For most parents, the first uninvited Twinkies pop up in nursery school. Until then, moms and dads may have controlled their kids' entire diets either by feeding them at home or by specifying what day-care centers and babysitters can serve. But once school starts, someone else is overseeing what children eat.
Different families have different ideas about what's acceptable. "I'm looking for a preschool that only allows healthy foods," says Sarah Gilbert, a mom of a 3-year-old from Portland, Oregon. "At home, we eat mostly organic, and we read labels carefully. I don't want someone just slapping down any old processed food in front of my son."
Others are more relaxed about the issue. "To me, junk food isn't that big a deal," says Lissa Schwing, of Mandeville, Louisiana, a mother of four. "I don't mind if my kids get sweets at school, as long as it's in moderation."
Preschools try to accommodate the range of sensibilities, but that can be a challenge. "Teachers usually start out telling parents to send in healthy snacks," says Harriet Worobey, a program director in the nutrition department of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She says that at first, parents send in something healthy for a class party, like a banana muffin. But then moms try to outdo one another: "Next time, someone might send in banana muffins with chocolate chips," Worobey says. "Then, it's chocolate cupcakes, then bigger chocolate cupcakes. Pretty soon, you have parents sending in goody bags filled with candy, and the situation is out of control."
It's how often the treats are handed out that many parents find troublesome. "In my daughter's preschool, it seems like it's somebody's birthday every week," one mom laments. "When you add in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and all the other holidays, kids are getting treats all the time."
Schools respond to such concerns by setting stricter policies, but even those create controversy. When Chandler School, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, banned parents from bringing in any food at all in 2004, at least one mom was furious. "On my daughter's birthday, she got to wear a special sash and walk to the office to get a sticker," says Betsy Hunter, who fought, but failed, to have the ban lifted. "There was no singing, no laughter, no cupcakes. This wasn't a celebration. They're taking the fun out of being a kid."