Bake Sale Blues

There is no reader question this week. Helena has a topic she’d like to address.

What’s the etiquette for a bake sale? Is a parent obliged to bring healthy food? And, healthy or not, should it be homemade? I was mulling these questions over with regards to the recent dust-up over a New York City Department of Education policy outlawing homemade goodies at school bake sales except for once a month or weekdays after 6 p.m. The rationale is that muffins and cookies made in people’s kitchens don’t come with a nutritional label or per-serving calorie count, and therefore contribute to childhood obesity. Now, if parents want to raise money, they have to sell fresh fruits and vegetables or packaged foods from a government-approved list that includes reduced-fat Doritos.

For those of us who live in cities where bake sales are still unrestricted, here is some advice I collected.

A bake stand should have options for those on special diets, says Pam Abrams, coauthor of The Only Bake Sale Cookbook You’ll Ever Need. At a minimum, she says, it should include a nut-free option for those with allergies. Ideally, it would include vegan and gluten-free offerings as well.

Otherwise, stick to your favorite brownie or cupcake recipes. Quinoa-date cookies and homemade fruit leather might be healthy, but they are not going to rake in as much cash for new playground equipment. (A really good bake sale can, according to the people I talked to, draw as much as $750.)

Though your cupcakes may be high in refined flour and sugar, they will still send a healthier message than Doritos. Jean Lee, a mother in Manhattan, says that when you sell stuff made in a factory instead of in your own kitchen, “you’re denying the experience of cooking to kids, teaching them that Mommy and Daddy cannot cook.”

But while chocolate chip cookies are OK, don’t make them monster-size. Preparing small servings of whatever you’re selling is a good way to teach kids about portion control. It’s certainly much better than training them to tot up their daily calorie intake. Micaela Preston, a mother of two in Minneapolis and the author of the blog Mindful Momma, says, “I teach [my kids] moderation in general. I would never expect a child or teacher to scour calorie counts.”

Another way to make a bake sale a little healthier without making it downright penitential is to sell savory items as well as sweet. At least then you’re cutting down on sugar. Lee says that at her child’s school, popular offerings have included Chinese dumplings and empanadas.

But all this cooking is labor-intensive. Is it wrong to just pick up some cupcakes from Safeway? Of course not. Parents don’t always have time to make their own baked goods, particularly if they both work. However, note that the profit margin on processed foods is narrower.

If you do end up picking up your lemon squares from Costco, don’t try to pass them off as homemade. I went to a bake sale where a parent had rewrapped each lemon square individually and tied a ribbon ’round it. When I discovered where they came from, I felt cheated.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.