One of the most common questions I often hear from parents this time of year concerns what to do with candy and holiday sweets and treats. After all, most children associate many holidays, like Halloween, with the special treats that come with the occasion.
In the words of my four-year old, “My smile is so big because I’m just so excited about all this candy!” Kids will proudly tout their hard-earned loot, pillowcases upon bagfuls of everything that make parents cringe internally.
All the craze and misinformation about sugar and obesity can make parents wince at the thought of dealing with an overwhelming surge in treats around the holidays and kids who are expecting nothing less.
Many parents find themselves secretly plotting how to minimize the treasure trove of treats or strictly control every piece of candy that is eaten. If you’ve ever seen Jimmy Kimmel’s videos in which he calls parents to prank their children with, “I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy,” you can’t deny….the struggle is real.
As parents, what are we supposed to do when it comes to allowing treats around the holidays, like Halloween? Do we cave and allow a binge fest? Do we carefully calculate and control like gatekeepers of the candy stash?
Interestingly, studies have shown that restrictive child-feeding practices lead to overeating in children. More simply put, if a child feels deprived in any sense when it comes to eating, or is prevented from eating certain foods, like sweets, this can actually backfire when it comes to how they eat in the long-run.
So what does this have to do with Halloween candy?
Yes, we are facing enormous pressure as parents to raise healthy eaters and do our part in preventing child obesity, but not allowing children an opportunity to explore with candies, treats, and other “forbidden” foods is doing them a disservice.
Children who are actually exposed to and allowed treats will learn to eat these foods more moderately and maintain a healthier weight over their lifetime.
The bottom line is: when there is more attention, pressure, excitement, or anxiety around a certain food or food product, like candy, the more enticing it becomes, drawing a child in even further.
The more neutral these food items are approached, the more moderately a child will learn how to eat them.
While there is no perfect solution for creating a balance, there are many steps that can be taken to help your child learn to manage sweets while preserving the joy in the holidays. I, too, am learning and growing with my own children and have found the following to be helpful in our family when it comes to the many treats and sweets this time of year:
1. Help your child learn how to manage what they are given.
Children need an opportunity to explore, process, and reflect. If your child has gone trick-or-treating, let them have the chance to go through their candies (with your guidance as age-appropriate), sort it, and pick their favorites for eating.
Letting them relish in the excitement of this aspect of the holidays is important in preventing candies and desserts from being labeled as something “bad.” If we quickly shoo away their candy loot without giving them a chance to participate, this begins to create a sense of deprivation.
2. Allow candy within structured meals and snacks.
Giving your child the opportunity to enjoy some of their candy or treats alongside their meals or for a snack reinforces the idea that “all foods fit” and helps assure them that these foods can always be part of their future. This prevents the feeling of “deprivation,” which in turn helps them learn to eat these foods moderately.
Concerned parents fear that their child will only ever choose to eat candy if given the opportunity, but this has not been observed in children who are allowed to respond to their intuitive hunger and fullness feeding cues. Allowing your child to have candy with meals helps neutralize these treats and maintain a sense of structure with their feeding.
3. Leave out the negotiations.
Many parents fear that if left to their own accord, a child would strictly eat candy. However, children will typically eat varied foods according to what their bodies need when given the opportunity. This means there is really no need to try to coerce a child to eat vegetables before allowing a sweet, candy, or treat.
Telling a child, “You can have a candy if you eat your vegetables,” doesn’t allow them to listen to and honor their food choices.
If a child is allowed candy with a meal, they may choose to eat that first, but this does not mean they will not eat other parts of their meal according to what their body needs. Leaving out the negotiations helps make candy more neutral and less “forbidden.”
4. Keep things in perspective.
At the end of the day, remember: it is just candy. Holidays, family meals, and eating in general are meant to be pleasurable experiences, and this element is something that is often lost when we hyper focus on managing what our kids eat.
Children are much more able to manage what their little bodies need, more so than we give them credit for, and given the opportunity, they can eat intuitively. While some days might seem heavier on sweeter foods, you will likely see this balanced with other kinds of foods over the days.
Above all, rest assured in knowing that raising a child to have a healthy relationship with food itself will set the foundation for moderation and balance, whatever the holiday or season.