It's hard to imagine that Halloween -- the holiday "poster-child" for gluttony -- could be an opportunity for teaching kids healthy eating habits, but it is. All you have to do is start thinking about Halloween differently.
Most parents I know think that their Halloween job is to manage (or minimize) their kids' sugar consumption. And I get it. By some reports, our kids stuff 5% of their yearly candy consumption into their Halloween candy bags.
From a nutrition perspective, that's a lot of crap compressed into a short amount of time.
From a habits perspective, though, 5% is no big deal. But flip the statistic around and that's another story. If 5% of all candy is consumed around Halloween, then 95% of all candy consumption happens during the rest of the year. In other words, when it comes to candy, Halloween isn't where the action is.
Research backs this up. Kids are increasingly snacking throughout the year on...you guessed it...candy. In the long run, this is a much more detrimental habit than Halloween, but no one's writing about it.
Rather than trying to health-ify Halloween (a hard swim upstream if there ever was one) think of Halloween as an opportunity to teach your children how to put sweets and treats into their lives in a way that works.
Why do this on Halloween? Because Halloween is an exaggerated example of ordinary life. Take away the dressing up in costumes, everyone's sudden fascination with blood and gore, and perfect strangers thrusting free candy at you and what do you have? Kids who love to eat candy. And that love isn't limited to Halloween! The larger-than-life obsession with candy during Halloween, however, makes the lessons easier for kids to identify, and then to learn.
Here are three lessons kids can learn from Halloween that will help them manage sweets and treats during this holiday season and then throughout their lives.
1) Eat what you love, not what's available.
If there was ever a lesson that kids need to learn, this is it. Instead, what most kids learn from Halloween goes something like this: eat as much candy as you can even if you don't like it that much (because Mommy is going to make it disappear soon).
And if you have a child who doesn't get candy that often, the message goes something like this: you better take advantage of this candy because you're not getting near it again anytime soon.
In my home, I buy back any candy my daughter doesn't love so she can go buy candy she absolutely adores.
2) Pay attention to your tummy.
In other words, don't throw up, either because you've eaten too many candies, or because you've eaten too large a meal and then eaten too many candies.
In theory, filling your kids up on a healthy meal before they go trick-or-treating will dissuade them from sampling the stockpile...too much.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the excitement of the night, it's more likely that if you fill your kids up on a healthy meal before sending them out on the hunt they'll still dip into their stash more than you want. It's better to give your children a small or moderate meal, thereby teaching them to save room for their Halloween haul.
3) You can go easy.
Want to limit how much candy your kids have on Halloween? Limit the amount of candy your children can collect. Reduce the number of houses you kids can hit up, or make sure their Halloween bag is somewhat smaller than a suitcase.
Don't take away, or make them give away, their Halloween earnings. It will only make them crave more of the candy. I know that it's hard to think of Halloween as a time of scarcity and restriction, but it can be if you get rid of the goods before your kids are ready to give them up. There's plenty of research that shows that when parents restrict a food, children want it more.
Instead, neutralize the candy by letting your children choose when they eat their Halloween delights...until they're all gone. The only caveat is this: the candy has to be folded into your kids' sweets routine, not added to it.
Remember, a one-day sugar high (even one very long day, that say, lasts awhile) won't make your kids obese, rot their teeth or ruin their eating habits. On the other hand, Halloween has the potential to teach kids to hoard, to binge and to feel guilty. And these are really destructive long term habits for your kids to have.
This Halloween, teach your kids the right lessons and then let them eat and be happy.
© 2011 Dina R. Rose, PhD, author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.