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.