Intuitive Eating Counselor | Lisa Kutzing Nutrition

Tricks for handling Halloween treats

Halloween was probably one of my favorite holidays growing up. Yes, I enjoyed dressing up and being someone else for the day, but truth be told, I was mostly in it for the CANDY! I have fond memories of getting home from a night of trick-or-treating and lording over my stash of Halloween candy. I would lay out my loot on my bedroom floor, and my friends, sisters, and I would commence an elaborate trading session, getting into tense debates over how many Smarties one needed to trade for a Fun Size Snickers (it’s three). I will never forget the year when a trick-or-treating partner couldn’t eat any chocolate, as her doctor suspected it was the cause of migraines she had been having, so I was the lucky beneficiary of her misfortune (later it was discovered that chocolate was not the culprit…of course, I had already eaten all the chocolate by then! Muahahaha!). I even remember one year when a very clever friend and I decided to go trick-or-treating the day after Halloween, and watched with glee as neighbors gladly unloaded their leftover candy stashes into our pillowcases. 

IMG_0675 4-year-old me ready to hit up the neighbors for some Halloween goodies!

Now, as a parent, I find myself on the other end of Halloween, trying to figure out how to manage my child’s candy consumption at this time of year. My daughter is still too young to really understand what candy is, but soon enough, she’ll appreciate the treats being handed out to her, and be eager to enjoy them. As her mom, I would certainly hope that she wouldn’t gorge herself on them to the point of getting sick or neglecting her nutritional needs, and would therefore like to put some limits in place when it comes to enjoying her Halloween loot. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be too controlling of her candy consumption and risk causing her to develop an obsession with it. I also wouldn’t want to ruin the joy Halloween for her, especially considering all the fond childhood memories I still have of this special time. 

Thankfully, Ellyn Satter, renowned authority on childhood feeding (I’ve blogged about her a couple times before. Find those posts here and here), gives some fantastic advice about this very topic in her Family Meals Focus Newsletter. When it comes to sweets in general, Satter recommends providing structure without restricting, so that the child can learn “to manage sweets and to keep sweets in proportion to the other food he eats.” If you try to control play foods (my preferred term for what most people call “junk food”) too much, the child will never learn how to manage sweets in this way on his own, and will also likely become preoccupied with these types of foods. The goal is a child who enjoys sweets, but who can also pass them up when he’s not hungry, rather than gorge himself on it because he’s not sure when he’ll have access to it again.

So what does “structure without restricting” mean, exactly? Basically, it means regularly providing play foods during structured meals and snack times in a matter of fact way (so, not saying, “Look! It’s a cookie! What a treat!”), and providing large enough quantities when offered so that the child may have enough of it to feel satisfied. How regularly should you offer play foods? My advice would be maybe not every day, but not so infrequently that it’s clearly a treat– your kid will pick up on that! So, perhaps, every two or three days, or a few days per week might work best. 

When it comes to Halloween candy, the same laid back approach to play food should be taken. Satter’s advice is to allow your child to lay out, sort, and gloat over his Halloween spoils upon returning from trick or treating, letting him eat as much of the candy as he wishes at that time. Do the same thing the day after Halloween. After that, have him put the candy away and from then on, it will be available to enjoy at meal- and snack-times only. If you’re already following the Division of Responsibility in feeding your child, then he should be used to the fact that you, as the parent, are responsible for this meal- and snack-time structure. As long as the child follows this rule of the candy being available only at meal- and snack-times, then he can continue to have control of his Halloween candy stash and eat as much as he wants of it within the structure of these designated times.

One area in which I differ from Satter is that she recommends offering unlimited amounts of play foods at snack-time, but only one serving at meal-time. I, on the other hand, believe that when offering play foods, they should be offered in unlimited amounts at both settings, as this is more consistent with the Intuitive Eating philosophy. I understand Satter’s concern that allowing the child to eat as much as he wants of the play food at meal-time may displace other more nutritious foods, but I feel that this conflicting approach is confusing to the child, and restricting the play food at meal-time will set the child up for a preoccupation with these foods, which is precisely what we’re trying to avoid! As the parent, however, you need to make the judgment call on what feels right to you. You know best what works for your child!

 The goal of this approach to play food is to raise a child who can walk past a jar of candy or a pantry full of potato chips without feeling compelled to take some…unless he really wants it! Well-meaning parents often think that restricting play food will make for a healthier child, and/or one who does not develop a taste for these kinds of foods. Instead, what often happens is that once the child has a little more freedom around food (perhaps during adolescence, or once he goes off to college), he will become preoccupied with these foods and eat more of them than he needs. If you’ve been restricting play food up until this point, then changing to this approach might mean a temporary increase in the amount of these foods consumed by your child. In the long run, however, he will learn to regulate his intake of these foods, and will only eat them when he wants them.

 So, try not to stress about Halloween candy this year, and give your child (and yourself!) permission to enjoy the delicious treats that will inevitably make their way into your home. Having a more relaxed attitude around sweets, as long as there is some basic structure in place, will help your child to have a healthy, relaxed relationship with these foods into adulthood.

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