As much as you feel the need to play "treat police" this Halloween, try not to. It's no fun for you as parents, and it takes the joy out of Halloween for your kids. Instead, take advantage of this holiday by using it as a teaching tool for healthy and balanced eating habits—an excuse to actually improve your child's long-term relationship with food.
Parents often struggle with how to manage Halloween treats. The go-to solutions for the candy frenzy are often:
1) Let it be a candy free-for-all: Kids are allowed to "go for it" on Halloween night without interference or policing from parents over the amount or type of candy consumed.
2) Switch candy out for something else ("Switch Witch"): Kids choose a few of their favourite candies and then leave the rest out for the "Switch Witch" who takes it away and replaces it with a desired toy or game (a non-food gift). Here's a great alternative to the "Switch Witch" that Dina Rose, PhD, came up with and wrote about on her blog "It's Not About Nutrition" (which makes a lot more sense to me!).
3) Manage it tightly by only allowing kids to have one treat a day: This often leads to sneaking and overindulging when parents aren't around.
Although they are quite different, there is one thing in common with all of these strategies—they provide a short-term solution for the Halloween candy overload without really teaching kids how to handle future situations where treats are involved.
Make Halloween less about managing your child's short-term sugar intake and more about teaching them how to manage their indulgences long-term. The latter is much more important.
It's much easier to manage treats before they are in your house, so make sure to wait until the day before (or day of) to buy Halloween candy, so that you don't have to deal with the "see-food syndrome." Also, send your kids out with smaller bags or buckets and limit the time that they are out or the number of houses your kids visit so that their stash is smaller to begin with.
Here are 4 life-long eating lessons you can teach your kids on Halloween:
I often encourage parents to "spoil their child's treat palate" with higher quality sweets and to really enjoy them (after all, that's what treats are for—to bring joy). I often ask my kids to tell me their favourite part of their treat-eating experience ("do you like the cream cheese icing the best, or the pumpkin cake part?"), and get them to help me prepare it. This gives kids a better appreciation for real food made with real ingredients, and how delicious treats can really taste (and that they don't need a lot to feel satisfied). Halloween often teaches kids to eat what they've collected, not what they actually want.
When your child returns from trick-or-treating, get them to sort through their candy and choose the "can't-live-without" treats (a number that you have negotiated with your child and that seems fair to both of you), and put the "just ok" treats in another pile. Then, ask your child if they would like to trade their mediocre candy in for some homemade chocolate chip cookies (that you make together the next day) or something sweet that they love even more (let's say an ice cream cone from their favourite ice cream shop). This teaches kids to be choosy with their treats and eat what they love (and enjoy it) instead of eating what's in front of them just because it's there.
We often encourage our kids to try new foods at mealtimes. Instead of policing treat foods, do something that your kids don't expect and encourage them to try a new candy or chocolate treat that they've never had before. For example, if they always go for gummy-type candies, encourage them to try a mini chocolate bar with nuts in it for a change to see if they like the taste. This will not only put treats on a more level playing field with other foods (which will decrease the desirability of them), but will also encourage them to be more adventurous with all foods (including healthier ones at mealtimes).
If you take charge of the candy stash and police when and how much candy can be consumed, you're sending the message that your kids cannot be trusted with candy. In other words, this doesn't teach them how to moderate their intake of treats. Up until the age of about 4, together with your child, choose a daily amount of candy that seems fair to have (maybe it's one, two, or four) and allow your child to decide when they are going to have it (it could be for dessert after lunch, as part of a snack in the afternoon, or even WITH a meal). After the age of 4 (this varies depending on the child), they are likely ready to manage and store their own stash with the expectation that they will adhere to the daily amounts that were negotiated and eat their candy in a designated area (usually the kitchen table where there's few distractions). Giving kids the opportunity to manage their candy stash will take some of the power away from the candy and give them the confidence to manage their treats in a healthy way.
Kids learn by making mistakes and however upsetting it is for us parents to see our kids gorge on treats (and even get sick), ultimately, this will teach our kids to moderate their intake of them. Instead of getting angry and punishing kids for eating too many candies, approach the situation calmly and get your child to talk about it. Ask her why she thinks she feels sick and what she might do next time to avoid the same feeling again. Explain the difference between "everyday foods" (healthful foods) and "fun foods" (treats) and how the fun is taken out when too much is consumed. You can say something like, "Our bodies don't like too many fun foods at once because it doesn't leave enough room for everyday foods, so they fight back by feeling sick." Or something like that. Instead of feeling embarrassed and ashamed, your child will learn from her mistake and think twice before doing it again.
Instead of dreading Halloween, think of it as a great opportunity to teach your kids about moderation, balance, and healthful indulging.
Want to learn more about how to teach your kids to indulge mindfully? Here's a post on how to handle treat foods in your house
Feel like you need to work on being a more mindful eater yourself? Read this post with tips on how to avoid mindless snacking.
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