Send in the clowns, pirates and hobos. Put out the teacups and cupcakes. Have fun with pony rides and portraiteurs. But when it comes to food served at a child's birthday party, watch out. Parents must, as always, consider not only age-group requirements but also safety, because of the danger of choking.
A recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins University showed that one child dies from choking on a food every five days.
The study, which ranked the foods in order of death incidence, gave hot dogs, candy, nuts and grapes highest scores for deaths due to choking.
Other foods that are considered dangerous, especially for the toddler age group: popcorn, carrot or celery sticks, olives, berries and raisins.
That said, on to the food you can serve.
Few children's birthday parties are catered these days, possibly because, as more than one caterer noted, "there is no money in cake and ice cream."
Planning the menus for children's parties is not difficult, but there are special requirements parents should consider for each age group.
Rebecca Smith RD, an outpatient nutritionist at Childrens Hospital of Orange County, whose job is to know which foods work best for different ages, made these suggestions:
Menu planning has its limitation for the toddler age group. "This age group can't handle utensils, so the best way to go is to serve a variety of finger foods," Smith said. She has found that toddlers respond best to cheese slices, dry cereal mixes (without nuts or raisins, please), fruit bars on a stick, crackers of all kinds and quesadilla strips made by melting cheese in tortillas and cutting them into strips. "Avoid messy dishes such as spaghetti or sandwiches at this age, which they can't handle anyway," Smith said.
For dessert, ice cream in cups or small-size straight-bottomed cones or individual cake muffins suit toddlers best. "Fruit that is cut up and peeled also is good, but be sure the fruit is soft and peels are removed to avoid possible choking problems," Smith said. Ripe bananas, peaches, apricots and plums without skin are OK. Apples, raisins, peanuts, hot dogs, popcorn, berries, hard candies, corn (unless creamed), olives, grapes, popcorn, carrots and celery should be strictly avoided at this age.
Children at preschool age (3 to 6) prefer carbohydrate foods rather than meats, so it's best to gear the menu toward things like macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, chicken and noodles, snack mixes, crackers and cereals rather than meat, Smith suggests.
"Individual servings make the foods special for them," Smith said. Cupcakes, juice popsicles and casseroles served in individual shallow cups are enjoyed.
Planning a menu for the school-age child (6 to 12) is a joy, Smith said. "At this age they'll eat everything and anything. Their appetites have picked up and they're less finicky."
Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizzas and tacos are standard fare for this school-age group. But you can add cut raw vegetables if served with dips. Baked potatoes with cheese added also may work well at a party for school-agers. Smith suggests sandwiches, such as hoagies and submarines, and make-your-own sandwich bars where children can create their own concoctions and add their own condiments. Large birthday cakes with special theme decorations are appreciated at this age. Ice cream bars equipped with do-it-yourself toppings are another way to go. Fruit-juice popsicles, granola bars and other cereal-type snacks are also good.
Cathee Hickock of Rococo, on the other hand, thinks that school-age children are far more experimental today than ever before. "We've introduced things on skewers that can be picked up and eaten out of hand and chicken drumsticks seasoned in various exotic ways," she said. Hickok also suggests scaling down sizes of foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs and sandwiches so they are easier to handle.
For the adolescent age group (12 to 18), fast food seems the most preferred food, according to Smith. "You can adapt the fast food theme by letting the kids make their own tacos and burritos, pita bread sandwiches and burgers," Smith said. If you purchase the fast food, add a salad bar to the menu, allowing youngsters to make their own salads and add their own toppings.