ARLINGTON,VA - OCTOBER 20: Halloween candy including Justin’s Mini Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, Mini Twix, Starburst, Butterfingers, Fun Size Snickers, Baby Ruth, Kit Kat, Mounds, Whoppers, Milk Caramel Sea Salt Tiny Tony’s, Hershey Special Dark Minis, and Sour Patch Kids photographed for Voraciously in Arlington, Virginia on October 20, 2021 (Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

How Halloween Candy Can Help Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food

Halloween is quickly approaching, stirring up feelings of excitement and possibly some anxiety as parents brace themselves for the huge influx of Halloween candy to spread across their homes. This is totally understandable; things can often start to feel a bit out of control when candy litters the house at every turn! However, being surrounded by more candy and chocolate than normal can actually be spun into a powerful learning experience for your kids when it comes to food and their bodies!

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that kiddos under the age of 2 shouldn’t be given sweets and candies quite yet. Not only are many Halloween candies choking hazards at this age, but they displace too much room in their tiny tummies! Children under 2 are at a time of rapid growth and need to fill their tummies with nutrient-dense foods to support their high growth needs.

First of all, what does a healthy relationship with food even mean? A healthy relationship with food happens when someone is able to enjoy food without feeling an underlying or overt burden of restriction, limitation, judgment or guilt. It is the ability to eat intuitively by listening to one’s internal cues of hunger and fullness, honoring flavor preferences and satisfaction, all while rejecting the diet mentality. If we can help foster a healthy relationship with food in our kids, we significantly reduce the risk of disordered thoughts and feelings around food and their bodies as they mature. As parents, isn’t that all we want for our children? To grow up with a healthy relationship with food and body image?

This might sound crazy, but Halloween is actually a perfect opportunity to help foster food freedom and body awareness in your kids! As a pediatric dietitian and mom of three, I will take you through 2 simple steps on how to help your kids strengthen their relationship with food in the midst of a Halloween candy cornucopia:

1. On Halloween night, hand over the reins to your kids!
As scary as it may seem to let your child eat as much candy as they want on Halloween night, it actually creates a unique opportunity for them to learn about their bodies! A lot of the time we as parents project our own food rules and fears onto our children, which can come out in the form of food rules and restrictions around sweets. However, becoming the food police and trying to micromanage our child’s intake, is a sure-fire way to stunt their relationship with food. If we never give them the opportunity to learn about how certain foods impact their body, there is no chance for them to progress in their ability to regulate their own food intake.

Cue Halloween night, and the candy free-for-all! After you have sifted through their candy to ensure it is safe, and free of food allergens (if they have allergies), it’s your turn to take a step back. Observe with curiosity (not judgement) how your child organizes their candy stash, and how they go about choosing which candy to try first. They may surprise you by choosing to enjoy a few candies, exploring ones they maybe haven’t seen before, and then stopping when they feel satisfied. OR they might gorge on candy until their tummy starts to hurt, or even until they get sick. Without a doubt, the latter scenario is much harder to just stand by and watch, but it helps teach your child a very valuable lesson that they wouldn’t otherwise learn on a typical day.

Instead of chastising your child with statements like “Didn’t I tell you that eating too much candy would make you feel sick?”, come to them from a curious and supportive standpoint. Say something like “It looks like your tummy hurts a little, why do you think that is?”. This prompts reflection and learning that their body has limits when it comes to certain foods or certain volumes of food. This helps them connect the dots between their actions and what feels good or bad in their bodies. What a valuable lesson to learn in food and body congruence!

2. The day after Halloween, discuss a “candy game plan” with your kids

The last thing we want to do is influence our children’s relationship with food in a way that increases anxiety, and distrust in their own body, and places food on a moral hierarchy. At the same time, we want to provide loving boundaries in feeding so our children can gain confidence in their relationship with food. This is where the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR) comes into play. DOR is an evidence-based feeding philosophy where parents provide a safe, pressure-free eating environment where they are in control of what food is offered, when it’s offered, and where it is served. The kids are given 100% control over if they want or need to eat, and how much of each food item they decide to eat.

So how does creating a “candy game plan” fit into this feeding structure? Well, on Halloween night you allowed your children to learn a few things about their bodies by handing over the reins. However today, you can take back a few of those reigns by discussing the game plan with your child. Let them know that candy is only to be consumed “when the kitchen is open” at meal or snack times (not grazing on them at all hours of the day). You can involve them in deciding what seems like a fair number of candies or chocolates to add to each day moving forward (for as long as they are interested). This number will likely depend on their age. For example, a 3-year-old might get 2 candies a day added to 1 or 2 eating occasions. However, a 9-year-old might get a few more! You get to decide what feels right for you and your child!

The excitement of Halloween candy will eventually wear off as your child learns that candy is just another food, enjoyed alongside other typical foods they normally see at meal and snack times. A beautiful thing called food neutrality will start to take hold in your home as you continue to enjoy and explore Halloween candy with your kids, without excessive restriction or guilt.