With trick-or-treat just around the corner, parents everywhere are bracing themselves for the mountains of candy that will be hitting their cupboards. While children are dreaming of king-sized Snickers bars, many parents are left wondering how best to manage the candy supply. Let them eat it all at once so at least it doesn’t last forever? Ration it piece-by-piece (and still have Halloween candy at Easter)? Or are there less extreme alternatives?
As uncomfortable as it may make many parents, an overly restrictive approach is not recommended. In fact, research has shown that restricting unhealthy foods actually causes children to eat a greater quantity of those foods when they do have access to them. Ultimately, restrictive feeding practices are correlated with risk of excessive weight gain (1, 2). So by trying to keep children from overindulging and creating bad habits, parents might inadvertently make it worse!
Ellyn Satter (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Family Therapist who is well known for her work in the area of eating and feeding) writes:
“Your child needs to learn to manage sweets…Work toward having your child be able to manage his own [candy] stash. For him to learn, you will have to keep your interference to a minimum. (3)”
So, practically speaking, what does this look like?
It means it’s okay to let your children enjoy their hard-earned stash of candy (and enjoy not having to be the candy police). Halloween is a holiday and we all know that rules and routines are often different on holidays. Letting your child choose how much candy they want to eat after trick-or-treating might be one of the best things you can do for their ability to self-regulate intake of sweets. When trick-or-treat night is over, establish times when they will be able to have their candy.
For example, you may decide that they can have their candy as an after school snack (right before a meal is generally not a good idea). At least periodically (it does not have to be every day), let them choose how much they want to have. Resist the urge to set hard/fast rules about amounts at these times. Children need to be given the chance to practice making decisions on their own.
Candy and Sweets are a Year Long Problem
Once the Halloween candy is gone, you don’t need to keep candy around regularly just to help your kids learn to eat responsibly. But don’t feel guilty for bringing home an occasional treat and try to stay relaxed about quantities of sweets on special days. If you are providing healthy, balanced meals on a regular basis, periodic exposure to unhealthy foods isn’t going to ruin all the work you’ve already done trying to teach healthy eating habits.
Even if you feel you may have been too restrictive in the past, it’s not too late to change old habits. Research shows that the frequency of restrictive behaviors is also correlated with negative outcomes (1). Talk to your kids before going trick-or-treating about how you (with their help of course) will be managing the candy stash this year so everyone knows what to expect. And don’t forget to have fun!
- Rollins BY, Loken E, Savage JS, Birch LL. Effects of restriction on children’s intake differ by child temerament, food reinforcement and parent’s chronic use of restriction. Appetite. 2014;73:31-39.
- Rollins BY, Savage JS, Fisher JO, Birch LL. Alternatives to restrictive feeding practices to promote self-regulation in childhood: a developmental perspective. Pediatr Obes. 2016;5:326-332.
- Ellyn Satter Institute. The Sticky Topic of Halloween Candy. http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/fmf/fmf30english.php