Healthy Halloween Habits

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After spending a day at the Pumpkin Patch over the weekend, the reality hit that Halloween is just around the corner.  A day that all kids look forward to but that many parents dread, as they struggle with how to handle the piles of Halloween candy that will come home with their kids that night.

As a nutritionist focused on kids’ nutrition, I thought I should weigh in.

{Note: If you are a parent that is thinking “What’s the struggle?  They are kids!  It is ridiculous to rob them of their right to stuff their faces with Halloween candy!” then you should probably stop reading.  As I always say, parenting is a tough job and we each make the decisions that are right for our kids.  This article is for parents, that like me, are concerned with the idea of their kids eating all that candy.}

I’m definitely no expert in this topic.  This will be Tyson’s first “real” Halloween.  He was around last year of course, and we had fun dressing him up, but that was more for our enjoyment than his.  This year he is old enough to hold out a bag and yell “trick-or-treat” and I know he is going to have a blast doing it.  I also know that he is too young to really understand the idea that he is collecting a boat-load of candy that is his, all his.  So although I have some definite thoughts on the subject based on my training and research, my opinion may change once Tyson is old (and smart) enough to have an opinion on the subject (which I’m sure will be sooner than I think!)

Okay, so here goes.

I think we all agree that sugar is bad for kids.  I talked a bit about it in my last post and I’m sure I will discuss is more in posts to come.  But to be honest, it’s not the sugar content that worries me the most about Halloween candy.  It’s all the dyes, preservatives, GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup that most commercial brands of candy contain.  There are a number of known health issues associated with them, and the long-term effects are still likely unknown at this point.

I certainly don’t advocate complete restriction when it comes to treats in general.  This is for a couple of reasons.  Life is about moderation, and indulging in a treat here and there is a wonderful part of life.  And although I haven’t discussed it much on the blog yet, my recommended approach to feeding children is to focus on developing good habits and a healthy approach to food versus stressing about nutrition.  Therefore, I don’t recommend complete food restriction in any sense.

I’ve chatted with a lot of parents on this subject lately, and most tend to think “it’s just one day so why not let them go crazy and eat whatever they want?”  The issue is, it isn’t just one day anymore.   It’s a big bag of candy at Halloween, a stocking full of candy at Christmas, handfuls of candy hearts and chocolate on Valentine’s Day, a basket full of chocolate eggs and marshmallow chicks at Easter and tons of birthday parties and celebrations in between, not to mention the aisles and aisles of candy and sugar-filled cereals and snacks at the grocery store and all the sugar hidden in other foods that a lot of kids eat on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, sugar is no longer eaten “in moderation”.

So what is a parent to do?

I think this whole topic needs to be approached from two angles.  The most important work starts way before Halloween is even on your mind.

1) Instilling Good Eating Habits in Kids

The only way to make sure that kids aren’t gorging on Halloween candy, without directly tearing it away from them, is to have them choose to limit their intake themselves.  This may sound crazy, because most adults do not eat only when we are hungry (me included – a work in progress).  No blaming of parents here, but it does have to do with our introduction to foods as a child and subsequent relationship with food as we grew up (influenced by factors such as our parents, friends and the media).

Raising a healthy eater isn’t about force feeding them vitamins and nutrients and trying to shield them from every bad food out there.  Instead, it is about nurturing healthy eating habits from a young age so that children will grow up having a healthy relationship with food.  This includes having a broad palate for a variety of foods, but more importantly retaining the ability to regulate their food intake.

I am totally against the idea of letting kids “gorge” for one night (or week) and then taking it all away.  What kind of message is this sending?  It basically encourages kids to gorge on sweets when they have the chance, or even to hide candy from their parents for fear they won’t get any again.  The feeding relationship needs to be about trust.

Ideally, children’s introduction to food (including treats) should not involve pressure.  It should involve exposure to a LARGE variety of Real Food from an early age.  It should involve exposure to where Real Food comes from and how it is prepared in order to make it to the dinner table (get those kids in the kitchen!)  At a certain age, it should involve basic conversations about why foods made with chemicals and preservatives are not good for the body.  But it should not involve force-feeding or worse, restriction on amounts of food.

Essentially, this is what Kids Heart Real Food is all about!

It’s never too late to work on instilling these healthy eating habits, so keep reading along for more information on this blog.

This year, I will be taking most of Tyson’s candy away as he won’t have any idea.  However, as much as it will pain me to watch Tyson bring home that bag of junk as he gets older, I will let him eat what he is hungry for that night and will allow him to continue to eat it at designated snack times.  With the hope of course that he will be sufficiently self-aware about his appetite to stop when he is full.  And with the (overly optimistic?) hope that he will be knowledgeable enough about his likes and dislikes and things such as GMO’s to perhaps choose to throw some of it away.

2) The Big Day Has Arrived

So although good habits are the goal, there are still a few strategies parents can use on Halloween to help keep their kids’ candy intake in check.

Make sure kids have eaten a quality dinner before going trick-or-treating.

This may seem obvious, but Halloween is a busy night and in the rush to get kids in costume and out the door, dinner may take a back seat.  However, if kids are hungry, it is a given that they are going to eat more candy when they get home.  A good dinner of Real Food will give them the energy to run around all evening, and will help them regulate their candy intake when they get home.  A great idea is to use a slow cooker so you can prepare dinner in the morning so that it is ready when everyone gets home from work/school.

Set a limit on trick-or-treating

Who says that kids have to have an unlimited amount of time or houses to trick-or-treat at?  There is nothing wrong with giving kids a time-limit or even better, a limit on the number of houses/streets they can go to.  This will obviously adjust with age, but will help limit the amount of candy they bring home.  In the spirit of healthy habits, don’t tell them you are trying to limit their candy intake.  The old “it’s a school night” excuse will work great this year.

Be a part of the change.

If you are reading this article, it’s likely because you are an advocate of Real Food for your kids.  If that is the case, then it is so important to model the behaviour you want to instil in your children.  So instead of giving out Snickers bars, Starburst, or other candy that contains the scary seven, why not give out something healthier and be part of the change?

There are a lot of healthier candy and treat options listed on this site.  It also lists non-food ideas such as stickers, games, crayons, cookie cutters and patterned band-aids.  My sister bought a huge pack of Play-doh from Costco that she is going to give out, so there are lots of alternatives to tooth-brushes :)  The bonus?  You won’t be stuck with a bunch of leftover candy to tempt you later.

Suggest a “swap” option

There are a number of parents who opt for giving kids the opportunity to swap some or all of their candy for something else.

There is the Switch Witch  (she may or may not be the tooth-fairy’s sister), a sugar-loving witch who will leave toys in exchange for candy.  The more candy she gets, the bigger the toy.

When children learn to love and appreciate Real Food, there is  good chance that they may also choose to “trade” their cheap, GMO-laden candy for some higher quality treats. Or that they will choose to trade the treats they don’t like for ones they actually love, as opposed to just eating the less-than-tasty candy because it’s there, resulting in over-consumption.  One of my favourite experts writes about it here.

I’m not completely on board with convincing kids to trade away their candy as it still sends the message that candy should be “restricted” and is something they should covet.  However, as long as kids are given the choice to trade it away and there are some conversations around why they might choose to do so (for older kids), this could be a good strategy.

Save some candy for Christmas

I love this idea of kids picking out some of their “prettier” candy for use on a gingerbread house at Christmas.  Brilliant.

I know, I know – a lot of information.  But even though I’ve provided you with lots to think about, I want to end by echoing the sentiment from Janet at Rainbow Plates’s article and telling you to RELAX.  In order for kids to feel relaxed about their food choices and their relationship with food, we as parents have to stop making them feel stressed out about it.

So go out there and have a blast with your kids on Thursday.  I know I will.  HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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8 comments

  1. whatthemom

    Thanks for the great ideas! All that candy is a nightmare for me! And late at night, too! This year we are putting fun toys in our give out candy bin like glow sticks, foam flyers, etc. Have a great one!

  2. outtolunchcreations

    Great post Sarah, I love the idea of giving out play dough, stickers, glow sticks or tattoos. I also like the idea of giving out homemade healthy candy to neighbors, family and friends.

    I think the Switch Witch is great but I worry about the waste, what happens to all of the candy you take away? I know you are just throwing out ideas and don’t have all the answers but I would be interested to learn what people do with the leftover candy.

    I’m happy I still have some time before I have to come up with the answers!!! Happy Halloween!

    • Sarah @ Kids Heart Real Food

      Personally I have no issue with throwing out candy if the alternative is eating it or feeding it to my kids. However, you make a good point. I likely wouldn’t throw it out – probably bring it to the office or something. I’d love to hear some other ideas on what people do with it. The real answer lies in not receiving it in the first place. That’s why I advocate for parents everywhere choosing NOT to give out junky candy and choosing healthier (and greener) alternatives instead.

  3. Pingback: 5 Ways to Nurture a Healthy Relationship with Food | Kids Heart Real Food
  4. Pingback: Real Food Gingerbread Cookies | Kids Heart Real Food

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