A Questionable (but Cute?) New Birthday Trend

April 29, 2016

As a child of the 90s, children’s birthday parties will always be synonymous with a few things: goodie bags of cheap, plastic favors, adults dressed as a Ninja Turtles and princesses, and, of course, character cakes.

Photo by James Ransom

You know the cakes I'm talking about, baked in specialty pans shaped like beloved Sesame Street or Disney characters, simple enough for the most novice of bakers to master.

But this trend has always made me wonder: Who are these cakes really for anyway? Most of the children receiving these cakes are sub-four-years-old. At such a young age, the child may or may not temporarily delight in seeing a beloved character in front of them (their smiles could just be gas, after all). And will they even remember it? Not likely.

Recently, a new baby birthday cake trend has emerged. More and more parents are choosing to celebrate their child's birthday with not one cake, but two—one for the party-goers to enjoy, and one smaller, cuter cake created solely for the baby to smash. Yes, smash.

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Aptly named "Smash Cakes," the idea is that because the child is so young and will probably make a mess regardless, you may as well let them have at the whole thing face-first.

They have become a near-phenomenon over the past few years, and a quick Google search yields thousands of articles on the topic. Posts range from tips (Don't use food dye! Be sure to lay down a tarp!), to popular Smash Cake recipes, to photos of cute babies and cake galore. In fact, it seems like the biggest motivation for serving such a chaotic cake is for the photo opportunity it provides. Some even choose to go the professional photoshoot route.

The whole thing has me begging the same questions of character cakes: Who are Smash Cakes for—the birthday boy or girl, or the guests (and their Instagrams)? Is this annual anomaly just another signal that our culture is increasingly focused on curating shareable food-based visual content rather than experiencing a cherished moment? Or are Smash Cakes just a light-hearted birthday tradition too cute not to flood our social news feeds? What do you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Crispchip
  • Michaela Gross
    Michaela Gross
  • amy
  • Kate Hersberger Greenberg
    Kate Hersberger Greenberg
  • Brenna
Sarah E Daniels

Written by: Sarah E Daniels

It's mostly a matter of yeast.


Crispchip May 6, 2016
It's not my type of thing. But live and let live. I suppose if someone was worried about waste, the cake could be made with dog-healthy ingredients, then used as a mixer to fill out some dry food meals for Fido.
Michaela G. May 3, 2016
Stupid and wasteful
amy May 3, 2016
My mom made one for my first birthday just as I did one for my daughter. It has always been for fun, to emphasize a first celebration of many to come, and for the great photos to share with family, friends, and that messy, cake-covered baby a few years down the road. Nothing new here!
Kate H. May 3, 2016
Giving a credit to the photographer does not give you the rights to the images used in this story. You must pay the photographer who owns the rights. Consult your legal team before you hear from someone else's lawyers.
Sarah E. May 3, 2016
Hi Kate, thanks for speaking up! We've swapped images.
Brenna May 2, 2016
Smash cakes aren't "new" at allllllll and have been a tradition of first birthdays for a long long time.
Jill Z. May 2, 2016
Why don't we just quit doing everything that is fun and roll up and die? Give me a break. It's cake people!
Brenna May 2, 2016
I know these "waste of cake" people are so cukoo. There's plenty of cake in America! And it's excellent, excellent frosting practice.
sraymond54 May 2, 2016
My first child will be 41 this year. On her first birthday, my mother made a cake just for her. So, the concept of a "smash cake" is not new, it is just being spread via the internet.
Kacee May 2, 2016
This isn't cute. It's disgusting.
Linn May 2, 2016
I understand why people view this as wasteful. At the same time, I wouldn't consider cake "real food" that I'm concerned about as far as food waste goes. Another thing to think about is, I think most parents would say that what it takes to make your kids happy is hard to consider wasteful. Even if they don't remember it. You don't know how long you will have your kid, so if your concern is- he won't remember this, so why bother trying to make him happy with an Elmo cake? That's a sad attitude to have. I'm not saying spoil the kids to death, but having the guiding question be- will he even remember, isn't wise or loving. And, contrary to what the author states a "sub 4 year old" would fucking flip over having an amazing cake based on their fave character.
Linn May 2, 2016
And btw, I'm really not the type to do this sort of thing. I forgot to mention that, many things like this could be considered wasteful- like "sensory bins" for young toddlers. If you are into that, this is basically the same thing but with food. It is a sensory experience for your little one.
feather3weight May 2, 2016
In 1944 my cousin and I shared a first birthday party. We were set at either end of the long dining table in our high chairs and each had a very small layer cake set before us. Hilarity ensued. Flash bulbs went off. Yes, it was for the adults, but it remains a fond memory, based in part, on those snapshots.
MarieGlobetrotter April 30, 2016
This is disturbing. Why waste even more food than we already do? In the US, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted. Same here in Canada
jack63 May 1, 2016
I totally agree!
Brenna May 2, 2016
Wasting sugar and flour is hardly a waste - it's currently a commodity. Also it's good practice for frosting a cake!
amysarah April 30, 2016
In my experience, babies that age are capable of covering themselves - and everything in their wake - with just one cupcake. But if an entire stunt cake tickles you, have at it.

sara_ann April 30, 2016
We just gave my daughters their own slices of cake. It was quite messy (just like anytime they fed themselves).

A smash cake wasn't my cup of tea. It doesn't seem like a big deal though, even if it's more for the parents.
Zelda April 30, 2016
It's cute as Honey Boo Boo.
Kori April 29, 2016
I'm in the process of planning my son's first birthday including smash cake! As much as I do hope there are great pictures, that is not going to be my focus for the day. He gets to eat his own special cake and we're all going to enjoy him enjoying it! I did think the other day why don't we just give him a piece of cake but I'm making his own little cake grain free and then there will be a "normal" cake for everybody else. So that is why we are having two! Don't get me wrong, I do get the whole staging thing for instagram is getting a little ridiculous. Although I will most likely be posting a pic of him smashing cake in his face because how cute does that sound?! Maybe we adults should start smashing more cake in our faces and then we'd all relax a little!
Brenna May 2, 2016
you go, girl! So many sticks in the mud commenting.
Clio April 29, 2016
Babies getting tiny cakes covered in whipped cream instead of frosting was a tradition in my family at least back to when my siblings were kids, in the 50s. I'm not sure what makes this so wasteful--it wasn't a big cake, basically something the size of a small plate. I don't remember there really being other cakes around for the adults, just maybe some regular party food.
My family was rural working class, so you can save the bourgeois comments for elsewhere. Even people who don't have much can choose to indulge on special occasions--and a homemade small cake with whipped cream isn't that much of an indulgence.
When kids were older and got to request cakes, we might have some simple shapes but again, as all the cakes were homemade it wasn't too out there. That said, there are plenty of parents who use cardboard guides to cut out bunnies or Mickey Mouse or a car or whatever.
So in short: not new! Not necessarily wasteful! Not a sign of the upper classes!
Lindsay G. April 29, 2016
" Is this annual anomaly just another signal that our culture is increasingly focused on curating shareable food-based visual content rather than experiencing a cherished moment?"
I think this is reaching juuuust a tad....
Do you have kids? My daughter's first birthday is a couple months away and we'll be doing smash cupcake because it's fun. Period.
Baby birthday parties are for the parents anyway. We're looking at this as a celebration of keeping a tiny human alive (and our marriage alive!) for a year. Plus what baby wouldn't want a face full of (vegan, no sugar) cake?
And sure, the smash cake will lend itself to cute pictures. But so will the rest of the party. Cause babies are freaking cute.
Brenna May 2, 2016
Woot woot! Preach!
Sarah E. May 3, 2016
Thanks for your comment Lindsay! I do not have kids, and have mixed opinions on this topic—but it sure got you talking, didn't it?
Meg F. April 29, 2016
In the '50s when I was a wee one, my grandparents and parents always made an angel food cake with a sweet glaze on it. The babies could throw it around and do all kinds of crazy things with it, and it was still edible and pretty.
Melissa April 29, 2016
Wasteful and bourgeois.
Brenna May 2, 2016
Bourgeois? Wrong. This is a blue collar, Mormon church tradition, and all incomes tradition. It's in the name of fun. Making a cake is very, very inexpensive, boxed or scratch.
Kerry April 29, 2016
I like the idea of a separate cake for the birthday girl/boy, especially on their first. We have such great pictures of my daughter with hers. It is fun to let them explore it themselves at their own pace, instead of expecting them to do something cute/funny. We have adorable photos of the finger marks in her cake from her tasting the icing. For her birthdays after that, she just has a cupcake like everyone else, and she gets to pick the color frosting, and even help bake and decorate.