Sunday, December 21, 2008

Star of the Week.

My son's preschool has a weekly tradition of naming one student "Star of the Week." During that time, the student's pictures are put up on special cork board and family are invited in to read a story, talk about the student, and share a treat. Last week was Jordan's turn, and I was faced with own dilemma. What can I make for 25 pre-schoolers?

I chose this school for a variety of reasons - none of which included assessing the nutritional agenda of the administration or the personal preferences of the parents who send their children there. It never really occurred to me. Some friends I knew had elected to send their children to schools that had strict prohibitions against bringing in sugary treats for sharing or for snack. At the time, I laughed. What's next, I thought - banning cupcakes for birthdays? Ha ha.

It turns out, they might be on to something. Repeatedly, Jordan has come home for lunch with no appetite to speak of. At first, I assumed this was just one more instance of his pickiness cropping up. Then I discovered that he had eaten "a special snack" at school. Special snacks seem to occur with alarming frequency. In addition to the star of the week, they celebrate all the major holidays, they invite parents to come in and celebrate unique cultural traditions (with snack, of course), and there are birthday treats. Constantly.

In January, the class will be celebrating thirteen birthdays. Thirteen!!! I can expect my son to come home thirteen days of the month with his face covered in chocolate and his nerves bundled from overdoses of sugar. When I pressed the teacher to see if we could suggest bundling the parties into a few dates over the course of the month, she sighed.

"I tried," she said. "The parents all want to have their own special birthday."

I dropped it. I just wasn't ready to become the mom on a mission. As much as I dislike the amount of sugar other people are introducing into the school curriculum, I decided to let it go and focus on my own kid at home. But when it was my turn to bring something in this week, I took a stand. I was not baking my usual assortment of sweets, or buying cupcakes, or preparing anything that called for a cup of sugar or a layer of frosting. I just couldn't take it anymore!

Fruit, I decided, was the answer.

Lots of great ideas out there - I found. But it's more of a challenge finding something that's cost-effective for twenty-five pre-schoolers, that still looks cute. Family Fun had a gorgeous idea for a snack called "Strawberry Mice." It would work perfectly as a theme to accompany the book I was going to read at story time ("Chicks and Salsa.") It looked simple to put together and was visually appealing.

The trouble was, a tiny container of strawberries (the little one!!) was $5.99 at the store. I looked at it and cringed. Half the berries were moldy, the others looked wilted. It's the end of December. Of course they're going to look this way. We're totally out of season. No way. I gave up and decided I'd think about it some more. Later in the week, at a different grocery story, I found large container of strawberries for half the price. They were uniformly shaped, they looked good, there was no mold to speak of, and the price was right.

I bought two.

I'm happy I lucked out and found the berries, but it made me mad too. It's frustrating that healthy cooking has to be as expensive as it is. I could have cheaped out and bought a box of cookies for a couple of bucks and passed that off as snack. I didn't because it bothered me. I just did not want one more day to be a sugar filled high for the kids in the class. Don't misunderstand me. I LOVE sugar. I LOVE baked goods. I LOVE my own baked goods more than anything I buy in the store because they're fresh and warm and deliciously cozy. Heck, last year for star of the week, I totally sugared them out.

And I totally get it when parents fake-bake good because they're both working and don't have time to spend cooking. I've been there. It's convenient, it's easier to feed twenty-five people that way, and you know the kids will love them.

But enough, already, I told myself. December is one big sugar fest to begin with; and with thirteen birthdays to look forward to in January, I just had to do something healthy or I couldn't live with myself.

I made my strawberry mice.

They do have a little bit of sugar in them to keep things interesting (mini chocolate chip, dab of gel frosting for the eyes, and a snip of licorice for the tail.) I balanced that with roasted sunflower seeds for the ears, a wedge of swiss cheese and a blueberry to garnish. The original recipe called for almond slivers for the ears. I skipped that because of the potential allergy issue. I added the blueberry and a foil cupcake tin for color.

There, I thought. There's something for everyone.

The teachers were thrilled. The principal came out of her office to look at them in person (and take one), and even better - most of the kids tried them. My son ate two, and his sister ate about five of them - between sneaking off with them in the kitchen, to the car ride, to the snack table in school. She also swiped some juice, some chocolate covered rice cakes, and a swig or two of some kid's chocolate milk.

I felt better. It was my own little, personal stand for nutrition.

More importantly, our visit was a lot of fun. Jordan seemed to get a kick out of seeing me, Jeff, Mina and Grandma H at school. His teacher told me he had been talking about us the whole morning, looking forward to seeing us. And this little grin here seemed to suggest he was kinda proud.
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