Embracing Halloween Candy
By Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD
“As a dietitian, I would like to encourage all parents to calm down about Halloween Candy. Candy is part of the world and it will be in your child’s life one day, with or without your approval. Without your approval, they are likely to be the child who goes to their friends’ houses and binges on the ding-dongs, cookies, and sugar-sweetened cereals. Without your approval, they might be the kid who buys and eats three candy bars for lunch. Without your approval, they might go to the convenience store once they have the freedom to do so and buy up all the candy they can, hide it in their room and experience so much shame when eating it.
With your approval, they can learn to have a healthy relationship with candy, where it is just one of the many delightful things to enjoy in this life. Help your children become competent eaters in this food-phobic world. Calm down!”
Last year, I posted this on my personal Facebook page and it got an overwhelming response, including 33 shares. I turned it into a blog, and we are sharing it again because so many people found it helpful.
In the last few years I’ve been surprised to hear the lengths parents go to keep the candy away from their children’s mouths. Some parents allow their kids to participate in the “trick or treating” up until the time of consumption. Their kids go door to door and are so excited to see what treats land in their buckets and bags and when they get home, they are asked to trade in the majority of the candy for a toy. Others use this idea of the “candy fairy,” where kids leave the candy they’ve collected out for the fairy and a toy shows up the next morning.
I’ve heard of other traditions that sound lovely, like costume parties or other hands-on activities to celebrate the holiday and create family memories. But taking your child trick or treating and then making them give the candy away seems like the wrong message to send.
Kids have the remarkable ability to regulate their food intake, if we let them- if we provide structured sit down meals and snacks and we don’t enhance the value of food by saying things like “Eat this, not that” and “You can have dessert once you finish your dinner.” And when they bring home their bag of Halloween candy, of course, OF COURSE, they are going to go overboard for a day or two. They’re kids! But most will lose interest after a few days and eat fewer and fewer pieces over time. It’s called the habituation effect, and there is science to back it up.
I loved what child-feeding expert Ellyn Satter had to say about this in her article titled “The Sticky Topic of Halloween Candy”:
“Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity. Work toward having your children be able to manage their own stash. For them to learn, you will have to keep your interference to a minimum. When they come home from trick or treating, let them lay out their booty, gloat over it, and eat as much as they want. Let them do the same the next day. Then have them put it away and relegate it to meal and snack time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as they want for snack time.
If they can follow the rules, your children get to keep control of the stash. Otherwise, you do, on the assumption that as soon as they can manage it, they get to keep it. Offer milk with the candy, and you have a chance at good nutrition.
Despite what most people think, studies show sugar does not affect children’s behavior and cognitive performance. My own observation is that children who are allowed to eat sugar instead of meals and snacks provided for them by their parents are likely to show deficits in behavior and cognitive performance.”
When it comes to food, don’t go after the “right” answer for your kids, go after the sustainable one that is steeped in trust that their relationship with food can be less conflicted than your own. Your child is truly developing a relationship with food. Just like the relationships we develop with other people, there are stages of trying, exploring, testing the boundaries, seeing what feels good and what doesn’t and then, over time moving into a more natural “known” rhythm. Your subtlest messages about food are powerful. If you communicate distrust of a food yourself or lean into simplifying food as good or bad, your child will notice and that food will gain power, whether it’s good or bad.
Letting your child explore food is an exercise in managing your own anxiety and parenting shame. You are not bad or wrong if your child eats candy. But you may be anxious as you watch them fondle or even tear open those packages. This is tough. Everything is temporary, which might be one of the best parenting mantras of all time.
Hope you have a Happy Halloween!
PS: That’s me in top photo, far right, as a scarecrow =)
Dana Sturtevant is a registered dietitian, certified yoga teacher, and self-proclaimed foodie. She especially enjoys blogging about mindfulness, yoga, Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size®, and the Slow Food Movement.