Halloween and the candy that comes with it often becomes a power struggle in many households. And in some cases, the lengths parents go to to restrict the candy from their kids is downright impressive. Unless your child has a severe or life-threatening allergy to ingredients in candy, there’s a simple way to allow your kids to enjoy their candy bounty while simultaneously teaching them how to listen to and understand their own hunger cues and food preferences.
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Halloween is Meant to be Fun! That Includes Eating a lot of Candy!
It seems that a lot of parents prefer the whole dressing up and trick or treat part of celebrating Halloween, the “fun part.” And feel a lot of anxiety about the added “reward” of gathering a full over-flowing bucket of delicious treats - many that your children may have never seen before, much less had a taste of.
For many parents, a power struggle develops, where negotiations of one piece of candy for one chore or in some cases, the child can only have one piece of candy after dinner PERIOD. (So what happens if the child doesn’t like the candy they picked? They have to wait till tomorrow? Talk about deprivation!)
It’s no secret that when it comes to food and my kids, I have strong feelings about it. And it’s one of the many things my husband and I have researched extensively and happen to be on the same page about.
Also, having been a lifetime dieter I’ve developed a somewhat unhealthy relationship with food, particularly foods that are considered “bad” such as candy or other sweet treats. I don’t want this for my kids.
The truth is, to raise mindful eaters that can also trust their bodies, means that I needed to remove some of the cultural and societal pressures that surround the idea of specific food feasts: such as the great Halloween binge!
Why You Should Let Your Kids Eat As Much Candy As They Want
As parents, we have some old tapes about sugary treats and candy. Many of them ingrained in our brains since when we were kids ourselves.
In the book, “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works,” Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch discuss the importance of recognizing and understanding your own hunger cues. And that for many adults, either because of years of dieting or unhealthy relationships with food, we have lost connection to our “intuitive eater” who recognizes and respects natural satiety.
To understand this concept is to look at a toddler who eats an entire chocolate chip cookie except for the last bite. They’re all done because they’re full.
For many adults, we would likely eat that last bite either because this is a “treat” that we have designated, and we don’t know when we’ll get another one. Or because it’s “wasteful” to leave just one bite. Or for some, we feel this pressure to finish everything on our plate as we were told by our parents when we were young.
However, for babies and toddlers and many young children who still have a very close connection to their natural born instincts around food (and haven’t had years of diet or societal pressures telling them they should finish their cookie), they instead sense their own feeling of satiety, listen to it, and stop eating the cookie even if there’s only “one more bite.”
Kids have a remarkable intuition when it comes to regulating their food intake. If we can provide structured family meals without distractions, and don’t use phrasing that forces them to shape their natural cues (such as designating foods as “bad” or “good” or promising they can have dessert if they finish everything on their plate), then there’s a good chance you can trust your child to regulate their cues around things like, oh, say…Halloween candy.
Your Kids Will Binge On Halloween Candy. Calm the F*ck Down
Yes, your kids are going to binge on all the bounty they collect from their night of trick or treating. It’s part of the celebration! But if you allow them to continue to have access in a structured way to the candy over the following days, you increase your chances of limiting that binge sensation to just a few days.
If, however, you’re more inclined to restrict candy, then the opposite is bound to happen. I.e., when your kids are out of your sight, (say at a friends house, or at a birthday party with another family member) trust and believe that child is going to binge the hell outta some cake, candy, and everything in between.
Because they haven’t been habituated.
The Habituation Effect
The habituation effect means that the more you are exposed to a portion of food, the less you desire eating it. This is true for everything from potato chips to chocolate, and even cheese and pizza! For me, around three or four days after Thanksgiving, the last thing I want is anything that even looks like a Thanksgiving meal.
I’ve become habituated to it, and I do not need it anymore.
When you give your children unlimited access or exposure to Halloween candy, you allow them to become habituated, and within a few days, their desire for candy will wane pretty quickly.
For us, after day three of allowing access to as much candy as our boys wanted, they asked for carrots and hummus instead.
Ellyn Satter, of the Ellyn Satter Institute that specifically works with children and their relationship with food, says:
“Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity. Work toward having your child be able to manage his own stash. For him to learn, you have to keep your interference to a minimum. When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants.
Let him do the same the next day.
Then have him put it away and relegate it to the meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack-time. If he can follow the rules, your child gets to keep control of the stash. Otherwise, you do, on the assumption that as soon as he can manage it, he gets to keep it. Offer milk with the candy, and you have a chance at good nutrition.”
When You Remove Restrictions, You Make Room For Healthy Choices
I’m talking about Halloween candy at the moment because, well, it happens to be Halloween, and this happens to be the only time out of the year when we do have a lot of candy in our house, but this entire theory can be applied to other sweet treats as well.
When it comes to Halloween candy in our house, we used Ellyn Satter’s suggestion and established a firm rule that they can eat as much candy as they want, but it needs to be during set meal times (after the initial post trick or treating feast).
The earlier you can adopt this kind of thinking around food the better, although working with older children is possible as well especially if you can consult with a qualified nutritionist who understands the idea of intuitive eating particularly as it pertains to young children and young adults.
Last year, before I incorporated this technique I experienced the following:
Jack negotiating for every single piece of candy: “If I drink a sip of milk, can I have another M&M?” “If I eat one more strawberry can I have another chocolate kiss?”
All of the whining. Like all of it.
And more begging me for candy for other things: “Mommy if I clean my toys up can I have more candy?”
I didn’t want to live this way, so some quick research and I decided to try and remove my preconceived notions around candy I.e., that they shouldn’t have that much of it. Or that I needed to monitor it.
As Ellyn Satter and Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch discuss in slightly different ways, the important thing is to make sure your child feels like they have a sense of control over the candy that they want to eat, so for us, that meant placing their Halloween candy bowls at toddler level in the pantry so they could go and pick out whatever they wanted.
I placed it on the shelf and told Jack very clearly - “Jack. This is your candy. You can only eat this during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But when it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you can have as much as you want. You just come here and grab more until you’re full.”
The results were instantaneous, and in many ways, we continue to practice some of this in our day to day life (around cakes, cookies, ice cream, and other sweet treats).
After having unlimited access to all the candy, Jack only chose the “blue” M&M’s and asked me to throw the rest away. “Those are my favorite ones, Mommy.”
He realized he didn’t like the sugary hard candy, but only the chocolate stuff (good call, buddy). More candy went in the garbage.
After about three mini packs of only the blue m&m’s he was “all done.” And moved on. No power struggle. No whining or crying.
Re-setting the Boundaries Around Candy at Halloween
Giving your kids free reign access to candy on Halloween just feels wrong. I know. I get it. Last year when we first tried this my husband kept walking around nervously saying “are we sure about this?”
I told him to give it a couple of days and see what happens. We were floored by the results (in that they did tire of the all the candy).
It’s important to remember that your child is trying to develop a relationship with food not unlike relationships that they will develop with other people in their lives. They are continually testing and wanting to try new things, exploring new taste sensations, and testing boundaries. Over time this will ultimately develop into a more intuitive and natural way of being.
If you show them that you don’t trust Halloween candy, or label it as bad, your child will use that to their advantage and amplify it to make that food gain a specific power (good or bad!).
Instead, if you let your child explore with all the freedom in the world, you may be surprised by what you see (and the choices that they make!).
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