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A dietitian's perspective on how to handle Halloween candy

Posted October 23

Halloween candy

I hear this question a lot this time of year, “as a mom and dietitian, how do you handle Halloween candy with your kids?” People are surprised when I answer, “I don’t handle it, I let my kids handle it.” They are often confused too, so allow me to explain what I mean. Please note that I am sharing my perspective as a nutrition professional who works with individuals with disordered eating patterns as well as a mom of two little Halloween lovers.

In the nutrition culture we live in, it’s really easy to adopt an all-or-nothing mentality with food. As parents, we run the risk of creating that environment at home. If so, our kids will quickly learn to eat in response to perceived restriction ahead, sneaking or hiding food, or eating all the foods at school, parties or friends' houses they can’t have at home. This prevents them from honoring their natural, biological signals of hunger and fullness.

My recommendation, and what I practice at home, is to teach a more moderate approach in a structured environment. Eventually our kids will leave home, and instead of raising uber-healthy eaters, a far more effective goal would be to raise competent, confident eaters who trust their own intuitive signals.

In order to do so, we’ve got to give our kids more responsibility with food. Instead of micromanaging their food experiences, I encourage you to give them room to explore and learn. Kids need boundaries too, so it might be helpful to think of this as a flexible structure, with you and your children each having different responsibilities.

The Division of Responsibility is a feeding model developed by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter. Essentially, there are different responsibilities for a parent/caretaker and a child at mealtimes. Too often parents overstep their boundaries, which can lead to a power struggle. In return, children aren’t able to develop a healthy relationship with food — one where they are offered a variety of foods and then able to listen to their own innate hunger and fullness signals; an essential part of being a competent eater through adulthood. Below, I will quote from the Ellyn Satter Institute to give you an idea of what the DOR looks like:

Parents’ feeding jobs:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Don't let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.

Children’s eating jobs:

  • Children will eat.
  • They will eat the amount they need.
  • They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
  • They will grow predictably.
  • They will learn to behave well at mealtime.

You as the parent are responsible for providing a variety of foods, establishing appropriate meal and snack times, and monitoring where food is eaten (ideally in the kitchen, not in front of the TV or in bedrooms, etc). Children are responsible for deciding what and how much they want at meal and snack times. You aren’t a short order cook, and the kitchen doesn’t have a revolving door for kids to grab something anytime they please. For more information on the Division of Responsibility, I would recommend the book "Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family" by Satter.

So how does this relate to Halloween candy? We trust our kids to trust themselves in how to handle their candy, within a certain structure. They will likely eat more than usual or necessary on Halloween, because that’s totally normal. In the days and weeks to follow, they can include some candy along with meals and snacks (within the meal and snack times you decide), preventing the need to have it all right now before the candy gets donated or sold or hidden or thrown away.

If you feel a child isn’t taking care of responsibilities, you are encouraged to have an honest discussion with your child about your concerns. For example, let’s say your child complains of a stomach ache each time he includes candy at snack time. You could express concern that he isn't listening to his own fullness levels and remind him he is in charge of knowing when he has had enough (since you have no idea when he feels full). Remind him you want to keep candy (or any treat or food he loves) in the house, but he is responsible for connecting with his body to know what it wants and needs. Help him get curious as to why he feels the way he does and help him solve his own problem.

The question isn’t whether candy is healthy or not. The question is what approach is effective and helpful. Don’t get too caught up in results and instead focus on a process that works to help your child become self-directed, honest, responsible and trust-worthy. To be honest, there are many times I would much rather see my kids eat something else, but to tell them what to eat just doesn’t achieve what I hope for them. Parents controlling their child’s food intake only teaches the child to rebel against the rules. Setting a structure for balanced meals and snacks, with treats at meals or as part of snacks if your child wants them is what I feel is the best approach for our family, and my general recommendation to you.

I’ve also recruited help from some fellow dietitians, since this is a topic that can feel overwhelming to parents. I’ll include some quotes and links below:

Blair Mize has five tips to help you manage Halloween treats. My favorite is “Start teaching your children how to handle candy and other goodies in all situations … not just at Halloween. Have regular conversations with them about the benefits of choosing whole, minimally processed foods, which provide fuel, energy and health for their growing bodies. Assure them that other food products like candy and sweets can still be enjoyed and planned into meals and snacks.”

Jaren Soloff echoes my recommendations to follow the Division of Responsibility. I particularly like this point she makes, “There are no good or bad foods, all food should be considered neutral and served with the principles of moderation, variety and balance in mind. If you are struggling with this, you may have your own food/weight issues that may need some attention first. … Integrating sweets into your child’s diet serves as a learning opportunity for them to manage sweets and self regulate themselves. Contrary to what we might assume, research studies show that children who do not have access to sweets or whose parents label them 'forbidden or bad' end up eating the treats when not hungry and end up sneaking food. This leads to the whole shame and guilt cycle that many of us as adults fall into.”

Erica Hansen of Real Food Fixes said, “I let my kids eat as much as they want the night of. I think it's helpful for them to learn their own limits and enjoy the revelry. Last year it was a family affair and my three-year-old announced after a few candy bars, 'OK, mom and dad, I think that's enough for everyone!' with a very knowing look and proceeded to pack it up. After the first night I let them trade in some candy for a toy, and allow a piece or two daily with the rest until it's gone.”

For parents of children with diabetes, you might find this article from Sylvia White really helpful. "You can put the candy up where it needs to be asked for so proper dosing can be done. I would recommend trying to not say the words 'cheating,' 'forbidden,' 'bad' or negative words when talking about the candy. Try and relate the fact that candy isn’t healthy for anyone, but their body needs insulin if they eat it and that’s why they have to ask. Candy in moderation is for everyone. You don’t want your child to sneak around.”

I hope this gives you more confidence in handling Halloween candy at your house. Happy Halloween!

Emily Fonnesbeck is a Registered Dietitian and president of Emily Fonnesbeck Nutrition Consulting. Her nutrition passion lies in helping people make peace with food. EMAIL: emily@emilyfonnesbeck.com

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