Life comes at you pretty fast. One day you’re a kid shoveling Snickers bars into your mouth five times a day; the next you’re a parent wishing more houses would hand out toothbrushes to trick-or-treaters. With Halloween soon approaching, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about candy, irrespective of the annual, often-unsubstantiated fears concerning poison-laced treats. Some parents may not want their kids eating any candy at all. Some may wonder just how many fun-size candy bars their little ones can scarf down without having a sugar-fueled meltdown. And some just want their families to enjoy the holiday without messaging that candy (or any food) is “bad” and needs to be restricted.
Why is Halloween candy so fraught? Diana Rice, a dietitian and intuitive eating counselor who runs Tiny Seed Nutrition and the popular Instagram account Anti-Diet Kids, notes that, thanks to its timing, Halloween is “kind of opening this floodgate of holiday food worries.” Turkey feasts, festive cocktails, cookies and canapés galore are just around the corner, ushering in a lot of complex, and often negative, feelings about food, body image and diet culture. For many folks, the solution is to try to exert some control early on by not indulging in candy corn, caramel apples and other seasonal goodies. But that may be a losing battle when kids are involved, warns Rice.
“Candy is happening one way or another on Halloween,” she tells Yahoo Life.
How can parents stop panicking about a one-off sugar binge? What are some ways to teach kids that a chocolate bar isn’t “bad,” nor is it a reward? And in which cases should parents exercise more caution around candy? Read on for expert answers from Rice and Dr. Erica Brody, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
When are kids too young to eat candy?
Government dietary guidelines advise against introducing added sugars to children under the age of 2, though Rice notes that a “blanket statement” like that tends to overwhelm parents who worry that they’ve failed by giving their baby an applesauce pouch. That said, she does acknowledge that it’s good for young children who are just starting to experience food to be introduced to a wide spectrum of flavors, not just sweets. The bigger concern, she says, isn’t so much sugar as it is the choking hazard many candies present, especially if they are sticky, chewy, gummy, hard or shaped in such a way that it’d easily get lodged in a little one’s throat (think: Jolly Ranchers, chewing gum, marshmallows, Starburst, etc.).
“Many candies can be choking hazards until children are at least 3 if not 4 years old,” agrees pediatrician Brody, who recommends that parents scan all Halloween candy for safety beforehand, especially if their child has a health concern (such as an allergy or condition like diabetes). It’s up to parents to weed out anything that seems risky, and to supervise their kids while they eat.
Why candy shouldn’t be treated as a reward
Not all kids have a sweet tooth — but if yours does and asks to try candy, Brody recommends introducing it slowly. You can discuss the pros (the taste!) and cons (more toothbrushing, might make their belly ache if they eat too much), but demonizing sweets altogether can establish some toxic attitudes about food and give candy a power that makes it all the more alluring.
“Making it special — whether it’s describing it as a divine, rare treat or talking about it negatively, as the ‘bad-for-you’ stuff — instantly captures your toddler’s attention and makes the candy feel like something they NEED to have,” Kristin Gallant, one half of the parenting coach duo Big Little Feelings, recently told Yahoo Life.
Gallant and co-founder Deena Margolin recommend offering small portions of sweets as part of a meal to make them more mundane — think of a cookie at the edge of the dinner plate, and not something that’s only doled out if little Charlotte finishes her peas.
“Experts agree we shouldn’t use food as a reward, and demonizing candy creates more problems,” says Brody, adding that, when it comes to candy, “‘in moderation’ is a great party line.”
Because moderation and self-regulation often go hand in hand, Rice notes that there’s an unexpected benefit to, when age-appropriate, letting kids experiment with candy: It allows them gauge how their body feels afterwards and helps them establish what their limits are. Rice likens it to having a hangover, which tends to give a first-time drinker a benchmark for how much alcohol they can actually handle. Your kid might think they could eat their way through Willy Wonka’s factory, but in reality, they’ll figure out soon enough that they start to feel full or sickly after more than a handful of gummy bears.
“There’s a misconception that the solution is to keep the candy away, when in fact it’s the polar opposite: give opportunities to regulate around it,” Rice says. “Those poor kids never get a chance to regulate themselves around what what it feels like to have candy in their body.”
Avoiding body-shaming or diet culture pitfalls
“Kids pick up on diet culture stuff really young,” says Rice, who uses her Anti-Diet Kids platform to call out harmful messaging around what children eat. She cites the complicated relationships with food many parents have as a result of growing up under that same messaging, which in turn often compels them to exert more control and restrictions on what their offspring consume.
Brody agrees that there should be “no body shaming” involved in discussions about candy or other foods. Steer conversations away from appearances, she says, and focus instead on health — like how a food makes you feel, or what it does for your body. Think: “Eating makes me feel full/tired” rather than “This cupcake will make me fat.”
Handling Halloween night
It’s showtime! Brody — who assures parents that “a single day’s sugar binge is usually fine for a healthy child” who has a nutritious diet overall — also suggests that families establish a candy plan ahead of Halloween so expectations and rules are clear. Maybe that means setting a timer that gives your kids 10 minutes to chow down before the bedtime routine starts, maybe that means a free-for-all or maybe that means selecting a handful of their favorite treats and then saving the rest of their trick-or-treating bounty for later. Or, as journalist and mom Virginia Sole-Smith, author of the upcoming book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, recently shared in her Burnt Toast Substack: “We just eat it until we get bored of it, which seems to happen pretty quickly since nobody feels restricted about it in the first place.”
Another pro tip: Serve a full meal before heading out to trick-or-treating (because, let’s be honest, they’ll only have eyes for Skittles when they get back home).
And relax. Says Brody, “Halloween may actually be an opportunity. You can role model and show your children that in the context of a healthy lifestyle, there’s still room for flexibility. Being health-conscious does not equal being rigid.”
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