Halloween may be over but, the treats linger on. In terms of nutrition, how we handle this candy-filled holiday is a sticky topic, according to registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter. On one hand, we don’t want to encourage our kids to eat sugar-loaded nutrient-deficient foods. But we also don’t want a child to sneak or hide food because they sense our disapproval.
We’ve all seen unfortunate examples of well-intentioned parents who overly restrict a child’s intake. It’s a perfect set-up for a lifelong pattern of disordered eating. And we’ve seen children raised on a steady diet of junk foods who don’t fare so well either. Satter suggests a more balanced approach.
“Your child will learn to manage sweets and to keep them in proportion to the other food he eats if you matter-of-factly include them in family meals and snacks,” she says. “Children who have regular access to sweets and other forbidden foods eat them moderately. Children who don’t have regular access load up on them when they aren’t even hungry. If you have a treat-deprived child, you know they also beg, whine and sneak to get high-sugar, high-fat foods.”
Satter suggests we use this holiday as an opportunity to teach children how to manage their stash of goodies. That means we try not to interfere too much.
“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 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.”
Won’t all this junk make our kids hyperactive? “Despite what most people think, studies show sugar does not affect children’s behavior or cognitive performance,” says Satter. In her years of practice, it’s the kid who is allowed to eat sugar instead of meals and snacks provided by their parents who are likely to show problem behavior and poor mental processing. That, she says, has to do with poor parenting, not poor food selection.
“The key phrase in my candy advice is relegate it to meal- and snack-time. Structure is key. (Regular meal times and sit-down snacks.) Retain your leadership role in choosing the rest of the food that goes on the table. With that kind of structure and foundation, candy won’t spoil a child’s diet or make him too fat.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.