How to Stay Sane About Halloween Candy

No, your children won’t overload on peanut butter cups. Yes, you can eat their mini Snickers.

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This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

Wearing costumes and acquiring candy are the twin missions of Halloween; unlike other holidays, it has no larger or spiritual purpose. But if aliens were to land in the United States on Oct. 31 — and find neighborhoods full of demons, zombies and rainbow unicorns run amok — they would get a pass for thinking that the candy ritual was a punishment for the tall humans who shepherd the shorter ones.

Some parents count out pieces of candy and cut their children off after they reach the gobbling limit. Others negotiate how many bites of broccoli need to be eaten at the pre-trick-or-treating dinner. I once witnessed a harried mother threaten to cancel trick-or-treating if her 3-year-old failed to consume enough “real” food first. (Spoiler: The child screamed, the broccoli went untouched and trick-or-treating commenced as scheduled.) And then there is the looming specter of the Switch Witch, a ritual pushed by dentists in which kids are encouraged to leave their candy out for a Tooth Fairy-like creature who exchanges it for toys or sugar-free treats.

“It’s time to take a deep breath and think about the big picture,” said Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist who offers family counseling in Washington, D.C. “Often, parents are so busy white knuckling about how much sugar they’re afraid their kids will eat that they miss out on their children’s true joy over this holiday.” In fact, she said, one night of sugar overload will have no lasting negative impact on your children — unless you let your anxieties dominate their experience.

[Read our guide to teaching kids about healthy eating, without food shaming.]

For starters, Scritchfield advised taking a step back to notice all the good that comes with Halloween rituals: There’s the creative exercise of brainstorming costumes. There is also the community participation and many etiquette lessons involved in learning to ring doorbells, greet neighbors and thank them for the candy. “We’re literally teaching our kids to make social connections and engage in life,” Scritchfield noted.

And then, yes, there is the candy. But Halloween is not the time for a lesson about moderation. It’s not developmentally appropriate to expect kids to exercise restraint when presented with such bounty, so parental efforts to police their intake are likely to backfire.

“We have really good empirical research dating back to the 1980s demonstrating that kids who are restricted around treat foods often just want to eat them more,” said Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming “Body Image Book for Girls,” referring to the research of Leann Birch, a developmental psychologist who showed through many studies that pressuring children to eat healthier fare in order to “earn” their treats caused kids to like vegetables less and have a stronger craving for candy.

Instead, let your kids glory in their haul with few limits on the big night — other than mandatory tooth brushing before bedtime. For toddlers, you might carry the bag while out collecting so you can check for choking hazards. For older kids, you can make a rule that you need to check their stash for safety purposes before they dive in. But once they get home, let them lay everything out and eat as much as they want. “Don’t touch their candy, don’t take control,” Scritchfield said. “But do enjoy it with them: ‘Wow, which kinds do you love the most?’ Or notice who loves chocolate and who loves fruity flavors.” And yes, you should tell them your favorites and ask (but not require!) them to share, so enjoying candy becomes an experience for the whole family.

Avoid any commentary about whether the sugar will make them hyper or sick. “Often what parents interpret as a ‘sugar high’ is simply excitement about being out late at night, wearing costumes and all the other festivities,” explained Dr. Katja Rowell, a family physician and childhood feeding specialist. “If your whole conversation with your child is that sugar makes them misbehave, they will meet expectations.” You should also skip any self-inflicted judgments like “I’ll have to hit the gym tomorrow,” which will only reinforce to kids that you’re uncomfortable with sugar and anxious about body size. “Unfortunately, for a lot of parents, fat phobia is underlying the sugar discomfort,” Scritchfield said. “Instead of seeing candy as a joyful part of overall healthy eating patterns, you think candy is bad because it might make you fat, and then kids will think, ‘I am bad because I like candy.’ Nobody wins.”

What you do the day after Halloween may depend on several factors. Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist who developed the “division of responsibility in feeding” model, advises letting kids enjoy a second day of free rein on the candy bucket, which may be especially useful if your child is prone to food fixations or has felt restricted around sweets in the past. On the other hand, if the big night of trick-or-treating is just one event in a week of Halloween festivities, they may not need another free for all. Either way, by Day 2 or 3 post-Halloween, it’s a good idea to move candy consumption to meal and snack times. “You might say, ‘You’ll have a piece in your lunch, and we can enjoy a piece with dinner,’” Scritchfield said.

You can also make a daily ritual of letting them pick out two or three pieces to enjoy with milk for their afternoon snack. “Remember, this is an add-in to any other treats they normally have — and it’s a target, not a rule,” Scritchfield said. “Your goal is not to make the candy last as long as possible, it’s to give your kids enough access that they will feel satisfied and then naturally lose interest. In my house, the magic of the candy wears off after about a week.” The time frames can vary — toddlers often forget Halloween candy exists the very next day — but if your child stays fixated on the candy for a lot longer than that, it may be because he’s picking up on your discomfort and feeling anxious about when he’ll get candy again.

This is why many pediatric feeding experts do not endorse the Switch Witch ritual, which can reinforce a “candy is bad” message. If you are nevertheless tempted, Scritchfield advised waiting a few days so kids can enjoy their Halloween haul, and then offering to let them “cash in” the remaining candy to purchase a toy or book they’ve been wanting. Do not swap candy for other food, as that reinforces the idea that foods should be labeled good or bad. (One exception: If your child has food allergies or a medical condition that will prevent her safely eating Halloween candy, then by all means, let her collect it and trade it in with you for something she can enjoy.)

With very little kids who haven’t yet learned to associate candy with bliss, you may think, well, I have plenty of time before my toddler is given free rein around sugar, so what’s wrong with clamping down on it for as long as I can? But such opportunities present themselves sooner than you might think once your child starts school. “When we ban or very strictly control sugar, children can develop relationships with sweet foods that looks and feels like an obsession,” said Dr. Rowell, who sees many such sugar-fixated kids in her clinical work. “Banning sugar might work if you live in a cabin in the woods, but we need to be purposeful about helping our children learn to manage these foods.”

So, view Halloween as an opportunity for you and your kids to become comfortable around treats — and by doing so, neutralize their power.

Virginia Sole-Smith is a journalist, author of “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America” and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast.