If you have signed up for our online toddler course course (specifically the step on Sugar, Candy and Desserts), you know that our approach to Halloween candy may be a bit different than you would expect for people concerned with healthy eating. Sure, candy is not a "health food," and we know that excess sugar in the diet is less than ideal. As with most things parenting-related, it's all about balance and seeing the big picture. We want our kids to have some exposure to sweets and treats so that they don't binge on them, because when we restrict our children's access to sweets they tend to overeat when they're not hungry and have weight regulation issues.
Halloween is a fun holiday that should be low stress for everyone - including parents who want what's best for their kiddos.
So, what's a health conscious mama (or daddy-o) to do? Do we just let our kids have unlimited access to candy? Not quite. Follow these guidelines to make Halloween a wonderful exploration of food and sweets.
1. Offer a filling, high-protein dinner and plenty of water before trick-or-treating. Hangry kiddos will have a tough time listening to their bodies around candy. Before you head out, offer a whole grain pasta dish with diced turkey and veggies, Pumpkin Chili (vegetarian if desired), or veggie pizza.
2. Decide if your kiddo is old enough for candy. Most babies aren't ready for many types of candy because it's difficult to chew, plus babies don't quite understand what they're missing. One- and two-year-olds may be very aware that they're receiving candy and may want to try it. As the parent, it's your choice whether or not to start exploring candy with your young toddler. (In our home we allow our kids to try Halloween candy once they're one year of age, but this is a decision you'll have to make.) If your child is going Trick-or-Treating, it may be difficult for them to understand why they can't eat the candy.
3. Once you get back home, sort it! Remove any choking hazards or candies that may be difficult to chew like taffy, gum, or hard candy for kids under 4. (Use this opportunity to put together a Mom or Dad Stash of your favorites! You know, for safety and all...)
4. Allow your child to sort, explore and eat as much candy as he wants when you get home. Try not to comment on how much he is eating or pressure him to stop. Also, avoid overexcitement about candy - remember, we want our kids to see all food as food, not "something special." Let him feel his own fullness and decide when to stop. If you haven't been doing this with your kiddos, they may test you and overeat - which may lead to a stomachache. Try not to take the "see, I told you so" route with them; rather, gently discuss what happened and explain that sometimes if we eat more than our belly is hungry for, it hurts. If you start this approach young, you will likely be very surprised by how little your little actually eats!
5. You provide, child decides. Decide how often you want to serve Halloween candy again for the next few weeks. This doesn't mean that your child gets candy whenever they ask for it - see more below.
When you do serve it, let your child decide how much to eat and avoid tying it to behaviors ("You must finish your vegetables to get candy" or "No candy if you don't clean up your toys"). Rather, serve it with or after meals without making a fuss about it. You can do it once, five times, with every meal, or never again - this is up to you. If you remain neutral about it, oftentimes children lose interest.
Important caveat: this does not mean that we offer candy with every meal and snack or whenever our kiddos ask for it. Remember, you provide food of your choice at regular meals - they decide how much to eat.
6. Keep it out of sight until you decide to serve it again. A child who sees the candy in plain view will ask for it often. Put it out of reach, and if your child asks to have some when you weren't planning to serve it, explain that "We aren't having candy right now. Maybe tomorrow."
Need more help with mealtime? Check out our video-based online course, which has helped thousands of parents raise happy eaters!
Megan and Judy, co-owners of Feeding Littles, bring you helpful info on food, nutrition, picky eating, and feeding young children. Megan McNamee MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Judy Delaware, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with children 3 and under in Boulder, Colorado. Megan and Judy are both moms of two and love helping families develop a healthy appetite for all foods!