Halloween is just around the corner, and for most people it is a holiday represented by bags of candy and sugar overload. As a parent, how do you help your child to navigate this smorgasbord of calories and sugar?
I still remember every Halloween when I was a child. We would get dressed up in our costumes and head to the best streets in the neighborhood to collect as much candy as we could. When we had accumulated our stash, my sister and I would head back home and spend hours sorting and trading our candy. Each of us would try to get as many of our favorites as possible and then would eat them for weeks afterwards.
Those are fond memories, and for many parents and children those experiences are a passage of childhood. It may be hard for us to remember as we try to help our children with eating healthfully, but eating Halloween candy for a short period each year will not forever harm your child. It can actually help them to develop valuable lifelong healthy eating skills.
Parents have many different ways of handling Halloween candy consumption. Some do a version of buying the candy back, often with the help of a dentist or a “switch-witch” who provides some toy or other item in exchange for the candy. Others implement a rationing system, with their children allowed to have a predetermined amount of candy on Halloween and in the days that follow.
While there are many viable options for families, in my experience as a dietitian I recommend allowing your child to experience the fun of Halloween in all its candy overload glory.
Division of Feeding Responsibility
Now if your first reaction to a dietitian recommending that you allow your child to eat their Halloween candy unrestricted is “you’ve got to be kidding me!” you’re not alone. That is what many people have come to expect from health professionals. However, as a dietitian I truly believe in the Division of Feeding Responsibility that is put forward by Ellyn Satter, a leading child feeding expert and Registered Dietitian. It is a way of feeding your child that can help to ease your mind, and the guilt, that often goes along with mealtime struggles, not just at Halloween but year round.
While the details of the Division of Feeding Responsibility theory are for another post, the main tenets are that you, as the parent, are responsible for deciding what food your child will eat and when they can eat it. Your child is responsible for deciding whether to eat that food and how much they will eat. This allows your child to learn to trust their own hunger and satiety cues, while still providing structure from the parents.
I know that the thought of allowing your child to choose how much to eat can be overwhelming in many cases. Our first instinct when trying to help our children learn healthy habits is often to tell them that they need to eat a certain amount of each food. Then we hope that they will eventually start to replicate these patterns on their own, if all goes well. For some kids this can work, but for others it is a recipe for endless tantrums and struggles at meal times and there IS a better way! I’ll get into the details of how to feed your child following this method another day, but for now, back to Halloween.
Putting it into Practice
Making Halloween candy a restricted item can often lead to your child just wanting more of it. It sets it up as a forbidden item, and for most of us as soon as you tell us we can’t have something, we just want it more. So how do you help your child to eat their Halloween candy responsibly without having to put outside restrictions on it?
- Discuss ahead of time what Halloween is about. Are there other traditions in your family like getting dressed up or decorating the house for trick-or-treaters? Will you go out all night and get candy, or just for one hour after dinner? Help your child to prepare for the holiday so there are no surprises (and hopefully no tantrums!) Try to emphasize the non-candy traditions you have as a family.
- Eat a wholesome meal before going out to trick-or-treat. Offering a balanced meal before can help to satisfy your child’s hunger with healthy food. This can help to prevent the binge effect that being hungry and presented with infinite amounts of candy can present.
- Have fun with your children. Encourage them to enjoy the process of trick-or-treating and not just the loads of candy that will result. See who can get the most steps on your route or create a dance routine for in between houses to get some extra movement in. Foster a sense of fun for the night that is in addition to the candy.
- Speak with your kids about how they feel both during and after eating candy. We all know that eating a bunch of candy can lead to feeling sick, sluggish, and many other things. Help your child to recognize these feelings and their own instincts with questions like “How did you feel after eating the candy? What would you do differently next time?”
- After the day of Halloween, continue to follow the division of responsibility. Offer your kids the candy as a snack if they want it, and let them regulate how much they have. Continue to emphasize the process of eating the candy and not the end result by helping your child to check in with their instincts. How does it make them feel? Kids are naturally in tune with their instincts and if we help foster them, they will learn to recognize what food makes them feel good and what doesn’t.
Establishing these steps as the norm in your family year after year will help your children to develop the ability to moderate their food intake on their own, and help them to develop lifelong healthy eating habits.