Lauren McIlwaine, MSc, MPH, RD, LDN - Guest Post Writer
As crisp, autumn air finally settles into North Carolina, ghosts and cobwebs are appearing on doorsteps in every neighborhood. Excitement for this week’s Halloween festivities is contagious, and many families are getting prepared for trick-or-treating in their communities. With this infectious energy also comes questions about how to handle one of the main focuses of Halloween: candy.
“Do we let our kids eat whatever they want?”
“How long should they be in charge of their candy?”
“What if they get a bellyache?”
Let’s walk through some guiding principles to help Halloween be spooky, not stressful.
Set the Tone
In general, your children are constantly picking up on your cues about how to handle all eating situations. When you feel anxious about the food options or an eating environment, your children may internalize these feelings. If you are relaxed, they will feel more at ease. Present yourself as confident with how you want to handle Halloween candy (note: it is ok to act confident even if you aren’t!). Answer any of their questions with clear, concise answers, and don’t engage in power struggles. Be consistent. Be present. Be calm.
(Note: It may be a tall order to be relaxed around food if you have struggled with any disordered eating or were not raised in a relaxed eating environment. We completely understand. For more information about how start a new chapter with food, further explore this blog & the “Resource” tab!)
Spread the Focus
Just as your children read your tone about eating, they learn how to celebrate holidays by following your lead. Instead of harping on the candy, get involved in the fun. Wear a silly Halloween costume (or just something simple if that’s more your style). Choose a specific night this week to watch your favorite Halloween movie. If you’re feeling ambitious, meet a local farmer and pick pumpkins directly from the vine. By demonstrating that candy is only one aspect of the holiday, sweets lose some of their “power.”
The Big Day
On Halloween, it is first important to serve your routine meals and snacks throughout the day. Make sure your children are offered balanced meals (carbohydrate + protein + fat + fruit or veg) and an after-school snack. Ensure that you have given them ample opportunities to meet their nutritional needs with a variety of foods. Don’t hold back on serving carbohydrates in the anticipation of them overeating sweets that evening; we want our children to see that all foods fit!
After a fun evening of trick-or-treating, follow Ellyn Satter’s approach: “When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants.”1 Research shows that labelling a food as “off limits” may result in a negative relationship with that food and/or overeating that food when it is finally permitted.2 Allow your children to have this moment to bask in the glory of Halloween without limits. If you restrict their intake on Halloween night, they are more likely to hyper-focus on getting more of it on subsequent days.
In addition, as Satter explains, part of normal eating is “overeating at times…feeling stuffed and uncomfortable” while also trusting your body to “make up for mistakes in your eating.”3 Your children may overeat and have bellyaches. That’s ok. Let them learn from experience. If they ask you how much is allowed, use gentle tone and phrasing, such as “You can eat as much as you like, but remember your belly may hurt if you eat too much.” It is ok to guide your children in making mindful decisions about intake; however, a forceful limitation may backfire.
The Following Days
On the day after Halloween, per Ellyn Satter’s instruction, continue to let them eat what they want. Then, on subsequent days, begin letting them incorporate candy into their meals and snacks per the Division of Responsibility.4 If they can stick to their roles, they can be in charge of their candy. If they are unable to follow the rules, you take over. Candy should be kept in the kitchen out of sight, but not hidden. If they beg for candy in-between meals and snacks, you can gently remind them that there will be an opportunity to eat some at the next meal or snack soon.
Don’t Make Judgments
In our diet-obsessed world, it can be easy to fall into the trap of making judgments about food. During Halloween (and Thanksgiving and Christmas!), refrain from making judgments about your children, yourself, or other people for eating candy. Add some candy to your own meal or snack, and eat without verbal judgment. Discuss your favorite candy with your children from an objective point of view (e.g. “I love Reeses because it melts in my mouth!”) rather than saying anything about calories. Take an “all foods fit” approach to what you eat.
When in doubt, remember one thing: Halloween will come and go. You & your children will be just fine.
Have a happy (and safe) Halloween!
Lauren McIlwaine, MSc, MPH, RD, LDN
Lauren is a nutrition therapist with Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy in Raleigh, NC. She specializes in nutrition therapy for children, adolescents, and adults with eating and feeding disorders. She also specializes in family feeding (supporting parents in staying out of the food battle) and geriatric nutrition.
Lauren received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Georgetown University, a Master of Science in Health Psychology from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and a Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Most recently, she was a clinical dietitian at Veritas Collaborative where she worked with adolescent eating disorder patients requiring inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient services. She also previously worked in research, helping to investigate the most effective treatments for various eating disorders. She is passionate about helping families create positive relationships with food, helping individuals debunk nutrition myths, and spreading positive messages about nutrition on social media. She is also passionate about collaborating with older adults to support them in fueling their bodies well.
Lauren sees clients in Raleigh, NC and virtually. To contact Lauren directly to set up a consultation, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Satter, E. (2019). The sticky topic of Halloween candy. Retrieved from <https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus/30-halloween-candy/>.
- Alves, J. (2016, Oct 12). How dieting can lead to binge eating – Jean Alves. Retrieved from <https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/blog/2016/10/12/diets-set-us-self-sabotage-jean-alves>.
- Satter, E. (2019). What is normal eating? Retrieved from <https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/What-is-normal-eating-Secure.pdf>.
- Satter, E. (2019). Division of responsibility in feeding. Retrieved from <https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/>.