Learning opportunity? Yes, says child feeding expert, Ellyn Satter.
Halloween is quickly approaching and some parents claim that the scary Halloween costumes and the haunted houses are not what is keeping them up at night. Candy will be in abundance and parents are often wondering what they should do. Well, let me (a nutrition professional and a Halloween lover) tell you why kids should eat and enjoy their Halloween candy.
The question here isn’t whether candy is nutritious or not. The question here is about the approach that parents should take to be effective and helpful.
''Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity,” writes Ellyn Satter, renowned nutritionist and child feeding expert. Sweets are a part of life, and sheltering kids from less nutritious foods, like candy, doesn't teach them how to manage and regulate their eating.
Halloween candy strategies for children:
In the nutrition culture we live in, it’s easy to adopt an all-or-nothing mentality with food. However, we don’t do our kids any favours by being overly restrictive and coercive or overly lenient and disinterested. The recommendation for how to handle sweets, like Halloween candy, is to teach a more moderate approach in a structured environment.
How much candy should kids have?
In the words of Ellyn Satter, “Work toward having your child be able to manage his own stash,” she advises parents in her book, Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. This means a parent needs to learn to keep 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 meal and snack time—a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack time.” You can read more of Satter’s advice here.
It is also important to remember patience with your child as he/she is learning how to manage their Halloween candy. Most kids will probably end up with a stomach ache at Halloween from all of the candy they consume but this is part of the learning for them. Let them discover at their own pace while trusting that they will get what their body needs in the long run.
Teaching mindful eating at Halloween
To encourage children to eat intuitively (eating when hungry, being aware when full), parents can also teach mindful eating practices with their child using Halloween candy by making it a full sensory experience. You can ask questions like:
- "What candy would you like?" (Allow them to choose from their candy pile.)
- “What does it taste like?” “What does it smell like?” “How would you describe the texture?”
- If they choose to have another Halloween treat, you can ask the same mindfulness questions. Additionally, you could ask “How does that treat compare to the previous one?” “Which treat do you prefer and why?”
By asking mindfulness questions, parents keep the eating experience positive. Mindfulness slows eating and helps us tune into our bodies.
Why do these strategies work?
Forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter, don’t you think!? If a child (or an adult) is told they can’t do something, it instantly becomes much more enticing, mysterious, and desirable. We naturally want what we are told we can’t have and there is research to prove it.
Parents use a variety of strategies to influence children's eating habits, many of which are counterproductive. A recent review of research encompassing 25 years of evidence shows that many commonly used approaches just don’t seem to work when feeding children 1. Controlling, restriction, pressure to eat, and a promise of rewards have negative effects on children's food acceptance. Restricting or policing candy and other highly palatable foods has been shown to increase attraction and consumption of the very foods parents are trying to restrict 2,3. Children were also found to have negative feelings after consuming foods labelled 'forbidden' or 'bad' by their parents 4. Furthermore, these feeding practices promote poor eating habits for the long term, in particular, eating in the absence of hunger 5. The research behind this shows that when food is restricted, we mainly respond to external environmental cues (e.g. availability of food) 6,7. After all, if we feel restricted or deprived, we naturally want to eat when food is available (even if we’re not hungry)! If sweets aren’t restricted, children are able to listen to internal body cues to decide if they want treats and how many they want.
Let’s all enjoy Halloween! Lift the negativity, candy policing, and stress. Allow and normalize Halloween candy in order to promote moderation, help children learn self-regulation and form a healthy relationship with food. Trust that kids will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. When children know they can have what they want, within the boundaries of meal and snack times, where nutritious foods are available, it’s more likely that they will be able to make decisions that are in their best interest (rather than out of deprivation or fear). While this process will take some time and requires patience, it’s well worth the effort to help your kid find a positive and trusting relationship with food.
Have a Happy Halloween!
By Carmen Gorlick, R.D.
Updated October 2018
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7. Bilman, E., Kleef, E., Trijp, H.External cues challenging the internal appetite control system—Overview and practical implications, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57:13, 2825-2834, https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2015.1073140