10/09/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Use Halloween to Teach Healthy Eating Habits

Now that October is here and Halloween is upon us, let's take a collective calming breath. Sure, Halloween is a nutrition nightmare, but it's one day. One day. And one day of overdoing it never hurt anyone. But here's something I bet you never thought of before: you can actually use the horrors of Halloween to teach your kids some healthy eating habits.

I'm not talking about trying to teach your kids to love fruit as much as they love candy by decorating your Halloween party with creative fruit ideas. You can do that if you want. After all, your kids might enjoy eating banana ghouls, clementine pumpkins, vegetable skeletons, creepy carrot fingers and melon brains. But trying to talk (or trick) kids out of their Halloween haul is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

The same goes for buy-backs, candy fairies and stealth dumping. Forget them all. These strategies simply control the situation. They don't teach your kids a whit about how to manage this holiday mess. That's why parents have to gear up for the same set of struggles and recycle the same set of strategies -- year after year.

The short-term approach might be OK if Halloween were the only time our kids were exposed to abundance. Like it or not, though, we live in a world dominated by out-sized portions. Remember the cookie your child ate yesterday? The one that was bigger than her head? Or the ice cream cone that she took a nosedive into, literally? Or Thanskgiving? Trips to the amusement park? Or Grandma's house? Think of Halloween as any of those eating events... on steroids.

Halloween is perfect for teaching healthy eating habits because it's the one day when we're most likely to be upfront about all the excess. That honesty makes it easier for parents to talk to their children about managing abundance.

What habits can you teach at Halloween? How to:

• Eat without over-indulging
• Experiment with new foods and flavors
• Fit inferior "foods" into your diet in a healthy way.

Strategy One: Think of Halloween as a big buffet.

Ever noticed how hard it is to get through a buffet without overeating?

Researchers at Cornell University recently discovered something about how people serve themselves from buffets that is useful to Halloween parents. Some people browse buffets before serving themselves; others begin loading up at once and don't stop until they reach the end.

You won't be surprised to learn that browsers end up eating less than loaders. Because this was a strictly observational study, the researchers never asked the eaters why they choose one method over the other, but I think it's safe to say that the browsers scanned the buffet as a way to make sure they filled their plates with their favorite foods before their plates were loaded to capacity (or beyond).

Teach your kids to be browsers, not loaders. Encourage them to scan their stash -- perhaps by sorting by category first -- so they choose to save and eat what they like best. Then, consider letting them swap candy they don't like for candy they do like. This will teach them to eat what they like, not what they have. I think of this as a Better Buy-Back.

Strategy Two: Encourage Your Kids to Taste Test

Imagine Halloween from your child's perspective and you'll see that it's a time to taste a whole range of goodies -- at once! What could be more exciting? I know eating new candy isn't exactly what you were thinking when you said you wished your kids would try new foods, but stay with me here.

Every year when I'm handing out the goods to trick-or-treaters on my block I'm surprised to hear parents telling their children, "You won't like that candy. Choose this one." This mindset -- be cautious about trying new foods, even if those new foods are candies -- ends up biting parents in the butt. Instead of teaching kids to be adventurous when it comes to eating, those parents are inadvertently teaching their kids to be cautious.

Instead, encourage taste testing. Have your kids sample one bite from any (and every) candy that look interesting and compare how different candies look, taste, smell and how they feel in their hands, in their mouths and in their tummies.Their mission? To find the candy they like the best. (This will reduce the size of your kids' stash and help with Strategy One: Eat what you like, not what you have.)

Then, use this positive tasting experience to launch another one... with cookies. Eventually, you'll be able to conduct tastings with the foods you really want your kids to eat: broccoli, fish, chicken that doesn't look like a nugget!

Strategy Three: Teach Your Kids to Think BIG.

Proportion -- eating foods in relation to their healthy benefits is, hands down, the most important thing you can teach your kids about eating. Especially in today's environment, where sweets and treats (read: crap) are everywhere.

Talk to your children about proportion and how to integrate inferior foods into their diets in a way that works. Even very young children can understand a simple statement like, "We eat fruits and vegetables more often than candy."

Then, help your kids prepare for Halloween by forgoing all sweets and treats for a couple of days. (Don't just impose this rule and hope your kids will figure out what's going on. Explain as you go.)

Finally, consider using a candy drawer. Dump the entire contents of your kids' Halloween haul into a single drawer or container. This act alone will cut down on candy consumption. Kids feel less like they're entitled to eat their entire stash when it no longer feels like a set.

Once you've got your candy drawer, establish limits on how many candies your kids can eat each day. Then, let your kids eat that candy whenever they want. This gives kids the control they crave with the limits they need.

Still want to lighten the Halloween load?

Consider conducting some science experiments with your children. Which floats better: M&Ms or Skittles?

There are lots of over-the-top eating events during the course of the year. Teach your kids to handle Halloween and they'll be better prepared to cope with all those other opportunities to eat in excess.

Let's change the conversation from nutrition to habits.

© 2013 Dina Rose, PhD. Parts of this article appeared in a post on the author's blog It's Not About Nutrition. Dina's book, It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating is scheduled for release January, 2014.