Rather than trying to make this holiday healthier, parents should focus on their kids’ year-round eating habits.
I absolutely loved Halloween when I was a kid. I grew up in a community where every house had a pumpkin glowing in the window, and kids from tot to teenager donned ghost and witch costumes to collect chocolate bars, chips and candy. It was a night filled with pure joy.
So I’m saddened every October to see a proliferation of articles on how to make Halloween healthier.
As a dietitian, you might assume I’d be the one writing those “healthy Halloween” articles encouraging neighbors to give out toys instead of treats, or suggesting that parents confiscate most of their children’s jubilantly collected loot. But that’s not what I believe. I don’t want candy and chocolate to be marred by guilt and shame. Halloween should not be about replacing caramels with stickers. Instead, every day should be about parents acting as role models to teach children to develop a healthy relationship with food.
Americans, including children, get more than half their daily calories from ultra-processed foods. Chips, chocolate, candy, fast food and pizza are daily staples for many Americans. Considering this high intake of processed foods, allowing candy for a few days in October isn’t our biggest failing when feeding our kids. Instead, we’re not teaching them how to eat well or understand their appetite.
Rather than trying to make Halloween healthy, we should raise children who enjoy eating a variety of nutritious foods all year, and who know how to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. That way, they can learn to eat in a balanced way, even when it comes to Halloween candy.
The best model I’ve seen for raising healthy eaters comes from Ellyn Satter, a social worker and dietitian who developed the division of responsibility . This is a method parents can use to help their children learn to eat the right amounts and types of foods to fuel their active, growing bodies.
The model explains that parents/caregivers and children have different roles to play in the feeding relationship. The parents are role models: They are responsible for choosing and preparing food, deciding when and where meals and snacks will be eaten, teaching manners, and making mealtimes pleasant.
The children’s role is to decide how much to eat of the food that is served. And if they don’t like something or they are not hungry, they can say “no thanks” — that’s their choice because they know their appetite better than their parents do. You probably paused there, right? Parents often tell children, “Finish your broccoli,” or, “Clean your plate to get dessert.” But as this model explains, that’s not parents’ role.
Ideally, they will raise competent eaters who consume the amount of food that’s right for their body, and that can include Halloween treats. And when parents develop a predictable meal and snack structure for kids to follow, candy-laden holidays are easier to navigate.
“Treats come up repeatedly with parties, holidays and school events, and you want your children to learn how to manage them,” says dietitian Carol Danaher, president of the Ellyn Satter Institute, a nonprofit focused on feeding and eating. “If treats are forbidden or shameful, kids will not know how to deal when faced with them.”
Studies show that children who have regular access to candy and treats tend to eat them moderately, while children who recognize them as forbidden foods tend to load up when available, even if they aren’t hungry.
“When you demonize Halloween candy and a child is made to feel shame when they eat it, that can backfire and they may overeat it later. Guilt and shame don’t help anyone learn to be a competent eater and won’t teach children how to manage eating sweets,” Danaher says.
Instead, if we teach children how to eat regular meals and snacks, offer nutritious foods, and leave room for treats, they will grow to understand how to eat in a balanced way. You can trust kids not to overdo it (even with Halloween candy) if they have learned to listen to their appetite.
Enforcing strict rules around Halloween candy is unnecessary (except, of course, in the case of allergies). “It’s far better to enjoy this once-a-year holiday by joyously sorting candy and eating a bunch on Halloween without guilt and shame,” Danaher says. “Then put it away and have a piece or two as a snack as part of the regular meal structure for a few days after Halloween.”
When I was a child, my parents never micromanaged my bag of candy. I didn’t have to trade it for a toy, and there was no “Switch Witch” who took it away while I was sleeping. Do you know what I did with that candy? I ate it. I had a few pieces each day, shared it with my dad, and eventually lost interest when the next awesome kid thing came along.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development.