Sorting the Good, the Bad and the Yummy
Pumpkins, parties and costume parades are Halloween hits, but it’s the candy that gets kids excited about the day. Deciding which of the sweet morsels are tricks or treats for a child’s health should begin with a balanced approach, according to Dr. Bob James, a San Antonio pediatric dentist.
“Mothers always tell their children to do things in moderation, so a little bit of candy on Halloween in a moderate amount is fine,” he says. “But kids don’t have to try to see how much of it they can eat in one day.”
Regulating candy should focus on offering kiddos choices, not giving restrictions, says Jennifer Meachum, a registered dietitian and director of employee wellness at the Baptist Health System.
“If kids find certain foods irresistible and parents absolutely prohibit those foods, they will want to eat them more,” she says. “We need to allow them to learn healthy behaviors because they really want to know how to do the right thing.”
The Sticky Factor
For dental health, softer candies such as chocolate are generally better choices than stickier varieties, James says.
“Some candies are stickier than others, which is a factor that plays into how much of it kids can eat,” he says. “The sugar from candies such as Slo Pokes and Jolly Ranchers takes longer to clear the mouth than a few M&M’s that saliva tends to wash out quicker.”
Most kids haul in pounds of candy after a night of trick-or-treating. To help them share the wealth, some local dentists, including James, buy their patients’ candies for $1 per pound and donate it to military personnel.
“If they have a big grocery sack of candy, that’s when kids can run into a problem,” James says. “Eating large quantities of it day in and day out for weeks can result in cavities.”
Meachum agrees that stickier candies are typically less beneficial than some chocolate candies.
“Gummy candies and SweeTarts have virtually no nutritional value, but some chocolate candies with peanut butter or nuts have some nutritious ingredients,” she says. “One option is to offer dark chocolate because it’s more bitter than milk chocolate, and kids usually eat less of it.”
Children with certain health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and food allergies will need additional guidance about which candies to eat, according to Meachum. She adds that if parents are bringing candies or other edible treats to school Halloween parties, they should ask teachers and nurses about food restrictions.
After parents help their children decide which candies to keep, share or throw away, they should establish guidelines about how much candy can be eaten, Meachum says. For instance, at her household, she allows her kindergartner to determine when he wants to eat his one daily candy.
“I’m big on letting kids have choices,” she says. “My son tells me whether he wants me to put the candy in his lunchbox or if he would rather eat it after dinner. He feels empowered and independent because he has a say and is the one making the decision.”
For most children, she says the emphasis on limiting candy consumption should be on portion control.
“Before they come home with a big bag of candy, set the ground rules about how much they are allowed to eat,” she says. “Will it be one or two candies, and can they have it only after their meal?”
A nutritious dinner before the evening’s festivities reduces the craving for candy, she has found.
“Last year, I cooked a stir fry recipe I called, ‘Wiggly Worms,’ made with whole wheat noodles, sliced chicken and vegetables,” Meachum describes. “Trays of cut fruit made it easy for my kids to grab a healthy snack.”
Fun and Tasty Alternatives
When James’ own children were growing up, he would give trick-or-treaters small sealed bags of whole grain crackers or packaged toothbrushes.
“My kids would say it wasn’t cool, but it was an opportunity to teach them not to overindulge in candy,” he says. “Sugarless gum is another Halloween favorite.”
As candy alternatives, Meachum suggests giving away novelty toys, including bubbles, temporary tattoos and pencils as well as snacks such as pretzels, dried fruit and popcorn.
“There are so many alternatives to candy, and the individually wrapped packaging with Halloween themes makes them attractive to kids,” she says.
Still, she reassures parents that letting their children savor a bit of good old-fashioned candy is nothing to worry about.
“Eating candy on Halloween will not lead to childhood obesity,” Meachum says. “It’s OK to allow them to enjoy candy on this day.”
Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of three daughters.