For me, the night before school starts always feels like the most amped-up version of the Sunday scaries, when nerves, last-minute errands, and a tantrum or two (on my part) overruns our best impulses to make this the Best School Year Ever. And it makes sense: for most kids, summer has been a haven of sleeping-in, road trips where candy and chip wrappers litter the backseat, and trips to the community pool on a crispy-hot day. The days are directionless and unstructured in the best way, and every day feels like the start of something new and unexpected. Who wouldn’t want to hold onto that forever?
Like me, my daughter is homebody through and through, so faced with the notion of having to go to the same classroom day after day, she often revolts, asking why she can’t just be homeschooled. When I think about the crowded drop-off lines and the prospect of not seeing her smile throughout my day, I ask myself the same question.
But of course, everything must end eventually, and with the close of summer also comes a certain fluttery thrill at the thought of a new school year and the reuniting of friends, new and old. When my daughter first went off to preschool, I knew that in order to make both of us more excited for school, we’d have to go big. To capture some of this joy, I turned to cake, as I often do whenever celebration is due. Picture it: You finish dinner, thinking that the dull bath-and-bed routine is about to begin, when your parents bring out a gorgeous, frosted cake with a candle flickering on top just for you. It’s an instant formula for making any kid feel special.
Some might argue that a cake is excessive — after all, it affords a big sugar rush and there’s no sleeping in on the first day of school! — but I suggest a diminutive alternative: the mini-cake.
For the night before my daughter’s first day of school, I purchased a 6” mini cake pan and filled it with a half serving of boxed cake mix, though you can certainly bake your own from scratch. After it baked, I spread the top with my daughter’s favorite fudgy icing, then layered it with tons of huge unicorn sprinkles. (The big sprinkles mixed with the tiny cake provides a delightful Alice-in-Wonderland moment of contrast!) Add a candle — because why not? — and grab the forks. The celebration has begun.
I know what you’re thinking: The last day of summer is busy enough without another task. You’re not wrong. And while it’s also great to buy a cake (or pie! or brownies!), I really like having a moment in the kitchen to reflect on the past summer, as well as the year ahead. The baking — minor as it is — reminds me to rest in the moment. To celebrate not only my daughter, but myself, because each year of her life is another year of parenthood that deserves to be marked.
The night before school, we’ll grab the cake after dinner and eat it on the deck, among the fireflies and bluejays. We might sing “Happy First Day Of School” to the tune of the birthday song. Sometimes, if we opt for a bigger cake, we’ll invite neighbor friends over and light a bonfire. It doesn’t really matter what the logistics of the celebration are. What’s important is taking a breath together, before the start of a new adventure.
When we gather at the table, we’ll ooh and ahh over the cake before digging in. We like to ask my daughter what she’s most looking forward to, then share some of our dreams for the year with her. She can’t get enough of the “when-I-was-in-XX-grade” stories, so we like to have those on hand too. This year, as my daughter’s entering first grade, I’ll tell her about how at her age, I had a crush on a little boy with a bowl cut named Ben. I’ll describe my first field trip to the zoo with my friends, and how I got to ride my bike to the end of the street by myself.
Mini-cakes in and of themselves might feel small, or even trivial. But they are the stuff of memories. The reminder that, for all that comes and goes, some traditions (and people) stay firmly rooted in your lives. I could want nothing more for my daughter than the knowledge of how deeply loved she is, even as she ventures forth into a new school year, and a new moment in her beautiful life.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.