On Nutrition

When I was a kid, the major Halloween candy “health scare” was an (unfounded) rumor that nefarious strangers were hiding needles inside the treats. Today, sugar is the bogeyman, and this has led many parents to adopt strategies to limit candy intake that, while initiated with the best of intentions, may do more harm than good.

Many of these strategies — rationing it out one piece at a time, hiding it, throwing some of it away or pressuring kids to sell some of it back — are all forms of restriction that can badly backfire in the short and long terms. Why? Because forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, and telling your children that candy is off-limits can make them feel more obsessive about having it.

I ask most of my adult clients whether, as kids, their parents had strict food rules about sweets and whether they felt extra excited when they encountered sweet treats at friends’ houses or at parties. A “yes” on one question pretty much guarantees a “yes” on the other. Restrictive control tactics and polarizing language about candy — that it’s “unhealthy” or “bad for you” — not only makes kids more preoccupied with candy, but there’s also a good chance they’ll grow up to be an adult who has a chaotic restrict-binge relationship with sweets.

Signs your child might already be fixated on candy include repeatedly asking for candy, prioritizing eating candy above all other foods, feeling stress or anxiety about eating candy or when they will next get to eat candy — and sneaking, stealing, hiding or hoarding candy. They also may be unable to focus on other activities due to their preoccupation with candy.

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Instead of strictly limiting Halloween candy, help kids have a healthy, nonobsessive relationship with it. Normalizing candy by allowing kids to enjoy it at meals and snacks will foster a more relaxed view of these treats, eventually making them no more special than, say, fruit or hummus. This will help them approach their food environment in a balanced way when they’re all grown up.

Kids who have a healthy relationship with sweets enjoy eating candy but are able to move on to other activities, possibly even leaving some candy behind. They may switch between eating candy and other foods and they don’t have a sense of urgency about when they will be able to have candy again.

Sure, kids need healthy boundaries around candy, just as they do around food in general, but they also need to feel a sense of control over how much candy they want to eat. Keep candy where your child can see it and access it and talk with them about when they can have it. If they know they will be able to have some of their candy with their meals and snacks, this can help decrease their preoccupation with it. For example, if they ask for candy between meals and snacks, you can let them know that a time to eat candy is coming up soon. Offer your kids gentle reminders that if they stick to these boundaries, they get to keep control of their candy stash.

Let’s face it, Halloween is fun for kids, and candy is part of that fun. When you allow kids to eat what they want from their Halloween bounty when they get home, then allow them to continue to have access in a structured way, you increase the chances that their desire for candy will wane in a few days, and they will ask for other foods, instead.