Halloween, it arrives every year, and every year parents dread the struggle over the candy. But as a mother and a Dietitian, I don’t think we need to, I think we are better off seeing it as a chance to let our kids enjoy childhood and encourage a healthy relationship with food.
The power of the word No
I am confident that most parents out there can relate to this story:
I once told Little Bit once not to stand in her highchair. My reasons are obvious. I didn’t want her to get hurt. She, on the other hand, saw this as a perfect opportunity to get a reaction from me. Looking directly at me, while sitting in her high chair, she would slowly pull one knee up to her chest. She would carefully plant her foot on the seat of the chair. Then slowly pull the other knee up. All the while, watching to see my reaction. Did I really mean business when I told her not to stand in the chair?
I am certain you can guess how I responded. I am also certain that every other parent reading this has had a similar experience.
The word “no” has profound power. The moment we say no to an item or an action, that is all the child wants. It is where the desire for what we can’t have first begins.
The appeal of the forbidden
When I was working with cardiac patients, I was constantly asked for lists of foods. Lists of good foods and lists of bad foods. There was great disappointment when I told them that such lists do not exist. Plus, I wouldn’t have provided such a list even if there was one. The moment you tell someone that a food is bad, and to never eat it again, that is all that person wants. It is thought of constantly. Consumed in secret. Carries the weight of guilt when eaten.
When parents strictly limit certain foods, or call foods “bad” or “junk” they are only increasing the child’s desire to eat that food. Any food that is forbidden is appealing.
Hear me say, I am NOT advocating NOT giving children boundaries. Parents decide what is served in the home. They should seek to provide balanced meals. And most importantly, they should drive the conversation about nutrition. Children need to understand that food helps them grow. Food helps them stay healthy. All foods can be eaten, nothing is forbidden, but some foods do a better job of helping us grow than others. And those growing foods are served more often.
The Teal Pumpkin Project
I know this seems like an odd place to interject the Teal Pumpkin Project, but stick with me. The Teal Pumpkin Project’s goal is see that kids with food allergies can safely trick-or-treat. Those that participate in the Project, agree to offer non-food treats at Halloween. While we are not a food allergy family, we to participate each year.
At Halloween I have two bowls. One with candy and one with non-food treats. I NEVER ask a child if s/he has a food allergy, I just ask each child if they would prefer candy or a toy for his/her treat. No child likes to feel different, which is why I don’t ask about allergies. I just let each child pick a treat. I’m shocked at the number of kids (who I sometimes know do not have a food allergy) will choose a toy for the simple reason of seeing something fun in that bowl. Little Bit has even chosen fun pencils and toys over candy.
While the goal of the Teal Pumpkin Project is to promote safe trick-or-treating for kids with food allergies, I think we can also use it as an opportunity to offer non-candy treats for all kids. I do not believe that we need to remove all candy from trick-or-treating. That is fundamentally changing kids have enjoyed for decades, but I do not see any harm in giving kids a choice of treat.
How to avoid the tummy ache
At this point, you have probably realized that I do let Little Bit trick-or-treat. So how do I let her eat her candy, avoid a tummy ache, and avoid a fight? Like every other kid on Halloween night, the first thing she does when she gets home is dump her candy out all over the table. She then proceeds to sort through it and remove everything she doesn’t like. That is the discard pile. I just smile because I can remember doing the same thing, but also because that discard pile usually has a few pieces that Hubs and I would enjoy snacking on! After she has sorted all her candy, she of course wants to eat some. And honestly, I let her eat without much influence from me. She knows that the candy will be there in the morning, and that I will give her permission to eat it.
Once she goes to bed I put the candy away in the pantry, and from that point on, I let her have a few pieces each day as part of her regular meals. She must ask for a piece, and I don’t fight the request. Kids sense our hesitancy, so I don’t hesitate. This gives us the chance to talk about eating candy and how it tastes good, it is fun to trick-or-treat, but candy is something we enjoy in amounts smaller than other foods. It opens the door for wonderful conversations about food and nutrition. I know you may not believe me, but when you take away the power of no, food battles are lessened.
The opposite of forbidden appeal is unconditional permission. The simple fact that Little Bit knows that Halloween candy does not upset Mama, makes it easier for her enjoy in moderation.
What happens when your plans go off the rails
There is one thing being a parent has taught me, it is that even the best laid plans and notions on parenting can go completely off the rails. Kids are so unique. If you are a parent of a kid that just can’t stay out of the Halloween candy and you are worried, there are usually at least a few dental offices that offer candy buy back. I think that is a great option for some kids, but only if handled appropriately. Parents that go about the candy buy back with a controlling attitude, and focus on how the candy has to be removed because it is bad, are inadvertently giving it forbidden appeal.
My recommendation, before Halloween, start looking for a way to help the child earn a special toy or experience. It needs to be something that requires money and motivates the child earn that money. Let the child go trick-or-treating, but also tell the child about the buy back program. The role of the parent is help the child see that the candy from trick-or-treating has value, and it can be sold to earn something of even more value. It is an awesome lesson in personal finance too!
Don’t forget to have fun
Halloween and candy is a deeply rooted American tradition. Instead of fighting traditions around food, we serve our children better by using them as times to model healthy relationships with food. Go have fun with your kids!
Updated October 2022