We hear versions of this constantly: “my child has no control around Halloween candy. I have to hide their stash or they’ll eat until they’re sick. I’m so tired of the fight!”
Halloween can turn into a nightmare for parents who watch their children lose control around their candy stash. Not only do kids seem to dive into their Halloween treats like there’s no tomorrow, parents often deal with candy hoarding and hiding in the days following this holiday. Why does managing treats with your kids feel like an exhausting, endless tug-of-war?
We understand your concerns and we know you want to do your best as their parents. These binge-eating behaviours are concerning and, obviously, unhealthy. We can’t exactly cancel Halloween. So what is the answer?
What Studies Show About Kids and Food Rules
First, we need to start asking the right questions. Instead of searching for better hiding places for candy or asking your friends how they restrict access to sweets, start asking why some children can effortlessly self-regulate their treat consumption, while others cannot? Believe it or not, this question has been answered.
In 1999 a pair of researchers set out to study if restricting access to palatable high-fat and high-sugar foods was an appropriate strategy for teaching children moderation. The results showed that when a restrictive approach is taken, it does not decrease a child’s desire for these foods, it enhances it! It also increased the consumption of these foods when the child was given access to them.
In 2000 a similar study was done on seven-year-old girls. After eating lunch, the group of girls was offered a selection of snack food. The girls who were being raised in restrictive food environments were more likely to eat larger amounts of the snack food than the girls who were not. They were also more likely to express shame about their eating.
Study after study has confirmed that restriction is not the answer to moderation, rather it takes us further away from it. In yet another study of girls ages 5 to 9, not only did restriction create “eating in the absence of hunger” habits, it also showed that the girls with the most food restrictions at age five were the heaviest by age nine.
In summary: a relaxed approach to indulging leads to children honouring their satiety cues, less negative feelings about food, and to become a weight that is healthy for their development. A strict and controlling approach to indulging leads children to develop food preoccupations, overeating tendencies, feel shame and guilt, and develop heavier body weights.
What You Can Do on Halloween Instead of Restricting
We know dealing with candy-obsessed kids can feel difficult, but there are other strategies you can use other than restriction! The following are six steps to creating a balanced Halloween experience.
1. Set the stage: create an environment of balance and moderation
Environments of balance and moderation include boundaries, but also relaxed attitudes about food. The key is to stop putting “feared foods” on a pedestal, especially leading up to the big day. Check your own attitude and behaviors around Halloween. What language do you use when you’re talking about Halloween candy? Are you complaining about it? Are you struggling with moderation yourself, and chastising your indulgences in front of your kids? Are you creating feelings of scarcity around Halloween candy by threatening to throw treats in the garbage or trading them with the “Switch Witch”? If so, you may be contributing to their preoccupation, and ultimately, overconsumption of it.
Sometimes a parent’s personal struggles with moderation manifest into fear their children will struggle too. The truth is, children can moderate their food intake just fine if we consistently provide healthy boundaries, a variety of balanced meals (including not labeling any food as “bad”), and encourage them to listen to their bodies.
If you find yourself struggling with your own relationship with Halloween treats, that’s ok. You can still get this right! Be brave and work on taking the morality and emotion out of your conversations about food. Yes, it’s Halloween, but it’s still “just food”. Despite this feeling like a special holiday, almost everything we pick up Halloween night can be found in our supermarkets throughout the year. In the words of Regina George, “why are you so obsessed with me?” It’s the perceptions we have of food, not the reality, that drive these compulsions.
2. Create guard rails, not straight jackets
When it comes to eating, flexible boundaries are helpful. Rigid rules are not. Yes, you can enjoy Halloween candy. No, that doesn’t mean we advocate for unrestricted access to sweets and treats. Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist, Ellyn Satter, has Halloween treat guidelines that work wonderfully.
On Halloween, and for one day after, let your children lay out their haul and eat whatever they want. Let them know their treats belong to them and as long as they aren’t breaking house rules (sneaking, hiding, stashing food in their rooms, etc) they can have control of their bag of candy. If they start breaking the rules, you have control of it. This is about building trust.
On day three, put the candy away and bring it out during meal and snack times. Let them have a few pieces with each meal, and however much they want at snack time.
October 31st/November 1st: allow your child access to their candy as long as they follow house rules
November 2nd onwards: put the candy stash away and bring it out during meal and snack times
Although being less restrictive with Halloween treats may seem scary, what many parents find is with consistent practice their children lose interest in their Halloween stash. It becomes “just food” like any other item in the pantry.
3. Eat a balanced meal before trick-or-treating
Your children should be offered balanced meals at their regular meal times whether that’s before trick-or-treating, or after. A starving child will be more likely to binge on candy which doesn’t feel good to them, or us. Perhaps create a new family tradition of having a special meal together Halloween night. That way your family can look forward to your meal together, just as much as trick-or-treating and the candy that follows.
4. Offer them opportunities to make mistakes, and help them to reflect
Most parents’ intuition tells them their children shouldn’t be eating a ton of sugar. And that intuition is right! All food should be consumed in moderation. But, a few days of the year aren’t going to hurt anyone. In fact, occasional overeating is part of having a normal relationship with food. Human beings make mistakes. Sometimes we overeat, sometimes we undereat. Our body will make up for those mistakes if we’re paying attention. Even those with the healthiest relationship with food will find themselves overeating at times.
Your child will learn their own boundaries with food by making mistakes. Halloween may be an opportunity for them to explore these boundaries. If your child isn’t feeling well after consuming a pound of chocolate, don’t shame them. Help them learn to be detectives of their bodies. Ask questions like, “why do you think you don’t feel well?” and “what would you do next time?” Be very careful about attaching any shame or judgement when you are speaking with your kids about their food choices.
5. Remember, it may not go as hoped the first time
If you’re new to this “crazy balance thing” your first Halloween may not go as planned. In order for children to have a healthy relationship with food they need to trust that food won’t be taken away from them. If you’ve previously been very restrictive with certain foods, it’s going to take some time to build this trust back up.
The first year Balance365 co-founder, Jennifer Campbell, implemented these guidelines her son ate so much candy he got sick. A few years of later and her children have come to learn they do not need to binge or hoard their Halloween treats. They can listen to their bodies and eat until they’re satisfied because they know those foods will be available to them again.
It’s just food, after all.
6. Keep it going all year round!
Lastly, if you want to teach children moderation at Halloween you need to make sure the foods they consume on Halloween are something they have access to all year round. You can’t teach anyone moderation with foods that are only offered once a year. Moderation is a practice and families should be implementing a balanced approach to nutrition 365 days per year. Although uncomfortable, offering your child a Snickers bar for no reason at all can be incredibly beneficial towards helping them learn to navigate our food-abundant culture.
How food impacts your child physically is important. How access to certain food impacts your child’s psychology and relationship with food is also important. If you can focus on helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food, you can trust they will grow up knowing how to self-regulate around food. It truly is the path to healthier eating overall.
Remember: progress, not perfection. You got this!