It’s late October, so naturally parents and kids are busy putting finishing details on costumes, deciding on the best trick-or-treat routes, and getting ready for the onslaught of candy. This time of year can be very scary – not just because of the ghosts and ghouls, but because parents try to manage the sugar overload and convince kids to still eat their veggies! The bags of candy that kids bring home after a night of door-to-door walking bring a lot of fear around the effects of all that sugar, like cavities and contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity. But, Halloween can be an opportunity to teach kids about mindful eating and healthy choices. Here I share some tips to help you and your kids have a happy, and healthy, Halloween.
As parents become more and more health-conscious, I see more and more concern about events like Halloween. So much candy, and SOOOO much sugar! Some parents try to mitigate this with “health-ified” treats with no-sugar-or-taste-added-hidden-veggie snacks, or low-sugar-lots-of-added-crap treats. But I say we stop and take a step back. What are we really afraid of here? And, what kind of health messaging are we giving to our kids? Are we teaching them to be self-sufficient little people?
Despite how little they may be now, our kids will one day be grown adults in the real world, who will be able to buy candy whenever they feel like it! It’s up to us as parents to guide them in making their own choices around health and food, and help them to develop positive relationships with food.
Halloween can be used as an opportunity to model healthy behaviour, and help kids understand how an overall balanced eating pattern and moderation are key to a healthy relationship with our food and our bodies. Of course I’m not saying that a diet loaded in sugar and refined junk food is ok, but banishing the candy altogether or making it a “forbidden food” does nothing to teach our kids to life a full, fun life where sometimes treats can happen and still be OK. Using scare tactics and fear mongering (sugar is toxic, candy is bad, gonna make you sick/obese/etc) to pressure kids into making food choices only sets them up for guilt and shame when they, inevitably, are faced with their own food decisions.
Participating in Halloween and eating some candy over the next few weeks is not going to set kids up for a lifetime of spiralling out of control. If anything, allowing kids to enjoy their candy with moderation and within reason, and modelling healthy eating behaviours yourself, normalizes candy as just another food that can fit occasionally in an otherwise healthy diet.
So what do we do on Halloween night when the kids come home with their sugary loot?
Let them eat it.
Child feeding guru Ellyn Satter suggests allowing kids to eat as much as their little hearts desire on the first (and second) nights. This removes the restrictive mentality and encourages moderation, and allows kids to enjoy all the fun of Halloween.
But wait – won’t the kids go overboard and just want to eat nothing but candy if given the choice?? Nope. Research suggests that restriction can give kids reasons to eat beyond enjoyment, like rebellion and pushing the boundaries, and can lead to overeating of these “forbidden foods”. This study found that young girls who are restricted from treats will load up on these forbidden foods regardless of whether they are hungry or not.
After the first couple of nights, structure returns. Satter recommends to give a couple of small pieces of the remaining candies only with meal and snack times. Parents decide how much and how often the candy appears, but this is also an opportunity to involve the children – let them be involved in discussion to come up with a game plan for all those leftovers (like 2 pieces at lunch and 1 piece at snack). Over age 4, kids have the ability to take control over their candy, if they can manage that responsibility. Satter notes that if your child can follow the rules, they get to keep control of the stash. Otherwise the parents control it, with the assumption that when the child can manage it that they can regain control.
The bottom line: look at the big picture. A few nights of Halloween candy isn’t going to send your kid down the road to a lifetime of unhealthy eating. If anything, using this opportunity to teach our kids responsible eating patterns can set them up for a lifetime of enjoying their food and making overall healthy decisions.