10/31/2010 04:21 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Candy or Toys? A Halloween Dilemma

A friend called me last week in a panic. Since her daughter was born three years ago, she has called with various eating-related questions: Is it okay to let my three-year-old have a lollipop? What do I do if she won't eat green vegetables? How can I get her to eat something besides chicken nuggets? The question this week: Should I give out candy for Halloween this year or take an entirely different route -- forget the candy and give away a small toy instead?

My friend has struggled with eating issues all of her life. She remembers Halloween as a particularly difficult time. Her parents would only allow one piece and take the rest. She'd give her parents a portion of her candy and hide her stash under her bed. After school, she'd binge on it. Even today, having candy hanging around the house prior to trick-or-treating triggers some of her old food issues. Also, she is mindful of the fact that food is often used to soothe and comfort ourselves. She hopes to communicate to her daughter that there are other "treats" besides food and candy.

Beyond her own struggles with candy, she did the math. If her child went around the entire neighborhood, she could potentially walk home with over 70 pieces of candy. Any parent can sympathize. How do you help your kids decide what to do with the vast amount of candy they collect? She wondered if a toy would be a refreshing change. Or would her home be dubbed as the house to avoid due to their lackluster treats?

She had nothing to worry about, according to a Yale University study. In this study, 284 children between three and 14 years old were given the option between edible items (lollipops, fruit-flavored chewy candies, fruit-flavored crunchy wafers, and sweet and tart hard candies) and non-edible items (stretch pumpkin men, large glow-in-the-dark insects, Halloween-themed stickers and pencils). Half the children chose the toys.

In the end, we decided to do an unofficial experiment to put her mind at rest and find an answer to apply to future Halloweens. In one bowl, we placed lollipops. In another bowl, we put twisty Halloween straws. The kids could choose for themselves out of either bowl. Only fifteen kids out of 65 chose the lollipop. The kids appeared ecstatic about the straws. They thoughtfully choose the color they wanted and held them up to show their parents. Instead of being disappointed, there appeared to be a novelty effect. Obviously, there were a lot of variables that were unaccounted for in this "research," but it did show that kids may define the notion of "treat" much more broadly than many of us do.

Some candy is fine. Halloween comes around only once a year. But if you spend a lot of time trying to resist the Halloween candy that you bought for trick-or-treaters, or if you feel that kids are inundated with too much candy, feel free to try another spooky surprise -- a ghost pencil, spider rings, stickers, a yo-yo, or gum. Rest assured that you won't be ruining the day.

Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness. She is the author of "50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food," "Eating Mindfully," "Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful," and "Mindful Eating 101." Her books have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal; O, the Oprah Magazine; Natural Health; Self Magazine; and on the Dr. Oz Show. Visit Albers online at