Should you let your kids gorge on Halloween candy?

Updated 2:47 PM EDT, Fri October 30, 2015

Story highlights

Jill Castle, dietitian: Candy is not great, but OK for kids to eat it at Halloween if there's a plan for portions

She says the trick is to deal with the candy left over after the holiday, and there are several good strategies for that

Editor’s Note: Jill Castle is a dietitian, nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is the author of “Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete,” co-author of “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School,” and creator of “Just the Right Byte,” a childhood nutrition blog.

CNN —  

I have been through many Halloweens. As a pediatric nutritionist, and a mom to four kids, I have faced the annual candy conundrum: We want our kids to eat healthy things all year round, but on this one day, we allow a mountain of candy into our homes and say: OK, you can eat that. Most of us, at least.

Is this a disastrous idea? It would seem that way at first: Candy is scary for many parents, and for good reason.

Jill Castle
Courtesy of Jill Castle
Jill Castle

According to the World Health Organization, kids are only supposed to be eating about 10% of their daily caloric intake from sugar.

But the grim reality is that many of them are exceeding this recommendation, even on non-Halloween days. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 16% of boys’ daily calorie intake comes from added sugar, and girls are getting about 15% of their daily calories from the sweet stuff, including in seemingly “healthy” food, such as spaghetti sauce, yogurt and cereal.

So it’s small wonder that in an American Dental Association survey of parents with children aged 5-13 who trick-or-treat, 70% of them agreed it would be good if their kids received less candy on Halloween, and 59% agreed their kids ate too much candy on Halloween.

Well-intentioned parents may try to tightly control these treats, but that’s an approach that may backfire, according to researchers. Studies show that the more strictly parents control certain foods, such as sweets, the more desirable those foods may become for children. In other words, there may be a thin line between restrictive candy control and candy obsession.

For all these reasons, parents do best when they keep a realistic perspective and a candy strategy in mind at Halloween.

During trick-or-treating

It’s exciting to take your dressed-up baby or young toddler out on Halloween for the first time. And when it comes to candy, many babies and young toddlers are clueless. Keep it this way if you can. Yes, a little sweet taste might slip in here and there for little ones (hello, first birthday cake!), but remember that very young children don’t have room in their diets for sugary treats. High nutrient needs and tiny tummies make every little morsel important for their growth and development. Halloween candy doesn’t qualify.

Toddlers and preschoolers are still learning about Halloween, including how to knock on the front door and say “Trick or treat?” This is the perfect time to start a candy policy. One piece per year of age is a simple rule of thumb: A 2-year-old gets two pieces, a 4-year-old would gets four, etc. Whatever limit you set, the point is to be sure there is one and stick to it.

Older children often have more freedom on Halloween night, which means parents may have less control over how much candy they eat. Despite this, parents can still set candy guidelines. For example, determine how many pieces of candy are allowed that evening, or have a rule about checking and counting candy before eating it. I allowed a few pieces while my kids went trick-or-treating, but the rest was saved so it could be checked, sorted, and traded at the end of the night.

Remember to keep candy guidelines realistic, consistent, and positive. Halloween is not about arguing or controlling candy– it’s about having a plan from the start that everyone can follow.

After Halloween

The Halloween candy binge could go on and on, if allowed, and this can certainly get in the way of your child’s health. Thus, you’ll need an ongoing candy strategy.

Set reasonable parameters while you’re trying to use this stuff up without setting up needless conflict. Try a no-candy rule before or during school. Pack just one or two pieces as part of lunch or a few pieces with an after-school snack. Consider storing all candy in a central location in your home instead of a child’s bedroom.

Have a timeframe in mind. The goal isn’t to eat all the candy your child hauled in on Halloween! Have a date when you believe your children have enjoyed it and should be ready to move on. For my family, a week or so after Halloween was over, the Halloween candy made its way to the freezer – and was forgotten (and eventually tossed).

There are many creative ways to disperse candy on the back end of Halloween. The Switch Witch, buy-back programs, and donations are all popular and successful strategies families can use.

The Switch Witch – that is, you – comes in the middle of the night and swaps a new toy for Halloween candy. Candy buy-back programs allow children to sell their Halloween candy (yes, for money) to their dentist, who then ships it to troops overseas. Last, Operation Gratitudesends care packages to an array of soldiers and veterans throughout the year. At Halloween, they accept donations of candy for shipment to soldiers, veterans, military families, and more.

Remember, Halloween is just one night. Eating candy, no matter how much, on that night won’t ruin your child’s overall health. There’s more to healthy eating than simply avoiding candy (or any other food). The sweet spot is an overall balance of foods that promote health and enjoyment.

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