Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parents:  Let Your Kids Eat Halloween Candy!
Erin Naimi, RD, CEDRD  

Years ago, I had a mom come to me in desperation hoping I could help with her candy-obsessed child, and presented me with her dilemma:

She was raised in a home where candy and junk food were abundant and readily available, and though she was seemingly healthy and had no health consequences as a result of being raised in a sugar-ridden environment, she wanted to make sure she was a healthier influence on her child, than her parents had been on her.

So it goes, in her quest to have a healthy household, she explained that she kept no “sugary foods or junk in the house”, and she tried her best to keep those foods out of her child’s reach whenever possible.   She went on to say, “…but I’m so frustrated, whenever we’re at a birthday party or somewhere where sweets are available, he is the first one at the dessert table! I don’t know what to do!” she exclaimed, with confused desperation.

Truth be told, I was utterly confused by her state of confusion.

Wasn’t it obvious that this child’s obsession was rooted in the constant lack of sugary resources he had available to him? Couldn’t she see that if her son had regular access to the “goods” that she kept at bay, that he really wouldn’t care so much about them when they became accessible in other environments?

Though the solution seemed so obvious to me, it took some coaxing to help her understand the repercussions of her restrictive ways.  I soon learned that I would encounter many more perplexed parents who found themselves in a similar quandary- wondering why the no junk food for my child rule was backfiring as evidenced by the innumerable empty candy wrappers found hidden underneath their children’s beds.

In a time where fears about “The Obesity Epidemic” are being rammed down our throats, I guess avoiding sugar might seem like the logical thing to do…. Or is it? As documented by Tara Parker-Pope in her recent NY Times article, The Lure of Forbidden Foods, “studies show that children who grow up in homes with restrictive food rules, where a parent is constantly dieting or desirable foods are forbidden or placed out of reach, often develop stronger reactions to food and want more of it when the opportunity presents itself." The article goes on to discuss how a child (raised in a restrictive household) will work significantly harder to attain the desirable snack foods, compared to a child who readily has access to similar types of foods at home. [1]

So on the eve, of Halloween I am making the plea to all parents, let your kids have their Halloween Candy!  Resist the urge to allow your concern for your child’s well-being force you to make (restrictive) decisions that will backfire and cultivate a rebellious, sugar-sneaking child in the long run. Halloween happens once a year-is meant to be a fun, creative, and celebratory holiday that also includes sugary indulgences, and to restrict a child of that part of it will usually just create more havoc in your household. 
My advice on how to handle Halloween without the havoc:
  1. After Trick or Treating adventures have concluded, engage your child in a conversation about the day as a whole as well as the candy they collected- but don’t make the conversation all about the candy. Ask them about the costumes and decorations they saw.  Did anything scare them? Are they excited about the candy and/ or other things they collected? Did they get what they wanted? Do they even care?
  2. Go through your child’s stash of candy with them. If there are any items that have known allergens that your child cannot tolerate or if anything looks remotely unsafe, remove those together and explain why it’s not safe for them to ingest.
  3. Decide together where the candy will be stored or placed. Do not hide or give away your child’s hard earned candy without their consent- they will either find it- or sneak some out of their friend’s lunch packs the next day!
  4. Use this as an opportunity to teach and model flexible limit setting and how to have “fun foods” in moderation.  You are still the parent and you can help determine how much and how often it’s ok to have the candy, depending on your individual child’s needs, interest, and eating habits.  This is most effective when it’s done collaboratively and your child does not feel like something is being taken away from them or dictated to them. It is absolutely acceptable to say that the candy can’t take the place of meals, but that they can have it as a treat after any or all of their meals- again, based on your discretion.
  5. Don’t panic if for the first couple of days your child shows a keen interest in their stash of candy (especially if it’s something that’s normally restricted from them).  Remember that the novelty effect will wear off.  The less reactive you are, the sooner they will bore of their new-found treasure (I assure you, they will.)
  6. If you have personal concerns about keeping candy in the house because you’re afraid that you may be unable to keep your hands off the goods, please find a way to address these concerns and don’t pass on your issues with food onto your child.

Candy and other fun foods are a part of our reality. Trying to avoid these foods and instilling fear in our children does not give them the tools they need to feel confident and in control of their choices when faced with these foods, as they inevitably will, throughout their lives.  Children who are raised to feel guilty about eating foods they like (whether healthy or unhealthy), grow to be guilt-ridden adults who don’t know how to set reasonable limits and moderate their needs, cravings, and desires in relation to food- that is a big part of what our Obesity Epidemic is about .

Please remember that candy and other fun foods can be a part of a healthful and balanced lifestyle, and a great model of normalcy. Just as no one wants their life to be all about work, school, and chores… we also don’t need our nutritional intake to be all about Kale, Quinoa, and Chia seeds!

[1] Parker-Pope, T. The Lure of Forbidden Foods, New York Times, April 2014.

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