‘Nutritionally ‘Empty’ but Full of Meanings: The Socio-Cultural Significance of Birthday Cakes in Four Early Childhood Settings’

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This article examines the socio-cultural significance of birthday cakes with the purpose of reflecting upon birthday cake practices enacted in four early childhood settings in England. I argue that birthday cakes occupy an ambiguous place in early childhood practice: seen to be both ‘risky’ – a term I problematise – and important in terms of the rituals each setting had developed in relation to them. The research also highlights the way in which children appropriate the medium of birthday cakes in their pretend play, creating birthday cakes from a range of resources to initiate contact with practitioners and peers. Despite the positive framing of birthday cakes in early childhood settings adopted in this article, it is important to recognise the Othering of some families’ food practices that takes place through the vehicle of foods such as birthday cakes brought from home. In addition, the rituals associated with birthday cakes might also be conceptualised as an enactment of ‘groupism’ as opposed to a celebration of individual identity. Nevertheless, it is argued that birthday cakes should not be prohibited in early childhood settings. To do so would ignore the meanings that are attached to certain foods and the practices associated with them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49–60
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Early Childhood Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • birthday cakes
  • early childhood
  • ethnography
  • risk
  • socio-cultural significance

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