I share a Dietitian’s guide to Halloween candy rules and sugar in your kids’ diet. How to use Halloween as a learning opportunity to help your kids hone their intuitive eating skills.
I can’t believe I’m writing this but Halloween is on its way, folks. That means it’s time to hit up the Value Village and stock up on Halloween candy. While I know a lot of parents get totally freaked out about their kids binging on sugar and eating ALL their Halloween candy in one night, I actually think we should think of it as a learning opportunity to help our kids hone their intuitive eating skills.
Should you let your kids eat All their Halloween Candy?
The simple answer is, sure! If that’s what their body tells them to do, but the likelihood of them going on a week-long Halloween candy bender is slim to none. That is, IF we approach the sugar without fear.
According to Ellyn Satter, a Family Therapist and Pediatric Dietitian, we can naturally teach our children to manage Halloween candy intake without rules or restrictions. In fact, she recommends allowing your child to have candy as part of your meal and occasionally unlimited at snack times. Now, before you think this is crazy, hear me out.
Normalizing Halloween Candy
When we tell our children that certain foods are “good” or “bad”, we are telling them that the “bad” food is something that should be rare. And if we know anything about diet culture, we know that restricting foods and making them a rarity hardly ever works.
Instead, if we normalize candy (e.g., that mini Halloween chocolate bar) and allow our children to enjoy these at meals and snacks, then they will have a more relaxed view on these foods, making them no more special than a piece of bread or cheese.
Conversely, if we teach our children that candy and “junk” food are so special they must be limited, they will likely go overboard any time they get it. Why? Because they know it’s not going to be there forever, it’s exciting, and they better “stock up” (read: binge) while they can.
Unfortunately, when children create this “stock up” mentality, it makes it difficult for them to cope with their food environment when they reach adulthood. Think about pizza for a second. For some people, pizza is a rare “treat”. As a result, they’ll overindulge because they feel it’s a special occasion and they won’t be able to have it again for a while. For others, it’s just another meal that they can have whenever, wherever, making it less tempting to overdo.
If we can have these experiences, imagine if we taught this to our kids while they are young and impressionable! Kids love exciting things. They love new, shiny stuff. By normalizing candy and treats, they aren’t so special and shiny anymore…and just like that birthday present you bought them a year ago – they’ll be over it pretty damn fast.
But won’t the sugar and Halloween Candy cause behaviour problems?
Actually according to research, no it won’t.
Despite common belief, multiple research studies (here, here, and here) have shown that sugar consumption is not associated with hyperactivity or behavioural problems in children. If your child gets “hyper” after eating sugar, it’s likely due to the excitement around them and the fact they just got a treat that they rarely ever get!
While sugar is not a super nutrient dense food per se, it’s not the worst thing either. And if we’re really going to focus on sugar as the villain, let’s take a look at some common “healthy” kid snacks and compare them to the Halloween treat sizes.
“Healthy” Kid Snacks vs Halloween Treats
Bear Paws Banana Bread – One pack
12 grams of sugar
Chobani Drinkable Yogurt – One container
15 grams of sugar
Raisin Bran – One cup (no milk)
14 grams of sugar
6 grams of sugar
8 grams of sugar
9 grams of sugar
What most people don’t realize is that A LOT of “healthy” kids snacks contain added sugar. Sometimes just as much or more than the Halloween candy. I really don’t think any of it is a big deal, and that there are still nutritional benefits to getting yogurt in even if it has sugar. But I just point it out because parents don’t seem to turn their nose up at these “healthy” snacks, but freak out about the sugar in Halloween candy. It’s actually all okay in moderation. Sugar doesn’t have to be feared. It’s just one more tool in the mom chef’s tool box.
What is interesting to note, however is that because we don’t talk about yogurt like we talk about candy, kids don’t binge on it in secret. There isn’t that moral value attached to it, and it just isn’t special or a rare “treat”. It’s just food. Halloween Candy can also be just food.
A Dietitian’s Guide to Halloween Candy Rules & Sugar in Your Kids’ Diet
Here’s my strategy for dealing with Halloween candy, and sugar in general when it comes to your kiddos’ diet.
Step 1: Walk the Streets!
Okay, so this is a step before we even have to deal with the candy “dilemma” but I want to mention it anyway. Halloween is a great opportunity to teach kids about intuitive eating and also a great way to be active as a family. If your living arrangement allows, avoid driving your kid from neighbourhood to neighbourhood for the “good candy”. Instead explore your own neighbourhood by showing them a fun way to stay active. Honestly, what can be a more exciting way to exercise then to get delicious food!
Step 2: Offer Unlimited Candy on Halloween Night!
At the end of the night when your kids are sorting through their candy stock and bragging to their siblings, they will inevitably want a taste of their own supply. So let them enjoy it! Don’t tell them how many pieces of candy they’re allowed to eat or try to restrict them. Let them use this opportunity to tune into their innate body wisdom. If they’re not used to having a lot of sweets in the house, they might eat (what you perceive to be) a lot of candy! That’s okay.
This freedom is essential for helping your kids learn how food (certain food, or amounts of food) make them feel. Maybe they have a belly ache, and maybe it’s a good time to help them understand that sometimes when we eat a lot this happens! No judgement. No disappointment. Just observe and move on. Other kids (especially those who have not previously been restricted) may have a very moderate approach to their Halloween candy. They may already trust that there will be something delicious for them tomorrow, and the next day, too.
Step 3: Offer Unlimited Candy for 2-3 Days.
The fun is not over – yet. One night is an experiment, but we need to follow through with some consistency for our kiddos to really trust that a) the goodies are not gone forever and b) their body signals are always right if they tune in.
Allow your kids a total of 2-3 days of “unlimited” access and full control over their candy stash. It can stay in their possession and they can eat whatever they want from their bag. Here we are teaching our kids that candy is actually not that special or novel. It’s not worth hiding or binging ,and you won’t have to wait another 365 days to have a treat. Sure it tastes good, but it doesn’t carry the same forbidden excitement factor anymore that makes it nearly impossible not to overeat.
After 3 days, a few things often happen. One, the excitement wears off. It becomes just another food. And two, our kids (even young ones) may start to be able to make the connection that eating a lot of sugar may not make us feel very good. They will very quickly start to eat less and less Halloween candy without any prompting or restricting, and often by the fourth day, they’ve forgotten about their stash all together.
Step 4: Strategically Plan for Candy in Meals and Snacks.
By now, we have neutralized the moral power of Halloween candy. It’s getting boring, and maybe doesn’t even feel so good to eat. Our kids trust us, and they trust their body to guide their hunger and fullness cues. By the fourth day, we can start to implement a Halloween candy strategy similar to the way you manage sugar the rest of the year.
Again, it is VERY important that you don’t dump out the loot (unless that’s what your kid says they want to do). It’s also important that we don’t jump to the other end of the spectrum and put our kids on a Halloween candy “detox” without any sweets. However, we can put some structure into the day without interfering with the work we’ve done.
Remember the division of responsibility. We’re in charge of the what, when and where, the kids are in charge of how much, and if they eat. Every parent has their own way they want to organize meals and snacks, but my suggestion is to serve candy at designated meals and snacks. Here are some ideas:
- Allow your child to choose 1-2 candies to pack into their lunch box to enjoy with a balanced meal. They can eat it first, last, somewhere in the middle or not at all.
- Allow your child to choose 1-2 pieces of candy as dessert to enjoy with a balanced dinner. Again, in whatever order they want.
- Occasionally (maybe once a week or so), put out an “unlimited” selection of candy at snack time. Ensure this snack is far enough away from lunch or dinner so that they’re actually hungry for their meal. This occasional treat buffet will give the occasional reinforcement and reminder that sugar is not forbidden, bad or something to be coveted or binged on. There will always be another opportunity for something sweet.
Step 5: Continue to Offer Balanced, Healthy Meals and Snacks.
It’s always a good idea to provide other nutritious options with meals and snacks. Provide a glass of milk with their candy snack to give your child a good source of protein and calcium. Serve their candy dessert with a balanced meal of roast chicken, broccoli and potatoes. Your kid will not live off sugar for life, so try to just be as relaxed about the process as possible.
Final thoughts on Halloween Candy Rules
Halloween is a very exciting time for children. It’s a time when kids can be whoever they want without anyone telling them it’s impossible. They get to explore their unreal imagination and genuinely believe that they saw a walking Frankenstein. AND they get a treat! As a parent, you have the ability to create amazing memories of Halloween. Use it as a teaching opportunity to discuss candy and sugar in general. Or, you can nudge them down a road towards an unhealthy relationship with food.
Yes, Halloween is supposed to be about fear, but it shouldn’t be about food fear.
Now, tell me parents.
How does Halloween work in your house?
What are your parenting tips on navigating candy rules?
Let me know by leaving me a comment below!
Katey Davidson, RD from Taste Of Nutrition
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.