below). Not into the idea of a smash cake in general? Do something different. Or do nothing at all.
Seriously, mama - this is meant to be fun. Don't let it stress you out.
You will have enough on your plate planning your baby's first birthday. Worrying about a smash cake only makes your life harder. Below are a few things to consider.
A little sugar will not hurt your baby or cause her to become a sugar fiend. Your baby already knows what sweetness tastes like and is predisposed to favor sweet flavors. Don't believe me? Taste breast milk or formula. Yup, your baby has been drinking sweet milk for a year now. (Yes, it's perfectly and healthy for her to have milk sugars and fruit sugars, and while they're probably "healthier" than added sugars from sucrose, honey and syrup, they're still technically sugars. Your baby's diet has not been "sugar free" up until now.)
It's very important for our kiddos to have a normal relationship with food and to know how to manage their food environment. Introducing baby to some added sugar on her first birthday will not ruin her taste for healthy food, I promise. Most babies who go to town on their cakes act no differently afterwards either (according to the hundreds of parents we've asked!). Plus, don't you want your child to be able go to a party when he's older, have some cake (until his body tells him he's satisfied), and move along? Promoting a "good versus bad" mentality around food increases your chid's risk for an eating disorder. We recommend not even talking about the food itself - just serve it, eat together, and enjoy the food. No biggie.
Most "Paleo" or "healthified" cakes still contain added sugars. Yes, maple syrup, agave nectar, and coconut sugar are still sugar. They may be nominally healthier, but the difference is pretty small. These cakes may be great options for kiddos or party-goers with food allergies, and some of them taste pretty darn good. Want to use one for your baby's birthday? Great! Just don't feel pressured to make a maple syrup-based cake if a more "traditional" (or heck, store bought) cake is easier for you.
Oh, and watch out for "sugar-free" cake recipes. If they're sweetened with applesauce or fruit, that's great (and technically they'd be "free from added sugar" since fruit has fructose, or fruit sugar). Truly sugar-free cakes usually contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda) or aspartame, which we don't recommend for babies, children or adults.
Many babies do not touch their smash cakes anyway. Parents oftentimes go overboard ensuring that their baby's cake is beautiful (or healthy, tasty, themed)...and baby won't even eat it. This happened to my first baby, and it happens all the time with our clients.
See that frosting on her hands and face? Yup, it's because we pressed her hand in the cake and put some on her lips just for the photos. Girlfriend refused to try any at all. I'm glad I got a bundtlet from Nothing Bundt Cake because it was so easy (and it photographed so well)...and when she didn't eat it I wasn't disappointed that I had spent too much time.
This photo from one of our group members cracks me up. Baby wanted nothing to do with her beautiful cake, but mmmmm, that carrot!
Remember, offering your baby a birthday cake (or something else) is all about the moment, the memory, the tradition. It's a rite of passage for many families. Think less about the "healthfulness" of the food and focus more on the memories you'd like to make. Your baby's first birthday is a celebration of surviving the first year (more for you than for them!), and having birthday cake if you want to is about celebrating. Food has an important part in our culture, and it's OK to eat certain foods as part of a celebration. Think long-term about what you want for this moment.
I think super messy cake smashes are a hilariously appropriate way to usher in toddlerhood and the joyful craziness that it brings.
You don't have to do a smash cake. If you still want to do "smash" food or messy play, get creative! Check out the awesome ideas here and here. The sweet girl in the photo below did a quesadilla/taco smash, which was a perfect option for her family.
One thing I do look for in cakes? Artificial dyes. I personally don't feel good eating them, so I try to get cakes that don't use them. However, they're hard to avoid when using fondant and specific cake designs, so it's usually that's something I let go of and just enjoy.
Remember, your baby's first birthday is a momentous occasion for the entire family! Enjoy it, and have some cake if you'd like - or not!
Megan and Judy, co-owners of Feeding Littles, bring you helpful info on food, nutrition, picky eating, and feeding young children. Megan McNamee MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Judy Delaware, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with children 3 and under in Boulder, Colorado. Megan and Judy are both moms of two and love helping families develop a healthy appetite for all foods!